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Skepticism abounds as Obama prepares to unveil ISIL strategy

The president will outline the next phases in his plan to defeat insurgents in Iraq and Syria

A week after publicly admitting he didn’t yet have a strategy for solving the crises in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama will tell the nation on Wednesday he has prepared a plan and assembled a coalition of regional and NATO allies to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State insurgency. But reports that the White House envisages a limited commitment in Iraq, delayed action in Syria and a war plan that could be handed off to the next administration suggest his speech will do little to satisfy critics of his hands-off approach to the Middle East.

White House officials, according to a New York Times report, said Wednesday’s speech would lay out the next phases of a plan that began last month with over 140 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The second phase, the Times reported, will involve training and equipping Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces so they can retake and hold territory that has been cleared of the Sunni insurgents — all while working with Baghdad to ensure a “more inclusive” leadership for the country.

Administration officials, however, said that regaining ground lost to the Islamic State would be a long and arduous process completed by allied ground forces, since Obama has pledged not to send U.S. troops back to Iraq. And the campaign will expand into the Islamic State heartland in Syria only in the final phase, perhaps two years from now — a delay that reflects the unresolved strategic dilemma about how to cripple the extremists in Syria without inadvertently bolstering the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is also fighting the group.

To be sure, there are some who will commend the caution of the president’s approach, noting that the Islamic State is in part a legacy of previous U.S. intervention in Iraq, for which the only sustainable solution would be based on indigenous forces denying space to the extremists. “The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi,” Obama said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend. “This is not the equivalent of the Iraq War.”

Off the table, then, are the counterinsurgency tactics employed by the U.S. during its 2007 troop surge, which succeeded in tamping down the challenge of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — the Islamic State’s precursor. Then, as now, AQI rallied Sunni tribal leaders against the Shia-led government in Baghdad, even as their extremist ideology and severe governance grated on most Iraqi Sunnis.

The U.S. managed to buy off many of those Sunni tribal forces and organize them into the Awakening movement, leveraging the rewards on offer and U.S. military might along with promises to curtail sectarian governance in Shia-led Baghdad. But with AQI defeated and the U.S. drawing down, Iraq’s then–Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proceeded to crack down on the Awakening, perceiving the Sunni militias as a threat to his Shia-based rule. The forces that had been vital to defeating AQI were once again alienated from the government in Baghdad, and the U.S. — prioritizing short-term stability — could do little to curb Maliki’s sectarian instincts.

Administration officials now say Obama hopes to lean on Sunni Arab allies — particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which border Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas — to turn Iraqi Sunni tribes against the Islamic State. That’s a tougher ask this time around, since those Sunni tribes were betrayed by Baghdad last time. And the military backing of Jordan and Saudi Arabia doesn’t carry the same weight as tens of thousands of U.S. troops with massive air support. Not to mention that some Sunnis may realize that tolerating Islamic State incursions on their turf has pushed out Maliki and forced Baghdad to reshuffle.  

With the underpowered Iraqi military foundering, hard-line Shia militias have picked up the slack in fighting the Islamic State. Analysts say the track record of these militias suggests they’re every bit as dangerous to Iraq’s delicate sectarian balance as their Sunni adversaries are.

Even without a 2007-type troop surge, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq are “not nothing,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., and they’ve already proved successful in pushing the insurgents back from strategic locations like the Mosul Dam. “But at the end of the day, you need ground forces to retake and hold territory, and there’s a real open question whether Shia militias are going to merely exacerbate the situation in Sunni areas,” he said.

Monday’s announcement that the new Shia prime minister, Haider Abadi, has chosen a Cabinet that represents Shias, Sunnis and Kurds was trumpeted by Washington as the cornerstone of Obama’s Iraq strategy and a major milestone for the country. But analysts have been quick to point out that a representative government in Baghdad is not the same as an inclusive one — a painful lesson of post–Saddam Hussein Iraq. Financial Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi warned that it would be a mistake to consider the Iraqi government a ready partner on the ground to capitalize on coalition airstrikes.

“The problem is that the strategy fails to take into account Iraqi leaders’ record in failing to turn inclusive politics into functional governance, ISIS’ proven ability to nimbly adapt to battlefield changes and the glacial pace of reform in Baghdad, especially of the security forces,” Daragahi wrote, using an acronym for another name for the Islamic State.

The Syria question is even more worrying to some. If Obama plans to postpone engaging the Islamic State in Syria, as per the Times report, he would seem to be neglecting the advice of Pentagon officials and just about everyone else in the security establishment, who have made it clear that any campaign against the Islamic State restricted to Iraq will be little more than a stopgap measure. After all, the group staged its Iraqi offensive from its vast territory in northern and eastern Syria, where it has its de facto capital of Raqqa and most of its oil refineries.

While the Iraqi government had appealed to the U.S. to join the fight, there has been no such invitation from the Assad regime, and Obama’s prospective coalition partners are not convinced there is a viable partner on the ground that can capitalize on airstrikes against the extremists. The U.S. has been unwilling to gamble on the Free Syrian Army — the so-called moderate faction that fights both Assad and the Islamic State — by supplying adequate funding and heavy weaponry needed to tilt the military balance in its favor. There are still pervasive fears such weapons could end up in extremist hands.

“If there are airstrikes in Iraq and Syria but no material change in U.S. policy towards Syria, it leaves a huge hole in any strategy,” Hanna said. “If ISIS is essentially granted strategic depth in Syria, it undercuts the effort in Iraq. That’s self-evident."

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