WASHINGTON — Despite two weeks of U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, the Islamic State retains its bloody grip on roughly half of the country and is rolling up new conquests in Syria, piling pressure on President Barack Obama to develop a comprehensive, cross-border strategy to crush the group.
The lack of such a response to the Islamic State’s use of Syria as a springboard for attacking Iraq is the most glaring omission of Obama’s approach to the current crisis. Hitting the group in Syria carries huge risks, not the least being aiding the Assad regime in its war with the Islamic State and other insurgents. Yet not quickly eradicating what senior U.S. officials concede is a terrorist threat without precedent means the danger to international security likely will metastasize.
“There is no policy,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The absence of a comprehensive approach that includes Syria reflects the White House’s desire to extricate the United States from 14 years of foreign wars. It also underscores the administration’s tardy response to numerous U.S. intelligence warnings about the Islamic State, dismissed by Obama as recently as January as a “J.V. team.”
Yet Obama’s top military advisers implicitly acknowledged this week that trying to hold the line against the Islamic State in Iraq won’t work, and that only by eliminating the group’s Syrian strongholds can it be eliminated.
“They can be contained, not in perpetuity,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
Following the gruesome slaying by the Islamic State of American journalist James Foley, the White House opened the door to targeted airstrikes _ possibly using missile-firing drones _ against the group in Syria.
“We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday.
At the same time, Rhodes said, the Pentagon hasn’t given Obama “specific military options.”
For now, the administration’s military plans don’t go beyond giving air support and advice to Iraq’s problem-plagued army and the militia of the autonomous Kurdish region as they fight to blunt the offensive that has swept the al Qaida spinoff from the northern city of Mosul to the suburbs of Baghdad.
Instead, Obama appears to be gambling that Iraq’s incoming prime minister, Haider al Abadi, can rebuild the mostly defunct Iraqi military, reconcile with the aggrieved Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities, and convince Sunni tribal leaders to drive the Islamic State from their territories.
That would be a tall order for a brand new premier, who comes from the same Shiite Muslim party as his unpopular predecessor, Nouri al Maliki, and enjoys little, if any, support among ordinary Sunnis. And such efforts aren’t a quick fix: It took years for the U.S. military to enlist the Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaida in Iraq.
Under Obama’s approach, once Abadi formed a more inclusive government, the United States would organize a broader response to the Islamic State threat by Iraq’s Arab neighbors and U.S. allies.
Even Obama seems to lack confidence in his own approach. Asked at an Aug. 18 news conference about how he planned to deal with the Islamic State, he replied, “A lot of that depends on how effectively the Iraqi government comes together.”
Obama, many experts said, must develop a multifaceted, long-term plan supported by Middle Eastern partners if he wants to make good on his vow this week to “extract this cancer.”
And any approach, they said, means that the cautious Obama will have to agree to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war pitting the regime of President Bashar Assad, who’s supposed by Iran and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia movement, against the Islamic State and a potpourri of weaker rebel factions.
“The notion that the Iraq war can be separated from the Syrian civil war is pure fantasy,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist groups at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy institute. “This is what’s so worrying about the Obama administration’s approach. There is no plan. There is no vision on that front. There is no effort to talk about Syria in a different way.”
With the Islamic State still gloating over the on-camera execution this week of Foley – and threatening the same fate for other American hostages – administration officials are struggling to find a way to fight the group without using U.S. ground forces or supporting Assad or his chief foreign supporter, Iran.
Assad’s air force has been bombing the group. But that hasn’t stopped the militants from conquering new territory in northern Syria and advancing on Aleppo, the country’s commercial center and largest city. And the militants have taken at least three more foreign hostages in the past week.
One thing there’s little debate over is that airstrikes alone won’t work. Yet there is no consensus around a single approach among the analysts who’ve closely monitored the evolution of the group, whose earliest incarnation formed in the security vacuum created by the undermanned 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Counterterrorism specialists, veteran diplomats and foreign policy strategists offer divergent and contradictory ideas; each one comes with the caveat that there is no risk-free option.
The thorniest debates are over what to do about Syria. Bulked up by thousands of foreign fighters and U.S. combat vehicles and artillery captured from the Iraqi army, the Islamic State has routed other rebel groups and beaten Syrian forces in every battle they’ve fought.
“Washington now needs to assemble a combined Iraq-Syria strategy to have any chance of containing the Islamic State. That may ultimately include U.S. air attacks against Islamic State positions in northern Syria,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in an essay this month.
The most hawkish analysts also propose deploying U.S. ground troops, if necessary, hardly a popular idea among Americans demanding an end to U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts.
Other experts want the ground forces component outsourced to either “vetted” moderate Syrian rebel groups – an approach recently embraced half-heartedly by Obama, who is seeking $500 million for the effort from Congress – or to longtime Kurdish militia allies in northern Iraq.
But those ideas have significant drawbacks. One major flaw: the lack of any sizable moderate Syrian rebel force capable to taking on the Islamic State.
On the other end of the spectrum are arguments that the United States lacks regional leverage or that greater U.S. involvement could only make things worse, so it’s better to focus on non-military strategies like bolstering Arab allies and expanding humanitarian aid.
Several experts have floated the idea of forging an international coalition to fight the Islamic State, with emphasis on pressuring Arab nations to do more to stop their citizens from joining the group and cracking down harder on private donors.
Taking into account the limitations of the U.S. role, Obama mainly should focus on averting worst-case scenarios, argued Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was on the team that hunted Osama bin Laden, and Tara Maller, a former CIA analyst who focused on Iraq.
Writing in an Aug. 14 opinion piece for CNN, they said that the most realistic steps would be continuing targeted U.S. airstrikes, securing any chemical or biological weapons stockpiles, tracking Westerners who join the Islamic State and boosting security at U.S. facilities abroad.
Then there’s the touchiest suggestion of all: that the Obama administration should restore relations with the Assad regime to fight a common enemy. But such a move would be a death blow to the Syrian revolt.
It also would reverse a years-old U.S. demand that Assad step down and ignite a political firestorm over cooperating with a tyrant who the administration accuses of war crimes, including killing and injuring hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons.
Nancy A. Youssef of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.