In an address from the State Floor of the White House on September 10, 2014, President Obama presented to the American people his comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State (IS, a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL). Citing as precedents our “success” in Yemen and Somalia, the president announced his strategy would be built around airstrikes and supporting the forces on the ground who were fighting IS. One year later, it is clear that the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat IS is inadequate and needs to be rethought.
With the exception of Tikrit, our bombing campaign has done little to dislodge IS from the strongholds it held when our efforts began. But since the United States has no ground forces in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias reaped the benefits of the Tikrit victory. Furthermore, IS almost immediately compensated for its loss of Tikrit with victories in the strategically vital cities of Ramadi and Palmyra.
Things Are Actually Worse Since We Got Involved
In fact, IS has deepened its roots in Iraq and Syria since the bombing campaign began. IS currently governs a territory inclusive of over 10 million people, providing a semblance of law and order, creating jobs, and maintaining roads and utilities. Harvard International Affairs Professor Stephen Walt argues that the moment for defeating IS may already have passed, and he thinks we should now focus on socializing it to become a normal member of the international community. How soon before there is talk of opening an embassy in Raqqah?
Beyond Iraq and Syria, IS is expanding its territory and now claims provinces in numerous countries throughout Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Evidently, our bombs are not slowing IS’s expansion.
Our support for the ground forces combating IS has been an even greater failure than the air campaign. Again, Tikrit marks a qualified success story as the Iraqi security forces were able to reclaim the city with the help of U.S. air support. But at this point, the most effective fighting force on the ground in Iraq has been the Popular Mobilization Units, which are largely under the influence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The situation in Syria is even worse than in Iraq. The number of moderates trained has been shockingly low, and the few who have been trained have mostly been killed, captured, or converted by extremists. For instance, The Daily Beast recently reported that al Nusra terrorists abducted the leader of a U.S.-backed Syrian armed group and seven of his men outside of Homs in late July. These seven were amongst the fewer than 100 U.S.-trained rebels. Earlier this month, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the general in charge of the war effort, testified before Congress that only four or five U.S.-backed rebels were on the ground fighting IS. That is less than one tenth of 1 percent of the 5,400 rebels who were supposed to have been prepared by now. Needless to say, that fighting force is strategically irrelevant.
The Syrian Kurds, our most promising ground-force ally in Syria, are currently being bombed by our supposed allies, Turkey. In other words, the Obama administration has done next to nothing—politically, militarily, or diplomatically—to protect the assets on the ground that he believes we need to accomplish our stated objective of destroying IS.
How to Get Our Anti-ISIS Groove Back
What can the administration do to get the war back on track?
Policy objectives are more likely to be successful when they are defined positively, as in: what does the United States aim to accomplish? Purely negative formulations lead only to an amorphous strategy. The president is dithering, I believe, because he lacks a coherent vision for an end state beyond IS’s destruction.
Obama has treated Tehran as our de facto ally, perhaps believing the enemy of our enemy is our friend. He appears to have given no serious consideration to how Iran is waging battle against IS or to how our support for Iran impacts regional dynamics. He clearly has little hope for change in Iraq or Syria, and does not think it is worth trying to bring about any particular end state in either place. In Iraq, the president seems to nominally support the central government, and in Syria, he seems to have no positive objectives at all.
In the current edition of the Middle East Quarterly, I argue that the United States needs more than a plan to “degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIS.” The administration needs a clear strategy for dealing with the countries IS currently occupies.
It is wishful thinking to imagine we can bracket out our other policy objectives in the region, as if the anti-IS war were taking place in the middle of nowhere. Nor is it possible to ignore the way Iran has opportunistically exploited IS’s emergence to sink its teeth deeper into Iraq’s political system and ward off international opposition to its ally Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Consequently, what we really need are three sets of policies—for Iran, Iraq, and Syria—with a convergent approach to defeating IS.
Iran Is Not an Ally
President Obama appears to seriously entertain the possibility that Iran could play a stabilizing role in the region. In an interview last December, he opined that Iran could be “a very successful regional power . . . that would be good for everybody.” In any case, whether the president truly believes Iran might have a positive influence in the Middle East, his policies seem to be setting Iran up as a regional powerbroker.
The president’s trust in Tehran is misplaced. Iran has no interest in working with us as partners against IS. Partnerships require more than a coincidence of interests. America’s interests have coincided with Iran’s in the recent past—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against al-Qaeda—but this has not led to anything resembling a partnership. The United States and Iran may have an overlapping interest in defeating IS, but this interest is not rooted in a shared strategic vision, so cooperation against IS is not likely to advance our larger objectives in the region.
What is worse, Tehran has clear objectives in the region—to become the regional hegemon, empower the Shia vis a vis the Sunni, wipe Israel off the map, and eradicate Western influence—while we do not. As a result, we are effectively serving as Iran’s air force.
The United States needs to stop treating Iran as a de facto ally in the war against IS. Regional stability will not be gained by bolstering Iranian power; to the contrary, it requires demonstrating that Iran’s power can be constrained. America is presently doing nothing to reassure our allies in the neighborhood on this score. If we want to prove we are serious about containing Iran and maintaining stability, we should be aiming to ultimately topple Assad, a key Iranian ally, and replace his regime with one that’s friendly with other Sunni Arab states in the region.
Support Iraq’s Sunnis
In Iraq we seem to have the right objective, but we are not doing nearly enough to support a winning strategy. The administration rightly supports Iraqi unity (as opposed to dividing Iraq in three), but it does nothing more than lecture Baghdad’s politicians to be more inclusive. We need to be realistic and treat inclusivity as a goal, not a starting point.
An inclusive government is not possible so long as the Sunnis fear their own government’s security forces. Thus, our military commitment in Iraq should focus on the Sunnis. Even if the present administration is unwilling to put troops on the ground to fight IS, there is no reason we could not send peacekeeping troops to Sunni or mixed Sunni-Shia cities in Iraq that have been “liberated” from IS by Iranian backed militias. At the very least, U.S. forces should be leading a Sunni Arab peacekeeping contingent to guarantee the safety of Sunni Iraqis from overzealous Iraqi security forces in strategically important territory.
Our failure, thus far, to do this is an example of how we are allowing Tehran to dictate the manner in which the war against IS is being waged. As I argue in the MEQ piece, “Bolstering Sunni support in the fight against ISIS is critical to U.S. strategy in Iraq, but the Sunnis are not important to Shiite Iran’s strategy, at least not in the way they are to Washington. Tehran is more inclined than Washington or other members of the anti-ISIS coalition to inflict devastating costs on local communities. Contested areas are precisely where the administration and its allies need to focus efforts on developing a viable Sunni opposition to ISIS. However, since Iran’s strategy hinges on strengthening its proxies, it has little incentive to prevent these neighborhoods from being purged or ransacked by militant Shiite liberators.”
Syria’s Moderate Opposition
In Syria, the Obama administration lacks any clear objectives. The president has said that Assad must go, but we are doing nothing to support his removal. In fact, we are aiding his allies, and strictly forbidding the handful of moderate Syrians we sponsor from targeting Assad’s forces.
A prudent approach would be to keep Western-trained, moderate fighters out of the fight completely for several months. Presently, al-Nusra and other jihadist groups are targeting these moderates in order to “purify” the resistance. If these lightly trained and lightly armed Western-backed rebels were not providing jihadists with such easy targets, those Islamists might well return their focus to fighting Assad.
In the MEQ article, I argue Washington needs to prepare the moderate opposition for the endgame, not the present fight. IS seems powerful enough at this point to make it highly probable that the conflict will continue for at least two or three more years, and quite possibly well over a decade. In the meantime, the U.S. administration should be readying a core group of trustworthy moderates to accomplish the tasks that will be necessary to transition Syria to new governance.
Washington should train them to build an effective, nationwide political organization; to cultivate intelligence networks that will help clarify the situation on the ground when the time comes to liberate key cities and towns; to communicate with the Syrian public and international community; to effectively govern and provide security; and to negotiate peace with remaining regime forces. These are primarily non-military functions, so Washington does not risk its materiel falling into the wrong hands and being turned against it. The moderates should, of course, receive combat training as well, but the bulk of U.S. military aid should be delivered to them only after they have sufficiently demonstrated that they are truly ideologically moderate and politically competent.
A Lack of Strategy Means Disaster
Just over a year ago, President Obama presented a lackluster strategy to degrade and destroy IS. The conflict did not seem to be a priority for him. So it is not surprising that his strategy has not worked. Despite the administration’s claims that progress is being made and their strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS is going well, the situation has devolved into a tragedy of epic proportions.
The conflict has driven over 10 million people from their homes, including more than 4 million refugees, many of whom are seeking sanctuary in the West. While many Western states, most prominently Germany, are generously opening their doors, they do so at great risk to their security, as nothing will be able to prevent IS fighters from infiltrating with the refugees.
Unless Bernie Sanders wins in 2016, the next president will undoubtedly be eager to restore America’s leadership role in the world. So it is not out of the question that a major change in strategy is right around the corner—a strategy that could lead to the annihilation of the terrorist state. This will require the commitment of military, diplomatic, financial, and intelligence assets. But even today there are steps President Obama could take to get the war moving in the right direction, even without embarking on the full-scale military intervention that he fears will damage his legacy.