President Barack Obama sounded confident about his multi-pronged strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
He said the United States would bomb the extremists whether in Iraq or Syria, train local partners to conduct the mop-up effort on the ground, expand humanitarian aid to suffering communities and work closely with allies to prevent attacks on Western targets.
So, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, according to longtime observers of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Below are some potential pitfalls to Obama’s campaign against the Islamic State, as gleaned from interviews, analysis, social media postings and other commentary by foreign policy specialists who focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
Using Yemen and Somalia as success stories
Obama cited Yemen and Somalia as precedents for the kind of air-focused campaign he envisions to rout the Islamic State. But neither conflict has dealt a death blow to its intended target; they might even have strengthened the al Qaida affiliates.
In Yemen, at least three key figures have been killed, but al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s senior leadership is largely intact and still appears capable of carrying out sophisticated, deadly attacks. In fact, the group has seen significant growth in the past three years, expanding from longtime desert bastions to more populated areas south of the capital, Sanaa.
In Somalia, the United States spent more than five years and close to $2 billion to fight al Qaida’s al Shabaab affiliate through the training and equipping of African Union and Somali government troops, and the Somali fighters are nowhere near as sophisticated and deep-pocketed as the Islamic State. But the group remains dangerous: Shabaab’s rampage through an upscale shopping mall in Kenya – the group’s deadliest attack on a Western target outside of Somalia – occurred after the group was weakened inside Somalia.
Touting the new Iraqi government as “inclusive”
Both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have praised the new Iraqi government as inclusive or representative – code words that amount to “more power for Sunni Muslims,” the minority sect whose marginalization by Shiite leaders only helped the Islamic State gain a foothold. Iraq observers caution that it’s still too early to slap labels on the government; so far there are fewer Sunnis in Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s cabinet than in the previous administration. Neither the defense minister nor the interior minister has been appointed.
Training local fighters in Iraq and Syria
The Obama administration has acknowledged that training a foreign force is difficult and risky, as evidenced by the vast American arsenal the Islamic State amassed after overwhelming U.S.-trained Iraqi forces that crumbled when tested.
For Iraq, Obama pledged more support for Kurdish militiamen, pro-government fighters and a new National Guard-style force that he suggested would be primarily Sunni. Each recipient of the U.S. largesse is problematic.
The Kurds have used Iraq’s crisis to expand their northern autonomous region and make big oil plays without Baghdad’s consent; there’s no guarantee that any training they receive would go toward keeping Iraq intact and sovereign. At the moment, the pro-government forces are mainly Iranian-backed Shiite militias. And it’s hard to imagine Shiite leaders swallowing the creation of a Sunni armed group that one day could challenge them for sectarian supremacy.
In Syria, it’s still unclear which “opposition” Obama means. He made no mention of the Free Syrian Army or the Supreme Military Command, two previous groups the U.S. government said it was equipping. Analysts say there’s no quick way to recruit, vet and train a rebel force in Syria; any such endeavor would take years and is no guarantee of success, as the United States saw with the collapse of its trainees in Iraq. And the U.S. won’t work with the two existing forces – the Syrian army and Kurdish rebels in the north – that could challenge the Islamic State.
So there’s still a huge question as to which power will seize control when and if the United States strikes the Islamic State inside Syria. Even the prospect of airstrikes raises questions: Administration officials said they have been authorized, but they also cautioned that they won’t take place anytime soon.
Pursuing political solution in Syria
Obama was adamant that there’s no room for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his anti-Islamic State coalition. He promised to boost U.S. support for the Syria opposition, despite its failure to coalesce into viable entities on either the military or political fronts, and to revisit a plan for a negotiated solution to the crisis.
But the goal of a peaceful transfer of power has defied international diplomacy since the early days of the war, and circumstances haven’t changed enough on the ground to believe that this time would yield more success. Indeed, for the United States, one of the unwelcome realities of this campaign is that weakening the Islamic State is only likely to strengthen the Assad regime.
Foreign fighters and funding
The U.S. plan calls for enlisting Arab allies, especially Persian Gulf powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to crack down on the flow of fighters and funds to the Islamic State. Here, the fighter pipeline issue might be better addressed with Turkey, whose borders are the key entry point for jihadists, and have been for years. And the idea that foreign donors “created” the Islamic State overlooks the remarkable self-sufficiency of the extremists, who’ve built a corporation-style management team, boast a diversified portfolio with revenues from stolen oil and kidnapping ransoms, and are adept at harnessing the Internet for propaganda that helps recruiting and donations.