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Obama reiterates an ISIL policy unlikely to yield rapid results

Analysis: President promises eventual victory, but reminds Americans of the perils of an Iraq-style ground war

While he reassured Americans that the United States would “destroy ISIL,” President Barack Obama in a rare national address from the Oval Office Sunday night steered clear of setting any timetable for victory. A prudent choice, since the strategy he outlined is in essence the same one that was being pursued before last week’s San Bernardino massacre — and even before the Nov. 13 Paris rampage.  

The United States, Obama said:

  • would continue to wage an air campaign, in partnership with allies, to target Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leadership, heavy weaponry and infrastructure in Syria and Iraq;
  • would continue to arm and support indigenous forces in Syria and Iraq fighting ISIL and closing down their safe havens, and would deploy small numbers of  U.S. special forces operators to help that effort;
  • had “surged” intelligence sharing with European allies to discover and disrupt plots, work with Turkey to seal its border with Syria and counter ISIL recruitment efforts online; and
  • would continue to press for a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war to allow all sides and their backers to focus on the common enemy, ISIL.

That package, said Republican critic Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was simply a continuation of what he called Obama’s “reactive, indirect, and incremental strategy,” warning in a statement on the speech that “we are not winning the war against ISIL.”

With ISIL emerging as a major issue in the presidential campaign, Obama was always going to struggle to satisfy Republican critics — all the more so because, as former National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley told the BBC, neither Paris nor San Bernardino had changed the strategic perspective on ISIL of either the United States or its allies. 

That’s why even as he reiterated the existing policy as an effective and sustainable strategy to defeat ISIL, equally important were the perils Obama stressed the U.S. should avoid — the traps he implied were being laid for the U.S. by ISIL’s grotesque provocations.

The United States, Obama said, should not be drawn by ISIL into another long and costly ground war in the Middle East: “If we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.”

Relying on air strikes and local forces fighting ISIL offered the pathway “to a more sustainable victory,” he said, “and it won't require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.”

By invoking the Iraq experience, he reminded his audience that an invasion enabled by the post 9/11 climate had ultimately cost more in American blood and treasure than al Al-Qaeda’s original provocation had. (The U.S. occupation of Iraq had also, he noted in passing, actually birthed ISIL.)

Obama also warned Americans against turning on their Muslim neighbors, pointing out that the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have, in fact, been Muslims, and noting that the support of America’s Muslim communities would be its most  important defense against the spread of extremist ideology within its borders. After all, he argued, the San Bernardino attacks had been inspired by rather than orchestrated by ISIL, and countering the radicalization of Muslims living in the West was a top priority.

There was not a lot of red meat in Obama’s speech for those seeking a more bellicose style and policy. (Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, for example, had two days earlier vowed to “carpet bomb ISIL into oblivion,” promising that America would in the process find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”) But the president made clear he sees the current strategy as the “smart” way to destroy ISIL while avoiding digging the U.S. into a deeper hole in the Middle East.

Right now, however, the air campaign against ISIL remains limited — in no small part because “caliphate” rhetoric notwithstanding, it’s not a real nation state and has only limited targetable strategic assets — a problem exacerbated by concerns to avoid harming the well-being of the many thousands of civilians effectively captive in ISIL’s domain. Although France, Britain and Germany have recently joined the Syria air war, their additional weight is largely symbolic — and the Arab partners whose involvement was trumpeted at the beginning of the campaign have quietly stood down.

That speaks to a deeper problem that has plagued the strategy reiterated by Obama on Sunday night: While ISIL may indeed be a “common enemy” to all of the other internal and external players in the Syrian conflict, it is only the U.S. and its Western European partners that have made fighting the group their top priority in Syria (aside from indigenous forces whose domains ISIL has occupied). All of the other key players with considerable skin in the game — the Assad regime; the various rebel formations fighting to oust it; the Kurds; Turkey; the Gulf Arab states, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — put greater priority on the strategic interests that have them at loggerheads with one another. It’s that discord that has allowed ISIL to emerge and prosper, but that fact has not changed the calculations of the partners on whose buy-in the strategy outlined by Obama depends.

Using air power to support indigenous forces has halted and in some places rolled back ISIL’s ability to hold and govern territory, but the going is slow — not least because of the fundamental problem of how and by whom areas won back from ISIL are to be governed.

Many analysts believe that ISIL’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that, unlike Al Qaeda before it, it has sought to hold and govern territory — making its failures as a government, enhanced by the military efforts of its enemies, the key to its demise. That, and counteracting its effort to win recruits and supporters by polarizing Western societies and closing down space for coexistence. While Obama sought to align himself with that logic in the strategy he reiterated on Sunday, it doesn’t address the need felt by many Western leaders mindful of the rage of their constituents to be seen to be “doing something” — or in the more hawkish version, “making the sand glow” — in response to outrages like Paris and San Bernardino.

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