By Hisham Melhem
5 October 2014
The American strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, and particularly in Syria, regardless of the loud rhetoric of first “degrading then destroying” ISIS, is still remarkably minimalist in scope and ambition, reflecting the long-held views of President Obama to end the country’s long and tragic encounter with Iraq, and his attitudes that the conflict in Syria is someone else’s civil war.
American policy-makers and senior military officers continue to stress that air power will not be enough to defeat ISIS, hence the need for local ground component; a retrained military and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, as well as moderate and nationalist opposition groups in Syria.
After six weeks of mostly U.S. air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and two weeks of air strikes in Syria by the U.S. and its Arab partners, the forces of ISIS may have been blunted around the Mosul dam in Iraq, but ISIS forces are still at the outskirts of Baghdad, and continue to advance on a number of fronts in both Iraq and in Syria.
Looking at the totality of the U.S. strategy, and how American officials frame it, it is clear that the Obama administration does not intend to decisively defeat ISIS during the remainder of its term, an objective that would require a more intensive air campaign and the deployment of U.S. ground forces, even on a limited bases, such as conducting special operations with or without allied forces, particularly in Syria, but rather to continue a limited war of attrition that Obama will surely bequeath to his successor.
The Reluctant Warrior Is Still Reluctant
For more than three years Obama resisted involvement in the Syrian conflict, including arming the early nationalist armed opposition groups composed mostly of former conscripts and officers who deserted the Syrian army, not the farmers, pharmacists and dentists that he keeps talking about. The killing of more than 200,000 Syrians, and the uprooting of almost one third of Syria’s population, did not move the president to stop Assad, the man mainly responsible for the rise of extremism in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who ignored Obama’s calls for him to step down, began to test the seriousness of the White House by gradually escalating the horror he was visiting on his own people. The early limited air strikes by fixed wing bombers and the occasional Scud missiles began to increase in numbers and in ferocity. When Assad realized that Western powers - and the Arabs and the Turks - were not going to respond forcefully or decisively, he unleashed the hell of barrel bombs, designed to kill and maim, on the inhabitants of cities, towns and neighbourhoods controlled by the opposition.
Aleppo, once a jewel of a city, bore the brunt of this primitive deadly weapon of terror. After testing the mettle of his adversaries regarding the use of conventional weapons, Assad moved to test the resolve of President Obama’s warning that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would constitute crossing a red line that would lead him to change his calculus significantly. Assad used these weapons numerous times and the Obama administration knew that for months before confirming it publicly.
Obama was forced to threaten Assad with military force when in the summer of 2013 more than 1,400 civilians were killed in a chemical attack. As former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta tells it in his new book “Worthy Fights,” Obama “vacillated, first indicating that he was prepared to order some strikes, then retreating and agreeing to submit the matter to Congress… The latter was, as he well knew, an almost certain way to scotch any action.” Panetta, a veteran politician who understood the world, unlike many of the advisors that the president surrounded himself with at the White House, concluded that “the result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility. When the president as commander-in-chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act if the line is crossed...”
Finally Obama was forced to use air power in Iraq then in Syria after ISIS occupied Mosul - Iraq’s second largest city - and seemed to threaten Baghdad, and after the beheading of two U.S. journalists, an event that horrified and angered the American public.
A Dearth of Strategic Thinking
Despite all the talk about the “internationalization of the war” on ISIS, the fact remains that the U.S. and its western allies are pursuing a narrow counter-terrorism campaign, that leaves many unanswered questions about the desired outcome in Syria, or how to degrade ISIS without benefitting the Assad regime that gave it sustenance when the extremist group was fighting nationalist and other Islamist groups opposed to Assad, and with which it enjoyed a long period of cohabitation?
How will the U.S. and its Western allies balance Iran’s support for the Iraqi government with Iran’s logistical and military help for the Syrian regime, the same regime that the U.S. is supposed to help the moderate Syrian rebels to overthrow? Is there a qualitative shift in the administration’s political approach to a post-Maliki Iraq? Or as is likely Obama will continue to sub-contract Iraq to his Vice President Joe Biden? Which means the continuation of a policy that” ignores” Iraq, as former U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill explained recently? Can the Iraqi government free itself from the sectarian clutches and rein in the Shiite militias and contain Iran’s influence on them so that it could gain the cooperation of the Sunnis in the struggle against ISIS?
Even the military tactics are confusing and murky, what is the rationale behind alerting, informing or even warning the Assad regime that the U.S. will attack ISIS and will spare Syria’s air defences if they don’t lock on U.S. bombers? And if the U.S. is serious about arming and helping the Syrian opposition, why not help those rebels who are trapped in Aleppo by regime forces on one side, and ISIS forces on the other side?
There is very little evidence that the Obama administration is changing its long held sceptical views of the moderate Syrian opposition and the efficacy of helping them either to force Assad to change his political calculus so that he would negotiate seriously, or to support them to topple him.
Even after Congress approved $500 million to train and equip the moderate opposition, there is no sense of urgency to accelerate this process. The administration is planning to begin training a force of 5,000 fighters in 2015 for a year. The administration is still acting as if there are no nationalist or moderate Syrian opposition groups fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS that can be supported. In Jan. 2014 a coalition of such groups drove ISIS terrorists from large areas in Northern Syria.
The initial reaction to the air strikes on ISIS targets, particularly in Syria, in majority Sunni Arab states and Turkey was lukewarm or was attributed to dubious motives. To most Sunnis, a war on ISIS and other radical Sunni groups that end up leaving Assad in power is unacceptable. The Arab states that participated in the U.S. led air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, did so in part to influence the U.S. to broaden its objectives in Syria to include regime change, as part of an overall strategy to save the country from ISIS and the Assad regime and take the country out of Iran’s orbit.
In other words, as long as the civil war continues in Syria, and as long as Assad remains in power, America’s minimalist strategy of degrading and destroying ISIS through a campaign of counter-terrorism will be significantly hampered. At a minimum, U.S. and Arab bombers on their way to destroy ISIS targets in Syria should also pay a visit to Assad’s air force bases, and at least neutralize its fleet of helicopters that rain barrel bombs on civilians. The U.S. air campaign against ISIS in Syria will not be fully supported by Sunni public opinion in the region, unless it includes degrading the Syrian regime too.
ISIS represents a direct mortal threat to Syria and Iraq, and a potential mortal threat to Lebanon and Jordan. Already ISIS-inspired violence and instability has spilled over to both states. In fact the challenge of tackling ISIS is shaking the whole Middle East region.
All the countries of the Levant and the Gulf, including Iran and Turkey are in varying degrees susceptible to this deadly virus. But defeating ISIS militarily, politically and ideologically will not be achieved soon, and it will require mobilizing the admittedly weak Arab societies and states, in a long struggle, that should include reconstituting Syria and Iraq, on new foundations an incredibly daunting, and maybe elusive task. To seriously degrade ISIS, the U.S. should seriously re-think some of its assumptions and taboos.
For the president of the United States to keep repeating publicly what he is willing or not willing to do in the confrontation with ISIS, such as the incredibly damaging taboo against the deployment of ground troops, is to tie his hands behind his back and to provide comfort to an enemy that believes in the total, merciless application of violence.
The selective use of Special Forces, with or without allied regional powers should be seriously contemplated. The establishment of no-fly zones and protected areas along the Turkish and Jordanian borders in collaboration with the forces of the two states is imperative if the U.S. is serious about giving the moderate Syrian opposition groups the chance to administer Syrian territories, to stem the flight of refugees, to launch operations against the regime, and to prove their ability to provide needed services and serious governance. Turkey has expressed its willingness to participate in such efforts. This is the time to test the veracity of that willingness.
In the end, only the Arabs (and Muslims) can defeat ISIS and what it stands for. And the urgent beginning would be in trying to contain the fires of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism. These fires have been lit recently, and unless they are deprived of the oxygen of hatred and demonization they will consume many victims. ISIS achieved initial successes in northern Iraq because it benefited from the political resentments of many Sunnis who were alienated by the sectarian policies of the previous Iraqi government.
Recognizing the rights of the Shiites in Iraq should not be done at the expense of the Sunnis and other groups, just as recognizing the rights of the Sunnis in Syria should not be done at the expense of the Alawites or the other Syrian communities.
It is tragic that identity politics and sectarian affiliations have become so entrenched, that very few people are willing to entertain notions of equality of citizenship in a civil state, but Arabs should not deceive themselves that they can exorcise the demons of sectarianism, extremism, intolerance, autocracy and patriarchy from their societies without enacting serious and structural reforms that will reconstitute their polities, economies and some of the fundamentals of their culture.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.