Obama has spent much of his term withdrawing the US from quagmires abroad. But now, in the battle against Islamic State extremists, he has a war of his own. His plan of attack, though, is filled with uncertainties and America’s ultimate goal remains unclear.
The City of Rabbits. That is the bucolic alias once attached to the Syrian town of Marea. But it is no longer in use. Now, one of the most important frontlines in the war in northern Syria runs through the town. Some 5,000 rebels have established themselves in the potato fields surrounding Marea in an effort to stop Islamic State jihadists from continuing their advance on Aleppo.
Thus far, they have been successful — thanks largely to assistance from the US. In Marea, an American-supported rebel command center coordinates the rebels’ defense. The entire front is divided into sectors, which are each under the control of a single group. They have names like “Defenders of the Faith,” “Islamic Front” and “Nureddin Senki Brigade” and are fairly obscure. Even so, they now have satellite images, ammunition for Kalashnikovs and larger caliber weapons, night-vision devices and provisions. A few anti-tank rockets also arrived a few months ago.
All of the materiel was provided to the fighters by the US. The CIA has established a military operations center in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli which it uses to support Syrian rebels. Those given a green rating by the CIA receive both arms and a salary. Those coded yellow receive help but no weapons. Those marked red receive nothing. Nine groups with a total of around 10,000 fighters are now said to be operating north of Aleppo to stop the march of the Islamic State.
Witnesses who have visited the operations center and who work with the US. have described a curious alliance — the cast of characters ranges from bearded Islamists to defected army officers. The fighters aren’t radical. They aren’t exactly secular either. Above all, they aren’t corrupt; they are disciplined and capable.
Waiting for Air Strikes
“We are holding our lines, but we aren’t going to attack,” says one of the Syrian rebel commanders who just came to Turkey for two days. The fighters have plenty of arms and ammunition, he said, but also have a fear of the Islamic State and its extreme brutality. “To advance against the Islamic State, we need heavy weaponry, artillery and rocket launchers.” He says that the Americans need to provide Syrian fighters with the kind of weapons that the Islamic State has been able to plunder from the Iraqi army. “We are now waiting for US airstrikes,” the commander says. “Nothing will happen before that.”
On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, US President Barack Obama announced that such airstrikes were on the way, in a speech that was designed to demonstrate America’s power and determination. Standing in the White House, the president informed his fellow Americans of a war against the Islamic State that could take years to achieve its goals. The appearance marked a complete reversal for Obama. He is now no longer the president who only brings wars to an end; he has now become a war president himself. As Obama announced the operation’s aim, he sounded eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush, his predecessor: “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL,” Obama said, using one of the many acronyms used to refer to the Islamic State.
For Obama, there is something almost tragic about this moment. A rapid withdrawal from Iraq was once one of his central campaign promises, and now he is in danger of leaving his successor a country deeply mired in an intransigent conflict not unlike the ones he inherited from Bush.
That speech marked the moment Obama gave up on his “lead from behind” doctrine, which imagined a superpower pulling the strings backstage rather leading the charge. The about-face became necessary in part because of the West’s earlier hesitation to get involved in the Syrian civil war, a delay which allowed the jihadists to gain strength.
The risks associated with the new operation, which Obama has sought to sell as an anti-terrorism campaign, are immense. And important questions remain unanswered. What, for example, does Obama seek to achieve? Is the US only interested in the destruction of the terror group to prevent it from being able to carry out possible terror strikes in the US? Or is Washington also tempted by regime change in Syria?
The bombs, after all, won’t be targeting the cause of the Islamic State’s rise — Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is leading a destructive war in his effort to cling to power. Attacking the Islamic State helps Assad, but it also, more than anything, helps rebel groups in Syria.
“Nobody knows what our strategy really looks like in Syria,” says former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. “The strategy in Iraq is clearly a military one, with the Iraqi army as a partner. In Syria, it sounds like a counterterrorism mission like those in Yemen and Somalia.” In those places, though, drone attacks have done little to weaken Islamist groups. On the contrary. And experts agree that airstrikes are not enough to destroy a well-organized pseudo-army like the one belonging to the Islamic State.
The Assad Question
It also remains unclear how the US intends to fly bombing raids in Syria without cooperating with Assad’s regime. In Iraq, the government explicitly requested American assistance, but Obama has ruled out working together with the Syrian government. Assad maintains effective anti-aircraft systems, though Pollack believes that Assad would not fire at US fighters and drones. “The last thing that Assad wants is an additional fight with the US,” he says. But it isn’t a certainty.
Russia has been vociferous in its criticism of Obama’s plans, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying in a statement that airstrikes would be “an act of aggression” and that such a step, “in absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be … a gross violation of international law” and would further increase tensions.
Should it come under attack, the US may then feel forced to destroy Syrian airports, fighter jets and anti-aircraft batteries, which would end Syrian control of airspace over large areas now under rebel control. Assad’s Syria would shrink to a small strip from Damascus to the coast.
It is more likely that the Assad regime will silently tolerate US airstrikes. Indeed, Western diplomats and intelligence personnel in southern Turkey say that the US has been secretly negotiating with Damascus in recent weeks in the hopes of getting the green light for air raids.
Damascus is eager to win the US as an ally. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has said that any airstrikes must be carefully coordinated — though there are large differences between Washington and Damascus’s notions of who exactly the enemy is.
Rebels Caught in the Middle
When Islamic State fighters began shelling rebel-controlled Marea from three sides in August, the Syrian air force flew several air raids. But their bombs didn’t hit the Islamic State. They instead struck exactly the rebels that are receiving support from the US.
Yassir al-Haji, head of the political opposition in Marea, says two girls died in the town late last week, one after being struck by an Islamic State tank shell and the other as a result of a regime airstrike. “Both sides are shooting at us. Assad’s air force is flying sorties against us every day. At the same time, more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters are just five kilometers away — and are not being bombed,” Haji says.
The Islamic State was long a useful enemy for the regime in Damascus, with the jihadist group’s brutality making Assad look like the lesser of two evils. Indeed, the Syrian air force refrained from attacking Islamist State positions at all until mid-June. In return, the Islamists focused their fight on other opposition groups — and financed themselves through oil deals with Damascus. Both Assad and the Islamic State were apparently trying to use each other.
Rise of the Islamic State
But suddenly, the Islamic State became much more powerful than expected. The CIA recently estimated that the group may have as many as 30,000 fighters. Since the jihadists began attacking regime positions in the east, the Syrian air force has been attacking them there. But only there.
The Islamic State is like a parasite and has taken advantage of the weaknesses displayed by its hosts, Syria and Iraq. The terror group is not only made up of fanatics, but also of strategists who prefer eye-catching brutalities to staging provocative attacks in the West. Indeed, this dearth of large-scale attacks abroad led many experts to believe until recently that the Islamic State didn’t play in the terrorist big leagues. In January, even Barack Obama compared the group to a high-school’s second-tier (“JV”) basketball team. What they all missed was that the Islamic State had turned al-Qaeda’s concept on its head: Instead of starting off with global terror, the Islamic State was first focusing on conquering territory from which to operate.
In early August, though, Islamic State leaders made a crucial mistake that set off a chain reaction: They attacked the Yazidi and Christian communities in northern Iraq. The fate of the minority groups was greeted with international outrage, and led the US to bomb Islamic State positions in Iraq — a development the jihadists had seemingly not expected.
The terrorists then beheaded two American journalists in an effort to intimidate the United States. This, too, was not a clever move: Since mid-June, popular US approval for military operations against IS has skyrocketed, with almost three quarters of Americans now in favor. Suddenly, the Islamic State is confronted with a significant opponent.
The Islamic State is made vulnerable by the fact that it behaves like an army instead of a terror organization; captured Humvees, artillery pieces and tanks are clearly identifiable military targets. Many of them have been destroyed by the over 150 sorties thus far flown in Iraq by the US. The Islamic State is much more difficult to fight in urban areas and no cities controlled by the group have been retaken yet.
‘Enemies of America’
It is still difficult to predict the effect the American air attacks will have in Syria. Much will depend on who exactly they will be targeting. If Washington adheres to its terror list, it will also have to attack the al-Nusra Front, whose leader once pledged his loyalty to al-Qaida. Nusra’s fighters are almost all Syrians — and most are embittered enemies of the Islamic State. “An attack on Nusra would be the biggest favor that Washington could do to the Islamic State,” warns one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Syrian opposition. “It would turn many Sunnis into enemies of America.”
More than anything, though, the US need local support, given that Obama is reluctant to send ground troops. But the Syrian opposition has been worn down by fighting a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State and is disillusioned about the West due to its apathy. Thousands of rebels have died while others have fled from the country with their families. The Free Syrian Army has fallen apart, old brigades have been dissolved and new ones have been founded under different names. The rich Syrian exiles that have long financed the opposition are cash-strapped after years of war, leading many fighters to cross over to Nusra or the Islamic State.
If Obama wants to convince the Syrians that he is serious, he will also have to present a political strategy. This would mean abandoning the course it has followed thus far — that of trying to force both sides to come to a negotiated solution. The secret negotiations in Switzerland earlier this year did succeed in bringing them closer together, but the talks fell apart over one crucial point: Assad’s hold on power. A best-case scenario would see Washington’s new strategy result in a decisive breakthrough.
But the operation’s success will be especially dependent on the “Coalition of the Willing” that Obama is now currently assembling. France’s President Francois Hollande declared himself ready this past Friday to attack targets in Iraq from the air. British Prime Minister David Cameron has not fundamentally ruled out military participation in Syria. Only the German government doesn’t want to get directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State. “But the last thing that the US wants is a new crusade of the West in the Middle East,” says Brookings expert Kenneth Pollack. “The coalition against the Islamic State needs to be regionally anchored.”
It is precisely this alliance that Washington has formed in the past weeks — an alliance that, until recently, nobody would have thought possible: between the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. They are to block the Islamic State’s flow of money, allow the use of military bases, control borders and provide humanitarian assistance. Even Iran supports the offensive against the Islamic State — even though it is simultaneously helping Assad. The Saudis, meanwhile, want to topple Assad and destroy the Islamic State — but doesn’t want to support their Shiite archenemies in Iraq. And crucially Turkey, the country through which most Jihadists make their way to Syria and Iraq, is not on-board.
It will soon become clear the degree to which the world is prepared to follow the US. The war in the Middle East will be a central topic at the UN General Assembly in September. Obama will give another keynote address and lead the meeting of the Security Council. Should he receive Security Council backing, it would mark a significant foreign policy success.
His strategy could also help Democrats in seven weeks, when Congressional elections are held. Even Newt Gingrich, a Republican detractor of the president’s, was impressed last week. “This speech,” he said, “is the most explicit pro-American speech he ever made.”