A coalition of frenemies is Obama’s ploy

Doyle McManus

A month ago, it was difficult to tell whether US President Barack Obama’s heart was in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the terrorist group that has seized a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. His initial statements, as the militants roared across the flatlands of northern Iraq, focused on the limits of US action. “I will not allow the US to be dragged into fighting another war,” he said on August 7. Ten days later, he defined the US goal minimally, as seeing that the Isil was “contained”. But by last week, that diffidence was gone. At his news conference after the Nato summit in Wales, Obama said his aim was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, which he called “a significant threat”. [Obama has promised to deliver a detailed ‘game plan’ tomorrow on how best to deal with the threat.]

The hardened rhetoric — and, more important, the expanded commitment it promises — came after Isil beheaded two American journalists in Syria and brazenly dared Obama to respond. But even before those grisly killings, US officials were coming to the conclusion that the group posed a serious threat to US allies in the Middle East and that it could become a source of terrorism against Europe and the US.

Recognising the threat is easier than addressing it, though. The strategy, which Obama aides admit they are still “building out”, has a daunting list of moving parts. It depends on Iraq’s balky politicians to form a new government that can attract support from aggrieved Sunnis.

Then it requires organising an international coalition against Isil. Such efforts must include Arab governments in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq. It will need the Saudis to encourage Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribal leaders to switch their support from the Isil to the new Baghdad government and all the Arab states to stop their citizens from contributing to the militant group.

Meanwhile, in Syria, whose northeastern territory is dominated by Isil, the US and its allies will try to bolster the beleaguered moderate opposition that has been fighting both those militants and the pariah regime of President Bashar Al Assad. And the US will need to continue its limited military campaign, both to strike at the authors of terrorist acts against Americans and to stop the Islamists’ advance in northern Iraq (where the US has already launched more than 120 airstrikes and dispatched more than 800 troops).

What will not be part of the strategy at this point, an administration official told me, are large-scale airstrikes in Syria, because there is no US ally there that can hold ground once it is cleared. “You have to have … people who can move in to fill that space,” the official said. Otherwise, US airstrikes may merely deliver territory back to the Al Assad regime.

One unwavering rule underlying Obama’s approach is that he will not put US combat troops on the ground. Obama has consistently been willing to wage an air war against terrorists (as he has in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia), but not a ground war. Fighting on the ground will be up to local forces, supported by neighbouring governments, which, as US officials point out, are more directly threatened by Isil than America is. Unlike Al Qaida, Isil uses terrorism as a tactic against its local enemies, not a long-distance international strategy. (That is one of the reasons it was expelled from Al Qaida, which wants to focus on attacking the US.) Horrifying as its deeds are, so far they have been aimed only at victims in Iraq, Syria and surrounding countries. They are happy to attack Americans in their part of the world, but they have not shown an inclination to leave the Middle East.

“We have seen no credible information that [Isil] is planning attacks against the homeland,” Obama’s top advisor on terrorism, Lisa Monaco, said last week. What worries her more, she said, is the direct threat the group poses to US allies in the Middle East, as well as the training and experience it is giving recruits from Europe and North America. Obama’s newly articulated strategy for dealing with that threat will not be a quick fix. US Secretary of State John Kerry said it could need three years, which would take the US into the tenure of Obama’s successor. The approach will not satisfy hawks, who want to retaliate any time the group commits a grisly atrocity against civilians. And it will not mollify doves, who worry that any use of US military power will turn into a slippery slope towards escalation.

Indeed, it may not work at all, since it relies so heavily on cooperation from feuding Arab regimes and local factions. But it is a sensible beginning — and an important test of whether US military intervention with a light footprint can be made to work.

Courtesy Los Angeles Times

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