The U.S.-led international strategy to combat the Islamic State that President Barack Obama sketched out Friday is likely to require years of thorny diplomacy and deeper U.S. military involvement in conflicts that he’s struggled to avoid.
Obama’s remarks at the end of a NATO summit in Wales offered the administration’s most in-depth explanation to date of how it plans to fight the Islamic State, the transnational extremist group that has seized control of an area as large as Jordan straddling the dividing line between Syria and Iraq.
The nascent strategy calls for working with European and Arab allies to confront the group not only in Iraq, where the U.S. is conducting airstrikes to assist government-aligned fighters, but also in Syria, where the United States has failed to fulfill its years-long promise to help build a moderate rebel force.
“We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL,” Obama said, using the government’s acronym for the Islamic State and referring specifically to its sanctuary in Syria. “The moderate coalition there is one that we can work with. We have experience working with many of them. They have been, to some degree, outgunned and outmanned, and that’s why it’s important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively.”
There was little fanfare to Obama’s announcement, which comes just a week after his controversial admission that there was no U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State in Syria. U.S. officials still appear to be keeping expectations low, an acknowledgment of the fraught negotiations and unpalatable options that come with enlisting Middle Eastern powers, already warring among themselves, to rally around the common cause of defeating the Islamic State.
Even limited success for this new effort, analysts say, hinges on an unenviable to-do list for the Obama administration: foster cozier relations with Iran, gamble on the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, strong-arm Iraq’s Shiite Muslim leaders into power-sharing with the Sunni Muslim minority, and persuade Sunni-ruled nations in the Persian Gulf region not to undermine the whole effort by striking out on their own.
One major difficulty is that some Sunni nations see a need for an armed group that will protect Sunni interests against the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
“All things being equal, in a perfect universe, the Saudis would like to harness a group like IS. The problem is, IS doesn’t say, ‘Oh, sir, how high do I jump?” said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Middle East and South Asian affairs with the global intelligence company Stratfor.
Support for a broad offensive against the Islamic State from some key allies is likely to come only in return for greater political power for Sunnis in Iraq and stepped-up U.S. support for anti-Assad forces in Syria. That will complicate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom Obama has dispatched to the region to drum up support for the initiative from Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.
Still, analysts say, the old Sunni bulwarks have little choice but to support, at least cosmetically, a U.S. coalition, since the Islamic State is at their borders and unwilling to act as a proxy for them against Shiite foes such as Iran and Hezbollah. They’ll push for the creation of a Syrian rebel force strong enough to fight both the Islamic State and the Iranian-backed Assad regime.
Driving the Islamic State from Iraq won’t be quick or easy, Bokhari said, but it would be possible because regional Sunni powers, even the Saudis, have become resigned, in the years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, to an Iraqi political system dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
The key Sunni players understand that Iraq has moved from the Saddam-era Sunni orbit to the modern-day Iranian orbit, he said. Their hopes now are that they can engineer the reverse outcome in Syria _ the replacement of a pro-Iran regime with one that would be dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority.
Again, this is where the United States faces a difficult balancing act: coordinating with the Iranians on mutual interests, but not so closely as to drive away Sunni allies that are needed to crack down on private donations to the Islamic State and deliver Sunni political and tribal leaders to the negotiating table in Iraq. U.S. officials already have acknowledged talks with the Iranians about the Islamic State on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations.
“This is not new,” Bokhari said of the potential for closer coordination between Washington and Tehran. “The U.S. and the Iranians tag-teamed against the Taliban, and they tag-teamed against Saddam.”
Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it appears that Obama has been forced by the Islamic State’s military successes and its growing threat to undertake a serious effort to build and arm a Syrian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamist extremists with the help of U.S. air power.
“It certainly sounds like we’re more serious,” said White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though he cautioned: “We’ve heard this so many times before, but little has come of it.”
Obama’s language Friday on Syria reinforced the idea that crushing the Islamic State has replaced Assad’s ouster as the main U.S. priority in Syria, White said.
“We’re not talking about backing forces that can fight the regime, but enhancing forces that can fight the Islamic State,” White said. “It’s all focused on the Islamic State, and that in a sense makes it more likely that something will happen here. It’s now being defined in counterterrorism concepts as opposed to regime change.”
There are indications that the hard work to build such a force is already underway, overseen by the CIA, despite remarks by Obama last month disparaging the moderate U.S.-backed Syrian opposition as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth.”
The top general of the Free Syrian Army told McClatchy last week that since December secret U.S. military and non-lethal support has bypassed the group’s Turkey-based leadership and gone directly to up to 14 commanders inside northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups in the south. All of them report to the U.S. spy agency, he said.
“The leadership of the FSA is American,” said Gen. Abdul-llah al Bashir, who defected from Assad’s army two year ago.
Free Syrian Army field commanders confirmed that the United States is providing their men with training outside Syria and with weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles.
Any U.S. airstrikes included in the new strategy would have to be closely coordinated with the rebels, who’d have to be capable of fighting on two fronts. And the Americans are looking for operations that are strong enough to weaken the Islamic State without giving undue advantage to Assad’s forces, especially in the eastern city of Aleppo, the country’s financial center and largest city, where U.S.-backed opposition groups have been losing ground to both the Islamic State and the regime.
“Anything we do that reduces the Islamic State’s military capabilities will take pressure off regime forces and there is no getting away from that,” White said. “But you have to say what is the greater threat and what will do the greater good? Taking down the Islamic State’s capabilities appears to be the greater good.”