[F]for all the vivid rhetoric in recent days, the Obama administration has yet to articulate a clear course of action to dismantle the radical group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and is struggling to lay out a precise vision to respond to the new threats in chaotic areas of Iraq and Syria where ISIL has thrived in recent months.
The lack of clarity in the U.S. approach to the region has underscored claims by critics — including voices generally friendly to the White House — questioning whether Obama’s foreign policy message is coherent enough to win support across the globe.
And the disconnect between dramatic condemnations and decisive action against ISIL threatens to leave the president looking ineffective or even impotent, just as his call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign remains unheeded three years later.
The gap between rhetoric and action was on vivid display this weekend with pinprick U.S. strikes in northern Iraq. “Bombing raids could significantly weaken IS but they are insufficient currently,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He says a “surge in sorties” is needed to meet even the limited administration goal of reining in the jihadists…
Islamic State fighters are also holding off Kurdish efforts to retake a series of key towns bordering Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, including the flashpoint town of Jalawla. European military observers tell The Daily Beast they fear that the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, don’t have the strength to push the jihadists and their Sunni allies back without much greater Western support, rearming and training…
Counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman says the Islamic State has become a terror army that can only be defeated through a full-scale war with serious fighting in both Iraq and Syria. He argues it “will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops.”
Last week, some foreign policy analysts in Washington publicly argued that the ISIS threat ought to spur a grand alliance with Iran, Syria, Russia, and the United States fighting on the same side against the terrorist group that has morphed into an army and (at least according to their own propaganda) a caliphate…
Iran’s leaders, meanwhile, have signaled that they would be willing to strike a deal. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was reported in the Iranian press to say that Tehran would be willing to join an international coalition against ISIS, provided that the United States lift all sanctions against the country. Iran’s foreign ministry later said the report was incorrect and that the foreign minister was mistranslated.
An Iraqi official who works closely with the U.S. military told The Daily Beast that Iraqi politicians, particularly Kurds and Shi’ite nationalists, continue to pass messages back and forth between Iran and the United States.
The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP on Tuesday.
“The cooperation has already begun and the United States is giving Damascus information via Baghdad and Moscow,” one source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity.
Bombing ISIS fighters from the air and arming moderate rebels to attack them from the ground may sound attractive. But not if we can’t really tell them apart.
Then there’s America’s second potential ground ally in Syria: Bashar al-Assad. He commands a far more unified and effective fighting force than do the “moderate” Syrian rebels. He’s less of a threat to the United States than is ISIS. And he’s even preferable morally—in a Stalin versus Hitler kind of way. Some current and former British politicians now propose allying with the Syrian regime, at least in order to ensure that if American and British warplanes enter Syria to bomb ISIS, Assad’s anti-missile systems won’t shoot them down.
But given that President Obama called on Assad to leave power three years ago and last year almost bombed him for using chemical weapons, even a tacit alliance with the Syrian dictator would make Obama’s past flip-flops look trivial. In Washington, the outcry would be massive, especially because of Syria’s close ties to Iran. Regionally, it might be worse. If relations between Washington and long-standing Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia are frayed now—in part because the U.S. hasn’t intervened against Assad strongly enough—it’s hard to imagine the impact on those relationships were the U.S. and Assad to actually join forces.
For Bashar Al Assad the ideal scenario is one in which ISIS helps him kill off his armed nationalist opposition in western Syria, American aviation assets pound ISIS positions in the east, and he sits comfortably in Damascus, feeling once again needed by the West as a useful partner against those arguably more evil than him. And a lucrative dividend awaits: The fact or perception of collaboration between Washington and Damascus driving wedges between the U.S. and every one of its regional partners, thereby serving the interests of the party Assad has so faithfully served: Iran.
Based on his experience with Washington since mid-2011, Assad has every reason to believe his strategy will bear fruit. Now, as his own forces focus on bombing, shelling, and starving civilians, ISIS fighters in western Syria work obligingly to eliminate his armed opposition. Now, as the U.S. contemplates an aerial campaign against ISIS targets in the east, Assad envisions a continuation of living large at the expense of others: Iran, Russia, ISIS, and now America. He expects harsh rhetoric from Washington. He will tell allies and adversaries alike to pay no attention to the words of those who have told him to step aside, warned him of red lines, threatened him with military strikes, and promised aid to opponents that never quite materialized in the forms or quantities required.
General Dempsey said that the Islamic State “will eventually have to be defeated” and that it couldn’t be rolled back without hitting it in Syria. Then, a few days later, he made it clear that he opposes hitting it in Syria.
Hagel said that the Islamic State is an “imminent threat,” a statement that White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to back up a few days later…
Iraq is now doubly reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
First, the collapse of American political will to maintain forces in Iraq, even after we had defeated the insurgency, recalled the end of Vietnam.
Now, the administration’s de facto policy of graduated escalation — progressing from a strictly limited mission to protect the Yazidis and American personnel potentially threatened in Kurdistan to something more extensive, yet still amorphous — recalls the beginning of the Vietnam War.
[W]arfare almost always involves a clash of ideas, which makes moral and ideological clarity a vital part of it. That is why presidents are at pains to explain why we fight, including what we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Moral language is inescapably, and rightly, part of this. In his 1943 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt said “In this war of survival we must keep before our minds not only the evil things we fight against but the good things we are fighting for.”
Such moral clarity has pragmatic virtues: it helps sustain support in a democracy and morale in an all-volunteer army. More importantly, it explains why we think we are right to kill while the other side is wrong to do the same thing. It is our moral theory of the war, our explanation to ourselves for why it is necessary. It is our justification before history and its Author for unleashing the terrible scourge of war. That the president’s moralizing might lead to mission creep and tempt us to try to defeat the group is, in my view, less a weakness of his policy, as Boyle thinks, and more a virtue.
Contrary to some claims, this is not a plan for a new American ground war in Iraq seeking to reconstitute a failed state. It is a mission to help Iraqis and Syrians on the ground help themselves. A U.S.-led international coalition can provide the military capability, including air interdiction to deny ISIS freedom of movement, take away its initiative to attack at will in Iraq, and dramatically reduce its sanctuary in Syria…
Like the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, the Free Syrian Army needs heavy weapons, ammunition and supplies. And Washington is also blocking the delivery of much-needed weapons and equipment already purchased by the Iraqi military. Arming allies to fight a common enemy cannot be an afterthought.
U.S. military support will be key: The U.S. Central Command has a list of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, including staging bases for equipment and troops, supply bases, training areas for foreign fighters, command and control and frontline troop positions. Advisers and trainers are also needed by the thousands, not hundreds, to assist the Peshmerga, reconstitute the Iraqi army, and assist Sunni tribes now opposing ISIS who must join this fight. Close air support will also be vital.
Baghdadi and his senior leaders aren’t invulnerable, and U.S. special operations forces should be given the mission to target, kill and capture ISIS leaders. We targeted senior terrorist leaders once in Iraq and still do in Afghanistan and elsewhere. ISIS should be no different, particularly after its brutal murder of Foley.
Given enough willpower, America has enough leverage to cause the Saudis to fight in their own interest. Without American technicians and spare parts, the Saudi arsenal is useless. Nor does Saudi Arabia have an alternative to American protection. If a really hard push were required, the U.S. government might begin to establish relations with the Shia tribes that inhabit the oil regions of eastern Arabia.
Day after day after day, hundreds of Saudi (and Jordanian) fighters, directed by American AWACS radar planes, could systematically destroy the Islamic State—literally anything of value to military or even to civil life. It is essential to keep in mind that the Islamic State exists in a desert region which offers no place to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing and strafing. These militaries do not have the excessive aversions to collateral damage that Americans have imposed upon themselves.
Destruction from the air, of course, is never enough. Once the Shia death squads see their enemy disarmed and hungry, the United States probably would not have to do anything for the main engine of massive killing to descend on the Islamic State and finish it off. U.S. special forces would serve primarily to hunt down and kill whatever jihadists seemed to be escaping the general disaster of their kind.
That would be war—a war waged by a people with whom nobody would want to mess. Many readers are likely to comment: “but we’re not going to do anything like that.” They may be correct. In which case, the consequences are all too predictable.
Kristol agreed. “Intellectuals overthink things,” he said. “We allied with Stalin in World War II, and helped create the captivity of Eastern Europe, you could argue… We got involved in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union and probably helped create, indirectly, some of what came about in Afghanistan and ideas that led to 9/11. That’s life. Maybe we could have been cleverer in all these cases, but often, when you mess around in the real world, you have unintended effects and some of them are bad.”…
After mimicking his fellow talking heads who suggest that perhaps it’s best to have a national debate before using military force, Kristol then said: “What’s the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that could be bad there. We could a lot of very bad guys.”
Unfortunately, there is no short-term answer to the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. A few bombs — or a few hundred — might save innocent lives and kill a few jihadists, but it’s not going to do much beyond that. A long-term strategy of arming, training, equipping, marshaling allies, addressing Iraq’s political dysfunction, well … is long-term. (For a smart take on that, by the way, see my friend and former State colleague Zalmay Khalilzad’s article in the National Interest.)
And that, oddly enough, is perhaps the most compelling reason President Obama has to act in Syria.
Since Washington can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for the results of a long-term approach, it’ll do what it does best: find the middle ground. The battlefield will be expanded; airstrikes in Syria will happen. Does it all lack for strategy? Is it a prescription for mission creep? Yes and yes. But blowing up a bunch of very bad people feels good. And whether you approve or not, it’s coming.
“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be easy and will not be quick.”
Via the Free Beacon.