Obama's ISIS Strategy: Another Costly, Endless, Unwinnable War that Threatens to Invite Attacks on America
September 6, 2014
AntiWar.com & McClatchy News & The New York Times
Last week, President Obama admitted to not having a strategy for victory over ISIS, and that remains the case. Yet at today's NATO summit, he laid out what amounts to a strategy for ever-increasing escalation of the conflict. The lack of a cohesive strategy for the war itself, and the focus on a quasi-strategy of escalation, means not only many years of war, but likely myriad additional US missteps that are playing right into the ISIS leadership's hands.
Long War: Obama's ISIS Strategy
Will Mean Years of Steady Escalation
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
WASHINGTON (September 5, 2014) -- Last week, President Obama admitted to not having a strategy for victory over ISIS, and that remains the case. Yet at today's NATO summit, he laid out what amounts to a strategy for ever-increasing escalation of the conflict. [See first story below.]
Today, Obama announced the acquisition of a number of NATO members as allies for that conflict, and aides indicated that there will be many more diplomatic efforts to secure more and more across the region.
The long-term diplomatic effort, along with the lack of any serious strategy that could conceivably "win" the war, means that the weeks of steady escalation we've already seen of the war are going to be continued over the very long term.
The plan to build a "moderate" rebel alternative to ISIS in Syria, which the US has been trying, and failing, to pull off for years, is going to be pushed on for years longer, while the US builds up its involvement in the war on the Iraqi side, and eventually gives up on the futile effort to manufacture a pro-US Syria faction and expands the war outright into Syria. [See second story below.]
The goals of the war remain nebulous, though in recent days the president and other administration officials have talked up the outright destruction of ISIS as a key part of the conflict.
So far, everything the US has done in the war has actually run contrary to that goal, as the US involvement and repeated escalations have simply added to ISIS' profile and allowed it to recruit in ways unimaginable before.
The lack of a cohesive strategy for the war itself, and the focus on a quasi-strategy of escalation, means not only many years of war, but likely myriad additional US missteps that are playing right into the ISIS leadership's hands.
Obama Strategy to Beat Islamic State
Likely to Draw US into Years of Conflict
Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay / McClatchy News
WASHINGTON (September 5, 2014) -- The US-led international strategy to combat the Islamic State that President Barack Obama sketched out Friday is likely to require years of thorny diplomacy and deeper US military involvement in conflicts that he's struggled to avoid.
Obama's remarks at the end of a NATO summit in Wales offered the administration's most in-depth explanation to date of how it plans to fight the Islamic State, the transnational extremist group that has seized control of an area as large as Jordan straddling the dividing line between Syria and Iraq.
The nascent strategy calls for working with European and Arab allies to confront the group not only in Iraq, where the US is conducting airstrikes to assist government-aligned fighters, but also in Syria, where the United States has failed to fulfill its years-long promise to help build a moderate rebel force.
"We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL," Obama said, using the government's acronym for the Islamic State and referring specifically to its sanctuary in Syria. "The moderate coalition there is one that we can work with. We have experience working with many of them. They have been, to some degree, outgunned and outmanned, and that's why it's important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively."
There was little fanfare to Obama's announcement, which comes just a week after his controversial admission that there was no US strategy to fight the Islamic State in Syria. US officials still appear to be keeping expectations low, an acknowledgment of the fraught negotiations and unpalatable options that come with enlisting Middle Eastern powers, already warring among themselves, to rally around the common cause of defeating the Islamic State.
Even limited success for this new effort, analysts say, hinges on an unenviable to-do list for the Obama administration: foster cozier relations with Iran, gamble on the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels, strong-arm Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders into power-sharing with the Sunni Muslim minority, and persuade Sunni-ruled nations in the Persian Gulf region not to undermine the whole effort by striking out on their own.
One major difficulty is that some Sunni nations see a need for an armed group that will protect Sunni interests against the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
"All things being equal, in a perfect universe, the Saudis would like to harness a group like IS. The problem is, IS doesn't say, ‘Oh, sir, how high do I jump?" said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Middle East and South Asian affairs with the global intelligence company Stratfor.
Support for a broad offensive against the Islamic State from some key allies is likely to come only in return for greater political power for Sunnis in Iraq and stepped-up US support for anti-Assad forces in Syria. That will complicate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom Obama has dispatched to the region to drum up support for the initiative from Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.
Still, analysts say, the old Sunni bulwarks have little choice but to support, at least cosmetically, a US coalition, since the Islamic State is at their borders and unwilling to act as a proxy for them against Shiite foes such as Iran and Hezbollah. They'll push for the creation of a Syrian rebel force strong enough to fight both the Islamic State and the Iranian-backed Assad regime.
Driving the Islamic State from Iraq won't be quick or easy, Bokhari said, but it would be possible because regional Sunni powers, even the Saudis, have become resigned, in the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, to an Iraqi political system dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
The key Sunni players understand that Iraq has moved from the Saddam-era Sunni orbit to the modern-day Iranian orbit, he said. Their hopes now are that they can engineer the reverse outcome in Syria _ the replacement of a pro-Iran regime with one that would be dominated by Syria's Sunni majority.
Again, this is where the United States faces a difficult balancing act: coordinating with the Iranians on mutual interests, but not so closely as to drive away Sunni allies that are needed to crack down on private donations to the Islamic State and deliver Sunni political and tribal leaders to the negotiating table in Iraq. US officials already have acknowledged talks with the Iranians about the Islamic State on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations.
"This is not new," Bokhari said of the potential for closer coordination between Washington and Tehran. "The US and the Iranians tag-teamed against the Taliban, and they tag-teamed against Saddam."
Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it appears that Obama has been forced by the Islamic State's military successes and its growing threat to undertake a serious effort to build and arm a Syrian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamist extremists with the help of US air power.
"It certainly sounds like we're more serious," said White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though he cautioned: "We've heard this so many times before, but little has come of it."
Obama's language Friday on Syria reinforced the idea that crushing the Islamic State has replaced Assad's ouster as the main US priority in Syria, White said.
"We're not talking about backing forces that can fight the regime, but enhancing forces that can fight the Islamic State," White said. "It's all focused on the Islamic State, and that in a sense makes it more likely that something will happen here. It's now being defined in counterterrorism concepts as opposed to regime change."
There are indications that the hard work to build such a force is already underway, overseen by the CIA, despite remarks by Obama last month disparaging the moderate US-backed Syrian opposition as "doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth."
The top general of the Free Syrian Army told McClatchy last week that since December secret US military and non-lethal support has bypassed the group's Turkey-based leadership and gone directly to up to 14 commanders inside northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups in the south. All of them report to the US spy agency, he said.
"The leadership of the FSA is American," said Gen. Abdul-llah al Bashir, who defected from Assad's army two year ago.
Free Syrian Army field commanders confirmed that the United States is providing their men with training outside Syria and with weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles.
Any US airstrikes included in the new strategy would have to be closely coordinated with the rebels, who'd have to be capable of fighting on two fronts. And the Americans are looking for operations that are strong enough to weaken the Islamic State without giving undue advantage to Assad's forces, especially in the eastern city of Aleppo, the country's financial center and largest city, where US-backed opposition groups have been losing ground to both the Islamic State and the regime.
"Anything we do that reduces the Islamic State's military capabilities will take pressure off regime forces and there is no getting away from that," White said. "But you have to say what is the greater threat and what will do the greater good? Taking down the Islamic State's capabilities appears to be the greater good."
(c) 2014 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
Obama Recruits 9 Allies to
Help in the Battle Against ISIS
Helene Cooper / The New York Times
NEWPORT, Wales (September 5, 2014) -- President Obama escalated the American response to the marauding Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Friday, recruiting at least nine allies to help crush the organization and offering the outlines of a coordinated military strategy that echoes the war on terror developed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, more than a decade ago.
In his most expansive comments to date about how the United States and its friends could defeat ISIS, a once-obscure group of Sunni militants that has now upended the Middle East and overshadowed Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against its leaders and positions, strengthen the moderate Syrian rebel groups to reclaim ground lost to ISIS, and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.
While the president's aides maintained that he has not yet decided to authorize airstrikes in Syria -- which he has already done on a limited basis in Iraq -- Mr. Obama likened his developing strategy on ISIS to the American effort against Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal regions, which has relied heavily on airstrikes.
Mr. Obama has been under enormous pressure to articulate a way to counter ISIS, which has proclaimed itself an Islamic caliphate that knows no borders and has demonstrated ruthless behavior, including the videotaped beheadings of two Americans. After creating a political tempest by saying last week that his administration lacked a strategy, Mr. Obama sought on Friday to portray himself as spearheading the effort.
But in so doing, the president risks further entangling the American military in exactly the type of costly foreign conflict he has long sought to escape. And his administration has been unable to explain how he can vanquish ISIS without indirectly aiding President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, regarded by the administration as an odious leader who must resign.
Nonetheless, Mr. Obama's comments, made at the conclusion of a NATO summit meeting here, were in effect a significant expansion of his earlier assessments of the ISIS threat -- simply by offering a direct comparison to the strategy against Qaeda militants.
"You initially push them back, you systematically degrade their capabilities, you narrow their scope of action, you slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control, you take out their leadership," Mr. Obama said at a news conference here. "And over time, they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could."
He said that "we are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way that we have gone after Al Qaeda," using an alternate acronym for ISIS. He drew the analogy to Pakistan as an example of how the United States can go to war against militants while limiting the number of American ground combat troops.
Mr. Obama spoke after aides had unveiled what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the "core coalition" to fight the ISIS militants, the outcome of a hastily organized meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit talks. Diplomats and defense officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark huddled to devise a two-pronged strategy: strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while bombing Sunni militants from the air.
"There is no containment policy for ISIL," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the start of the meeting. "They're an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us."
But he and other officials made clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Iraq, or the moderate Syrian rebels opposed to President Assad in Syria. "Obviously I think that's a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground," Mr. Kerry said.
For Mr. Obama, assembling a coalition to fight ISIS is particularly important to a president whose initial arrival on the global stage was centered around his opposition to the war in Iraq. He is loath to be viewed as going it alone now that he has been dragged back into a combat role in the same country.
"Getting sucked deeply back into another set of violent conflicts in the Middle East runs against the grain and the very DNA of this administration," said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, a research organization with close ties to the Obama administration. "But the stunning actions by ISIS this summer has been a wake-up call."
Even as Mr. Obama is weighing airstrikes in Syria, he and his aides have been questioning what to do afterward, especially since targeting ISIS in Syria will help Mr. Assad.
An administration official said the reasons for assembling a coalition went beyond any political cover that such an alliance might provide with a war-weary American public. For one thing, the official said, certain countries bring expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence and Saudi Arabia in financing.
American officials are hoping to expand the coalition to many countries, particularly in the region. Obama administration officials said privately that in addition to the participants at the meeting Friday, the United States was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan. Its leader, King Abdullah II, was attending the Wales summit meeting.
United States officials said they also expected Saudi Arabia to contribute to funding moderate Syrian rebel groups. In addition, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said in a statement this week that the Emirates stood ready to join the fight against ISIS.
"No one has more at stake than the U.A.E. and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path," the ambassador said.
Enlisting support from Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq is crucial, experts said, because airstrikes alone will not suffice.
Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, sought to define more clearly what destroying ISIS would actually mean on the ground.
"From a counterterrorism standpoint, understand that it doesn't mean eradicating every single person aligned with the group," Mr. Olsen said. "We need to be realistic about that."
And like the comprehensive strategy to combat Al Qaeda that has taken years to develop and carry out, Mr. Olsen and other counterterrorism officials said on Friday that destroying the threat from ISIS could take a long time. Even if successful, they said, such a strategy would require maintaining pressure on any remnants of the group.
Administration officials said support for moderate rebels in Syria is critical. This summer, President Obama set aside $500 million to train and support vetted members of the moderate opposition to Mr. Assad. Officials say they expect Congress to approve that request next month.
But even after that money is approved, American officials will face obstacles in strengthening the Free Syrian Army, the moderates of choice for the United States. "This is going to take months," one Defense Department official said on Friday.
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