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Obama promises a long and limited war on Islamic State

Analysis: Local rather than US forces are key component, but many potential partners are also rivals with one another

President Barack Obama used the broadest of brushstrokes on Wednesday night to describe his “comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State insurgency, providing few details and skirting discussion of key dilemmas facing any such plan.

The United States will lead a “broad coalition,” Obama said, but its war plan “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Instead, the campaign would rely on U.S. air power and support for “partner forces on the ground” to put the Islamic State (IS) to flight. The U.S. would supply intelligence, weapons and logistics and training. But it would be up to those forces to drive out the IS.

It was telling that the example he cited as the model for confronting the IS was the approach “we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That comparison underscores the message that “ultimately” is the operative word in Obama’s promise to “ultimately destroy” the IS. In both Yemen and Somalia, America’s enemy remains very much intact and active, and the U.S. approach has thus far succeeded in managing and containing the threat, but not in destroying it.

If anything, the challenge of confronting the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria is more complex. That’s because the IS is a symptom of the current state of play in regional power struggles that have raged with unprecedented intensity over the past decade; it is not their cause. Yet it is on the warring regional proxy powers that the U.S. must now rely to roll back the IS.

The insurgency’s impressive recent success “is due only in small part to IS itself,” wrote International Crisis Group analyst Peter Harling last week.

“The way has been paved for it by its enemies, who make an impressive roll-call of major players in the region,” he added.

The IS thrives as a result of the alienation of Sunni citizenry by Syrian and Iraqi regimes and the breakdown of the central state in both countries. The Islamic State has taken advantage of the enduring hostility to U.S. intervention in the region — and also of Washington’s subsequent retreat and passivity. It trades off Iran’s sectarian support for allied Shia militias, Gulf Arab support for equally sectarian Sunni militias and Turkish hostility to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which translates into an open border for thousands of international volunteers to cross and join the IS. The gradual collapse of the nation-state itself in Syria and Iraq has allowed the IS to break away from the transnational conspiracy strategy of its Al-Qaeda precursor to raise its black flag in a growing power vacuum that covers huge swathes of territory.

Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda never had a capital city or revenue streams based on fixed assets; IS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has set up his caliphate in the Syrian town of Raqqa and funds his operation in part through black-market sales of oil pumped from fields under its control. Al-Qaeda was a selective, elite organization that foreign intelligence agencies found difficult to penetrate; the IS has reportedly recruited more than 12,000 foreign volunteers, and finding their way to the organization involves a relatively simple journey from Turkey. The Islamic State is a more visible target — for better and worse.

While its posture makes striking the IS easier for the U.S. and its allies, that posture is a reminder of the power vacuum created by the region’s multiple ongoing civil wars and proxy conflicts.

The Islamic State has many enemies among its immediate neighbors, who share a temporary interest in tamping down the movement’s challenge. But each is likely to fight the IS for its own reasons and on its own terms, remaining focused on their deeper strategic rivalry with one another. And each will be hoping to use U.S. assistance and intervention to their best advantage in that ongoing struggle.

Obama acknowledged that his strategy will only succeed if allied forces on the ground use U.S. air support to retake and hold territory from IS forces. That requires strengthening the capability of partner forces, as well as enlisting states in the region to do a better job of interdicting funds and fighters destined for the IS.

But the successes in Iraq in recent weeks touted by the president involved partnering with ground forces that had the most capability and incentive to drive out the IS — Kurdish forces (whose independence-minded political leadership remains ambivalent about the U.S. goal of maintaining a unified Iraq), and Shia sectarian militia assisted by officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. While these forces may have greater incentive and ability than most others to confront the IS on the ground, their cooperation with the U.S. won’t be welcomed by the likes of Saudi Arabia, which has sharply criticized moves toward a Tehran-Washington rapprochement over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor have Sunni communities in northern Iraq celebrated their “liberation” from the IS by Shia militias with a reputation for sectarian violence.

The Sunni Arab regimes on which Obama said the U.S. would rely to rally Sunni support against the IS are also skeptical of U.S. commitment as a result of Washington’s failure to act against the Assad regime in Syria. The Saudis were livid and made public that fact when Obama a year ago backed away at the last minute from a plan to strike the Assad regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Through the lens of the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a strategy against the IS that begins in Iraq suits Tehran’s interests more than it does Riyadh’s. (The Islamic State is a mortal threat to Iran’s Shia allies in Iraq, and despite the pleasing gestures coming out of Baghdad, it is far too early to declare the new government there as a significant improvement in practice on the previous one whose failings created space for the insurgency.)

Obama said on Wednesday that he would “not hesitate to take action against [the IS] in Syria” — a construction that some noted fell short of an announcement of imminent action.

But while Obama made clear that the Assad regime could not be a partner in its efforts against the IS, analysts have warned that the alternative of strengthening a designated “moderate” rebel force to the point that it could neutralize the IS and fight Assad remains for now a hypothetical proposition given the current balance of forces in Syria.  

The U.S. is unlikely to take military action against Assad, given his backing by Iran and Russia, and even limited action against the IS on Syrian territory presents a slew of problems. Assad has, at least publicly, said he would treat any U.S. action on Syrian soil as “foreign aggression.” And there’s a danger that becoming the target of a U.S. campaign could actually boost the appeal of the IS — the recent beheading videos goading Obama appear designed to achieve that effect. At the same time, however, U.S. military officials have made clear that the IS can’t be beaten in Iraq without tackling its sanctuaries in Syria.

With so many elements yet to be put in place — first and foremost the establishment of capable partner forces on the ground — the campaign announced by Obama will necessarily be a protracted one, with no decisive victory expected any time soon. Hence, the president’s Somalia and Yemen analogy.

Success will depend now, as ever in Iraq and Syria, less on the choices made by the U.S. than on those made by local allies, rivals and adversaries. And as Harling warned last week, “The future looks bright for IS if the main actors continue to exploit its presence to avoid responsibility for their own failings.”

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