You could be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu these past months at the barrage of dire pronouncements on the urgent threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes substituting “Levant” for “Syria” for ISIL). Flashback to 2003 and the overwrought nonsense we heard in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
Only then we had an administration that was leading the charge for war and mounting a campaign of misinformation and exaggeration to bamboozle Americans into supporting an invasion; now, ironically, we have a president who has been trying, with limited success, to proceed with caution and calm deliberation in the face of overheated rhetoric and fear mongering not merely from right-wing politicians and pundits, but from the mainstream media; a loud and constant clamoring for a strategy to defeat ISIS not only in Iraq where, arguably, we bear some responsibility given our ties to the country, but also in Syria.
Obama recognizes, as so many of his detractors seem not to, that Syria in particular represents a veritable minefield of challenges in a region where, on balance, we have done more harm than good by our interventions in the last two decades. In fact the very existence of ISIS can be traced to the bloody aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq.
To intervene in Iraq is one thing, and the Obama administration has made a good start by maneuvering Maliki out of office (using the threat of ISIS and the prospect of US military aid as leverage) and using airpower to assist the Kurds in the north and secure certain strategic objectives such as the Mosul dam.
But airpower alone cannot take back the areas currently occupied by ISIS and it will likely take 1-2 years to build up the confidence and military readiness of the Iraqi army so it won’t crumble like Swiss cheese during any campaign to take back Anbar and the north of Iraq from ISIS. A prerequisite to ultimate success will also require an alliance with the Sunni tribes whom Maliki succeeded all too well in alienating to the point where, in 2014, they shrugged off any loyalty to the Iraqi state and stood by while ISIS humiliated the latter’s army.
This part of Obama’s strategy (which contrary to the braying of Fox News and the mainstream Sunday talk show hosts and their guests, was always clear) makes perfect sense; his decision to cave to the pressure and intervene in Syria, much less so.
Syria is a chaotic mess but, for once in the Middle East, we had nothing to do with it. There were sound reasons for not getting involved and the success of ISIS in rising from the chaos doesn’t alter that fact.
The truth is that ISIS is not a direct threat to the US in the short to medium term and probably beyond. Unlike al-Qaida (which Obama has eviscerated during his tenure) the focus of ISIS has never been on the US but on creating a Sunni-dominated caliphate in the Middle East. It’s a threat to Middle East stability, no question, but not specifically to us, Senator Lindsey Graham’s dire warnings notwithstanding (that guy really needs to take his anxiety meds).
Obama was castigated for not having a strategy for Syria but that was actually a good thing since the choices are all bad. Bombing ISIS will have limited effect and is just as likely to help Assad as hurt ISIS; finding let alone training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels to be the ground component is tough and there’s no guarantee they’ll fight ISIS rather than Assad; and hands up everyone who wants to see US ground forces in Syria as do Senators McCain and Graham.
Obama’s initial instincts appear to have been to fight ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria. He should have stuck with them.