REVIEW: Article

President Obama’s Anti-ISIS Strategy Finally Takes Shape

The emergence of al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a formidable force—with the seizing of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June, the US-led counter-offensive in August, and the beheading of two US journalists in August and September—has brought international attention on the Islamist terror threat to a degree not seen since 9/11 itself. In response, the Obama admin­istra­tion has acted slowly, from ineffectual rhetoric after the fall of Fallujah to ISIS in January, to a more intense focus after ISIS seized Mosul and much of Iraqi territory populated by Sunni Arabs in June, to air strikes in August, and by the beginning of September, the enunciation of a specific strategy to complement the military moves underway. Given President Obama’s long standing reluctance to assume new political-military responsibilities, especially in Iraq or Syria, a reluctance still manifest in his gaffes on “not having a strategy” and “managing” the ISIS threat, only dramatic threats and a compelling need for America to act could move him to the flurry of military and diplomatic action we see now. What then are these threats and need?

Like its parent organization, al-Qaeda, ISIS seeks an Islamic state or “Caliphate” inspired by the Islamic expansion in the seventh century. The caliphate would initially include Iraq and Syria, then extend to the rest of the territories once held by Islamic states from Spain to India and eventually the world. Its path to this goal is not just conquest, but war against the Islamic community’s Shia members, ultimately Iran. ISIS believes that if it can provoke Iran into combat, the largely Sunni states from Morocco to Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, will join forces with it. Of course, ISIS will never conquer the Islamic world. But even if a conflagration between Sunni and Shia Muslims in much of the Middle East can be avoided, the presence of a radical and extremely violent Islamic force holding a broad swath of territory with roughly six million people, considerable oil and other resources, and huge supplies of captured weapons is frightening. As a military force, ISIS can threaten the oil fields in northern and southern Iraq, and eventually in the Gulf, driving investment and exploration away and impacting the global economy. It can destabilize neighboring states, leading to an even greater threat to regional stability, draw in US allies Turkey and Israel, and encourage Iran and eventually other states to seek (and possibly use) nuclear weapons. All this in a region producing 25 percent of the world’s international trade in oil. Finally, as a terrorist movement with extraordinary appeal to the misguided inside and outside the Middle East, ISIS poses an unparalleled terrorist threat to every country in the world.

Even with such a threat, the question arises: given its relatively small forces, could ISIS theoretically be defeated by the states of the region, whose armies number more than two million personnel? There are a few factors that work against that approach. First, these nations are not united, have different political approaches, and require leadership that can only come from the West, particularly the United States. Second, with a few exceptions (Turkey, Israel, Iran, and perhaps Egypt), none of the states in the region command the loyalties of, and have established deep roots within, their own populations in the same way nation states elsewhere have evolved. Nation states in the Middle East are generally weak and insecure, and many among their populations are enticed by transcendental pan-regional movements, from the Iranian-propagated form of Shia political Islam, Vilayet-i-Fiqar, with its Lebanese Hezbollah allies, to the Muslim Brotherhood and subsidiary groups such as Hamas, and finally al-Qaeda and its offshoots such as Islamic State. While the region’s Arab states see these groups as blood enemies, they understand their appeal to their own populations. This curbs their enthusiasm for bold public action against ISIS.

Under these circumstances, it falls upon the United States to provide, with its unparalleled military and diplomatic capabilities and long involvement in the region, the necessary leadership and focus to “degrade and eventually destroy” this organization. The President’s overarching strategy remains as he laid it out back in June after the fall of Mosul. The goals are to stop the Islamic State’s advance, protect America and friends from its terrorist attacks, and build allies throughout the world. The strategy assumes that the Iraqi political system can achieve a more stable, inclusive Iraqi govern­ment under Prime Minister Nominee Haider al Abadi, Iraq’s unity can be preserved, and its Sunni Arab population slowly drawn away from ISIS as happened with the tribal “Sunni Awakening” in 2007. Using the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga and local Sunni allies as the ground force, supported by US and coalition weapons, advisers, intelligence and, above all, precision air strikes, the United States will then drive ISIS back towards Syria. Defeating it in Syria will take longer, as the United States does not have the same level of intelligence or local allies as in Iraq. President Obama has promised $500 million to arm and train the moderate Syrian opposition to both the Assad regime and ISIS, but that work is just getting started.

Can this plan work?  In principle, yes, but for us (and nervous potential allies in the region) several questions must be answered. President Obama is clearly pulled in two directions. On the one hand is the specter of 2003, when the United States went into a conflict without sufficient international support, with key countries in the region ambivalent or worse about our Iraq goals (Iran, Syria, and to some degree Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and with a terribly inadequate plan to mobilize Iraqis themselves. Thus the President has moved carefully on all fronts: securing a legally binding Chapter VII United Nations resolution against ISIS in August; winning almost unanimous support in NATO during its September summit; enlisting France, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, even Germany and other European states in military actions, from air drops to providing advisors and weapons, to various Iraqi factions. On the ground, the United States is pushing hard for an inclusive Iraqi government that can build support for unity and the fight against ISIS among all factions, especially the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The President is using air strikes prudently to signal a willingness to strike ISIS when humanitarian or strategic interests (or American personnel) are threatened, but holding off on an “all in” military response to encourage the Iraqis, the regional powers, and the international community to do their share. The President clearly does not want to confront the ISIS threat on his own. Not only because we need to share the costs and because the American people have made it clear they do not want to fight alone, but because we have learned from recent experience that we can’t win without others especially in Iraq, Syria, and in the neighboring states pulling with us, rather than undercutting us.

The second problem the President faces is his record of almost indifference to conflict outcomes, the “we’ll lead from behind and if others stand up, fine, otherwise we will just have to live with the (fill in the blank) crisis.” That approach can work when the terrorist threat is a remote, weak one in the Southern Philippines, but it cannot work in the middle of the Levant with a threat like ISIS. President Obama has to thread the needle between his approach to Libya and Syria, and President Bush’s 2003 approach in Iraq that amounted to, “if I have to do it alone, fine.” The former will not motivate people in and outside Iraq to make tough decisions and face danger; the latter will simply let them off the hook. Threading this needle is possible—President Clinton did it (eventually) with Bosnia, and President H.W. Bush brilliantly in the first Gulf War. That’s the standard the President must emulate, and a good part of that is better public statement discipline. Sure the President has doubts, but he should not be sharing them with the world.

Finally, there are specific pitfalls. The Iraqi political system has been a mess for generations, sharing power is an unnatural act, and whatever government emerges from the current process will disappoint. We (and Iraqis) will have to live with “just good enough” to get the job done. Relations with Iran can also roil the coalition being formed. As noted above, a core ISIS goal is to spark a regional Sunni-Shia conflict. Given the views of the region’s Sunni states towards Iran and Syria’s butcher Assad, we can’t win them over while simultaneously ignoring the effort against Assad, or forming what to many looks like a strategic flip with the Ayatollahs in Teheran. There are reasons both for moving forward (and, even better ones, for not moving forward) on rapprochement with Iran; but if we are to mobilize the region’s huge majority of Sunnis to defeat the ISIS threat emerging from Sunni Islam, we have to stow our dreams of “Nixon to China” with Iran. That does not preclude nuclear negotiations or even low level coordination on Iraqi matters, but it does mean keeping such diplomacy on the back burner.

One additional concern with the President’s strategy is the mantra “no boots on the ground.” We already have some 800 Special Forces combat troops in Iraq doing various quasi-combat functions, but this pledge clearly pertains to major ground formations doing direct fighting. President Obama’s reluctance to go there is understandable, given after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the American population’s conflating of any ground combat role with endless armed nation building with tens of thousands of US casualties. But short, sharp, violent American offensives with relatively limited Army or Marine infantry and armor reinforcing local allies may become necessary. To wipe out ISIS, it’s worth it. 

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Distinguished Visiting Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
United States Ambassador to Iraq, 2010-2012
United States Ambassador to Turkey, 2008-2010