President Obama’s strategy to degrade IS terrorists is driven more by domestic political concerns than by any sensible Middle East strategy.
Following the killing of a U.S. journalist and a British aid worker by Islamic State (IS) terrorists, President Barack Obama announced with great fanfare that the United States would “lead a broad-based [international] coalition to roll back this terrorist threat”.
Three years after announcing the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq because the job was done, Obama said that the United States would deploy military force against the Islamic State, but without deploying ground forces.
The extent of U.S. involvement on the ground will be 475 U.S. military personnel in non-combat roles to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight IS. Those troops were in addition to 300 advisers dispatched to Iraq in June.
Following the announcement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to several Sunni states in the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to enlist support for the campaign.
Despite the U.S. government’s rhetoric and the largely bipartisan support for it in the United States, the campaign is doomed to fail, unless ground troops are committed.
In light of the fact that Islamic State now has some 30,000 battle-hardened irregular troops on the ground in northern Iraq and Syria, and operates with impunity across wide swathes of both countries, the idea that they can be defeated by Obama without combat forces on the ground is fanciful.
Air strikes will undoubtedly degrade IS’s military force in particular engagements; but this battle will be won on the ground, not from the air, as we have seen in the military campaigns by the Iraqi army to regain the city of Tikrit in northern Iraq, and by Kurds further north.
In neither case did America lead the campaign.
There is deep-seated suspicion of America, and more broadly of the West, in the Arab world. Part of this is cultural, as the U.S. is regarded as the embodiment of the secular culture of Hollywood.
Further, Sunni states such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia blame the U.S. for overthrowing the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and installing a Shiite government which is closely aligned with Iran, their bitter religious rival.
For their part, the Shiites blame the United States for the decades-long isolation of Iran, as well as U.S. demands for the overthrow of the pro-Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Enlisting the nominal “support” of Sunni Muslim states — or some of them — in a battle against IS is meaningless, given that they also will not be deploying military forces against IS.
The idea that the United States can “lead” a campaign in the Middle East to defeat the IS without ground forces is, in the words of Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock, a “moonbeam from the larger lunacy”. There are other issues.
The Sunni tribes of northern Iraq were instrumental in defeating al Qaeda terrorists after 2007, after they had been promised autonomy and self-government.
Their leaders consider they were betrayed by both the U.S. and the Shiite government of Nouri al Maliki, the latter having been installed in 2006 with U.S. support. Al Maliki proceeded to run a highly sectarian government, which provoked rage among Sunnis, by deploying Shiite militias in Sunni territory in Iraq.
Leaders of the Sunni tribal groups who are vital to the defeat of Islamic State have said they would never trust America or the Iraqi government again, and they are currently co-operating with IS.
Other Sunnis have demanded that the coalition government of Iraq give the defence ministry to a Sunni — a most unlikely scenario, in light of the fact that Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, used the armed forces to overthrow the civilian government in Iraq in 1968, and to seize total power in 1979.
Across the border in Syria, the Sunni Muslims have long opposed the Shia-aligned government of Bashar al Assad, and, after the Arab Spring, joined the military effort to overthrow him, backed by Turkey and the West. They also are co-operating with IS.
As a result of the polarisation of the Syrian war, which has cost an estimated 200,000 lives over the past three years, it is almost impossible to identify anyone in the military wing of the Syrian National Council who trusts the U.S. and is trusted by them.
Paradoxically, President Obama may unwittingly be helping President Assad to defeat the rebels.
While Obama’s current plan makes no sense, militarily or strategically, it makes sense in the U.S. political context.
Obama, who currently suffers from record low popularity, and is seen as a weak President internationally, may be trying to save his party from electoral oblivion in the November congressional elections.
Meanwhile, after the monumental failures to protect civilians from genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, the United Nations and the international community have a responsibility to protect Iraq’s minorites from the IS, just as they did in 2011 when they bombed Libyan forces that had been attacking civilians.
Developing a strategy to that end is going to be very difficult.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council