FPI Bulletin: Is President Obama Serious on ISIS?

September 10, 2014

When President Obama outlines his strategy toward the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL) tonight, Americans should judge the seriousness of his plan by its potential to: 1) defeat and destroy ISIS as an organization; 2) restore stability to Iraq; and, 3) bring about a post-Assad Syria that is free of terror. Unless the President describes a strategy that can ultimately achieve each of these objectives, any tactical success American forces achieve against ISIS will be limited and difficult to sustain.

Defeating and Destroying ISIS

The President deserves credit for sharpening his rhetoric toward ISIS, pledging in a September 7 interview that “we’re going to defeat ‘em.” The administration is reportedly considering an expanded air campaign against ISIS and striking the organization’s primary safe haven in Syria.  Nonetheless, Mr. Obama has also emphasized that his Wednesday speech “is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops,” and may rule out ground forces altogether.  This would be a mistake.

A significant number of U.S. forces and intelligence personnel will be required to roll back ISIS in Iraq alone.  These troops would be used to improve America’s situational awareness on the ground; help target U.S. airstrikes against ISIS positions; conduct independent counterterrorism operations; and train, advise, and assist the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga militia, and Sunni tribes.  Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution estimates that 10,000 U.S. troops will be required to conduct these critical missions, while Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations believes that as many as 15,000 will be needed. 

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. Ambassador to both Syria and Iraq, says that even greater action is required.  In a Tuesday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker recommends not only taking the fight to ISIS in Syria with U.S. airstrikes, but also exploring partnering U.S. special forces with moderate Syrian opposition groups.

If administration officials are correct that the campaign against ISIS may take years, then there will be many opportunities to debate the appropriate role and scale of American ground forces.  The President and Congress should not preemptively rule out the necessary measures to defeat and destroy ISIS.  As Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute has written, “those insisting on narrow options, inadequate to defeat the Islamic state, are effectively accepting that it will continue to rule and raise armies in Iraq and Syria.”

Stabilizing Iraq

The second goal that we hope President Obama will describe is to restore stability to Iraq, which has veered dangerously close to civil war following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011. 

Over the past three years, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki persecuted the country’s Sunni minority while the remnants of the once-defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq reemerged in the new potent form of ISIS.  The establishment of a new government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi offers an opportunity to restore stability in Iraq, but it will require hard work to reconcile the many disaffected Sunnis who now view extremists as their best defense from Baghdad’s abuses.

By addressing the Sunni community’s political and economic grievances, launching a concerted military campaign and rebuilding the Iraqi Security Forces, Mr. al-Abadi can work to both split ISIS from its Sunni base and reduce Iran’s poisonous influence over the national government. Accomplishing this, however, will require strong U.S. partnership, conditioned on measures to end the Maliki-era sectarianization of the Iraqi Security Forces and the removal of Iranian-backed militias from its ranks. Absent these measures, the ISF will lack credibility as a true national force as it fights to recover territory that is now under ISIS control.

America’s credibility is also in question, as Iraq’s factions will only risk reconciliation if they believe the United States is committed to the country’s future.  This is one reason why U.S. ground forces along the lines described by Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Boot will be required to facilitate Iraq’s recovery.

A Post-Assad Syria Free from Terror

The third pillar of a successful strategy to defeat ISIS—bringing about a post-Assad Syria that is free of terror—requires much more American involvement than the President appears willing to provide.

Though Mr. Obama has commendably pledged that the U.S. will “develop a moderate Sunni opposition that can control territory,” he has refrained from providing the more powerful weaponry and direct support that the moderate armed opposition needs to defend itself.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, vetted Syrian opposition groups have received only a few dozen older-model anti-tank missiles—an insufficient amount to secure meaningful gains on the battlefield.   

It is important to remember that ISIS’s rise in Syria is due in no small part to a calculated strategy from Bashar al-Assad.  As the Associated Press reported, the regime “has long turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria.” Damascus even purchased oil that ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups had extracted from territory under their control.  The Wall Street Journal reported in August that the purpose of this policy was to force the world to choose between supporting the regime or Islamist extremists by undermining the third option of supporting the moderate opposition—a policy confirmed by the dual offensive by ISIS and Assad forces against moderates in Aleppo. 

The United States should not play into Assad’s hands.  Defeating ISIS requires that the Assad regime ultimately be defeated and replaced by the moderate opposition. This requires President Obama to do what he has long resisted—train and arm mainstream groups on a large scale.

Conclusion

U.S. officials reportedly believe that defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria may require three years of sustained effort.  No doubt, this campaign will be costly and difficult, but it can be accelerated if President Obama commits to a meaningful campaign to destroy the extremist group, stabilize Iraq, and help establish a post-Assad Syria. With ISIS beheading U.S. citizens, destabilizing the Middle East, and threatening international security, Americans should expect nothing less from their President this evening.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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