President Barack Obama responded Wednesday to the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, declaring that the world stood “appalled by the brutal murder.” Obama vowed to press on with airstrikes against the group despite warnings by the IS that it would kill a second American captive unless the U.S. halted military action against its fighters.
Speaking in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in a short and somber statement about Foley, the president said, “The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people.”
Forceful rhetoric aside, however, it is unclear how or if Foley’s death will change the administration’s calculus on limiting U.S. military action against the IS to airstrikes — which military analysts concur will not be enough to destroy the group, which has taken control of swaths of northern and western Iraq.
In the video showing its murder of Foley released online on Tuesday, IS fighters also threatened to execute Steven Sotloff, an American journalist captured in Syria in August 2013, if airstrikes continued. But the limited U.S. military campaign against the group that began on Aug. 8 showed no signs of slowing down on Wednesday, with Pentagon officials announcing further strikes in the mission. An unnamed administration official told The Washington Post that there was no question of suspending strikes and that the “only question is if we do more.”
The questions of what more the U.S. could or should do and whether it has a viable exit strategy if it re-engages more directly in Iraq remain points of debate in Washington.
Congressional Republicans, who have for the most part cautiously welcomed the administration’s strikes against the IS — while often calling them belated or insufficient — will likely continue pressing for more action.
“I remain deeply concerned that despite the preponderance of evidence that proves ISIL [a previous acronym for the group] is a fundamentally evil and dangerous terrorist threat to the United States,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Wednesday, “President Obama continues to appear unwilling to do what is necessary to confront ISIL and communicate clearly to the American people about the threat ISIL poses to our country and to our way of life.”
In an interview with Reuters, Sen. John McCain, R., Ariz., called for a dramatic increase in strikes against Islamic State.
But the underlying strategy guiding those strikes remains a matter of contention, even after Foley’s death.
“No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border,” wrote Brian Fishman, a fellow with the New America Foundation. “And no one will, because none exists … Bombing ISIL will not destroy it.”
Although it’s widely accepted among military analysts that the IS will have to be rolled back by forces on the ground, there’s little expectation that Washington will commit more than a couple of hundred special forces personnel who can either direct airstrikes or help friendly forces battling the IS on the ground. The U.S. and other Western allies — as well as Iran — are working to strengthen the capacity of the Iraqi military and the peshmerga forces of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government to reclaim ground lost to the IS. On that front, Wednesday saw Iraqi security forces battling to reclaim the city of Tikrit from the group, and farther north Kurdish troops consolidated their grip on the strategically important Mosul Dam a day after recapturing it from IS fighters.
Reading the group’s intentions in releasing the provocative beheading video was challenging for analysts, who asked whether it reflected a desire to draw the U.S. into renewed engagement on the ground in Iraq or was intended as a device to attract recruits from the post-9/11 generation.
“The stronger the war against the States gets, the better this will help hesitant brothers to join us,” an IS member previously told Reuters. “America will send its rockets, and we will send our bombs. Our land will not be attacked while their land is safe.”
The U.S. hopes, however, that the revulsion stirred by the harsh rule and violent intolerance of the IS will be so widespread that it will unite a broad coalition against the group on the ground. Washington is hoping that a more inclusive Iraqi government will follow the replacement of Nouri al-Maliki by Haider al-Abadi as prime minister and that this will strengthen the ability of the Iraqi government to roll back IS gains.
“We act against ISIL standing alongside others,” Obama said in his speech Wednesday. “The people of Iraq who, with our support, are taking the fight to ISIL, must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their communities.”
While the example of the Anbar Awakening that turned Sunni communities against Al-Qaeda is often cited in the Washington conversation as an example that should be reprised, some analysts note that the awakening coincided with a U.S. troop surge — and that a new political accord in Baghdad will not, in itself, reverse IS gains without the involvement of a military force strong enough to turn the tide against the extremists.
With additional reporting by Reuters