Obama’s reluctant war on terror
The Middle East is yet again on the top of the world’s agenda with its endless troubles. The most recent trouble comes from the rising threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It has dominated the headlines with its sudden rise to power, control of vast swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, and its use of ruthless tactics such as mass killings, beheadings and rapes. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has been cautious and reluctant to be sucked into the region once again, the seriousness of the problem makes it increasingly difficult to stay away.
While Obama’s remarks about having no strategy to confront ISIL two weeks ago drew harsh criticism from his opponents, he has now started a slow policy shift and laid out a strategy on Sept. 10, to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, which has been posing a serious challenge not only for Iraq and Syria, but also for the entire region and beyond.”
The four-point strategy consists of systematic airstrikes against ISIL, support to moderate forces fighting with ISIL on the ground, increasing efforts to cut funding and recruitments, strengthen defense and improve intelligence and provide humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians. With the proposed strategy, the U.S. will build a broad coalition, including regional states, to combat the threat, but would not send ground troops.
The U.S. had already carried out air strikes in Iraq to stop the march of ISIL militants in August into Kurdish controlled areas of northern Iraq. The new strategy will also include simultaneous fights against ISIL in Syria. The cooperation of regional countries, such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are important for the strategy to succeed, as they will be required to cut off ISIL’s funding and recruitments, and provide intelligence and humanitarian assistance. Saudi Arabia also agreed to host the training of local forces, while Turkey remains hesitant, even declining to sign a joint communiqué pledging support.
Obama was rather careful in raising various issues while outlining his strategy. First, he drew a careful distinction between Islam and the ISIL. This was crucial to preempt misinterpretations in Muslim countries. Second, he stressed the differences of the current strategy from the earlier U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also pledged not to involve American combat troops fighting on the ground.
The strategy seems to depend on the successes of both the Iraqi central government and moderate Syrian opposition, as well as the support of neighboring countries. The establishment of a new government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi, was a milestone for Iraq, though serious challenges remain ahead. Fighting with the root causes of insurgency in Iraq that feed ISIL’s expansion requires broad consensus within the country. Al-Abbadi needs to eliminate divergences and guarantee the support of various groups, especially Sunni tribal leaders, as well as Kurds to tackle the ISIL menace successfully. As there is no reliable Iraqi army to talk about, it needs to be rebuilt with the help of the U.S. and regional countries, which will take time.
The situation in Syria, a safe-haven for the ISIL militants, is much more complicated with a raging civil war. Instead of relying on the Bashar al-Assad regime, the U.S. will support opposition forces to defeat ISIL. But the composition of the opposition makes it far from a reliable partner and it has the potential to transform into an unintended source of threat. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Targeting a non-state actor requires patience, determination and time. Keeping several diverse actors together around the same goal over a longer period will be the U.S.’s greatest challenge in fighting ISIL.