Is Obama About to Recalibrate His War with ISIS?
The coalition war against ISIS that Obama trumpeted has not gone well so far. More than 60 days into the air war against ISIS, the brutal deranged criminal gang continues to advance.
While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the ragtag rebel band that constitutes ISIS is winning the war to expand its caliphate, it would be fair to suggest that the Western and Arabian allies are losing it.
In Syria, near the Turkish border, Kurdish residents of the town of Ain Arab ( Kobane )fear that they will be massacred by advancing ISIS fighters. A three week siege of the town by ISIS forces has resulted in a softening of Kurdish defenses, and some fear that the town could fall at any moment. As this analysis being prepared, Reports say that ISIS is inside many neighborhoods of the city and the fighting has turned into a building-to-building battle. “A terrible slaughter is coming,” said a Kurdish intelligence official in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours.” The official added that the scale of the coming massacre would be worse than that which may have befallen Iraq’s Yazidi minority if the United States had not intervened in the conflict in Iraq when they did.
Perhaps most dispiriting, the coalition air campaign designed to halt ISIS’s advance on that Turkish border town has been utterly fruitless. In fact, many have criticized the US air offensive for being only marginal effective despite the publicity given to it by the Obama Administration. For instance, last weekend, CNN reported that, “allied airstrikes destroyed two ISIS tanks, a bulldozer and another ISIS vehicle.” That will hardly stop ISIS.
An American financial newspaper, Investors Business Daily noted, “We’re sending expensive high-tech fighters to fire laser-guided weapons at solitary bulldozers. This is beyond pathetic.” They recommended using heavier air assets like the American bomber fleet, noting “Even a single B-52 might have done more to “degrade and destroy” advancing ISIS forces in one pass than we have accomplished since Obama’s anemic air campaign began.”
The result is that Obama’s “offensive” is receiving considerable criticism from political allies and opponents. Former Obama Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his new book has roundly criticized Obama’s war in Iraq and Syria, which led to the rise of ISIS. In the book, he called Obama frustrated and having given up on leading the nation or the world. In an interview with USA Today, Panetta said it was Obama’s failure to pursue an obtainable status of forces agreement with Iraq that “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed.”
Panetta also said Obama “lost his way” by failing to arm the Syrian rebels and enforce his own “red line” threat to respond to Bashar al-Assad if to use chemical weapons against his own people. All too often, Panetta writes, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities,” painting a portrait of a president who has a hard time making up his mind.
The Washington Post, which has been previously more supportive of Obama’s Syrian strategy asked this week, “Why can’t the U.S.-led coalition prevent a ragtag insurgent army from overrunning large towns? The answers speak to the limitations imposed on the military campaign by President Obama…In contrast with the successful 2002 air campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. pilots cannot rely on Special Forces spotters to identify targets. Mr. Obama has ruled out such ground personnel despite requests from military commanders.”
Criticism also came from Obama’s opponent in 2008 – Senator John McCain – a former Navy fighter pilot, who has experience in carrying out air strikes in combat situation. “There’s going to be a mass slaughter” if Kobani falls to the Islamic State, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. “There will be no greater indication of the ineffectiveness and fecklessness of the air campaign we’re now seeing.”
Obama is also faced with the ISIS advance on Baghdad. ISIS forces are so close that they may be able to soon close the Baghdad airport with artillery fire. In fact, American concerns about the fall of Baghdad are so great that the State Department earlier this week had to reassure Americans that a mortar attack alert in the Green Zone was a false alarm.
ISIS advances in Iraq aren’t just limited to Baghdad. ISIS forces have struck and captured targets in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the town of Heet on the Euphrates. The insurgent army has reportedly begun to lay siege to areas surrounding the provincial capital of Ramadi.
The failure of the American air war in Iraq is also a serious problem for American forces. The United States made a tacit admission of the air campaign’s failure on Monday when the Pentagon conceded that they had introduced Apache attack helicopters into Iraq where they struck ISIS mortar teams near Fallujah. The Apaches will allow U.S. military planners more flexibility, but they will also expose troops to the dangers of ISIS ground fire. Faced with strategic failures across the board, the United States is inching ever closer to introducing some version of “boots on the ground.”
A Readjustment in Strategy?
Obama’s trip to the Pentagon on Wednesday for briefings indicates that there may be some changes to the ISIS strategy in the near future.
Up until now, Obama has focused on doing the minimum in the region – primarily focusing on action only when it impacts his political popularity in the US. For instance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met in May with American diplomats and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, asking the U.S. for the ability to strike ISIL using drones. If that wasn’t doable, Maliki said he’d approve U.S. drone or airstrikes. However, the plan was ignored by the Obama Administration, which didn’t see any political gain to acting.
However, mixed signals coming from the Administration may indicate that Obama may finally be willing to modify his policy somewhat.
However, the State Department has refused to move from the current position. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that preventing the fall of the Syrian town of Kobane to Islamic State fighters was not a strategic U.S. objective.
“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani … you have to step back and understand the strategic objective…Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command and control centers, the infrastructure,” he said. “We are trying to deprive them (ISIS) of the overall ability to wage this, not just in Kobani but throughout Syria and into Iraq.”
Kerry however, did indicate some American flexibility – especially in creating a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. In an unenthusiastic tone he said, “The buffer zone is an idea that has been out there. It is worth examining, it’s worth looking at very, very closely.”
This is a case where America’s NATO allies may have to push Obama, since they are more supportive of the idea. France said on Wednesday it supported the idea of setting up a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria to create a safe haven for displaced people, President Francois Hollande’s office said after he spoke to his Turkish counterpart.
Britain’s Foreign Minister Hammond was also in favor is the strategy, saying it deserved close study. “The idea of a buffer zone is one that has been floated. We have to explore with our other allies and partners what is meant by a buffer zone and how such a concept would work, but I certainly wouldn’t want to rule it out at this stage.”
Although Obama is not anxious to stop ISIS at Kobane, the political and strategic reality may force his hand. Kobane would be a big prize for ISIS. Its capture would be of great symbolic value, showing that ISIS is still maintaining their momentum, and would confirm their creeping dominance along a great portion of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The questions facing Obama are: what sort of strategy will stop ISIS and is he willing to execute it? Obama has tried to rely upon others providing the “boots on the ground.” However, that strategy is looking more and more unlikely.
It is clear that training indigenous forces to counter ISIS will not be a quick solution. In fact, coalition commanders insist that the Iraqi Army will not be in a position to serve as an effective fighting force for quite some time.
The New York Times reported earlier this week, “The American official coordinating the international coalition fighting the Islamic State said on Friday that the Iraqi military would not be ready for a campaign to retake Mosul, the largest Iraqi city under insurgent control, for as much as a year,”
“The broad timeline given by the official, retired Gen. John R. Allen, seemed to reflect the immense challenges facing the Iraqi military command and its international partners,” The Times continued.
That report indicates that the operation aimed at retaking the city of over half a million would begin before this year is out, but implicit in his admission that the Iraqi Army will be unable to finish the job the coalition starts in Mosul alone for another 12 months, which suggests that this will be a long war.
Finding, training, and arming Syrian “moderate” forces will not be any easier. On Wednesday, the Pentagon spokesman conceded that the process of vetting moderate Syrian rebel groups who will eventually serve as the “boots on the ground” has not even begun. That vetting merely the first step in creating a fighting force which planners estimate will need to be 15,000 strong in order to roll back ISIS in Syria. Exfiltrating them, training them, equipping them, and reintroducing them back into Syria will take at least one year before any tangible gains against ISIS will be made.
The other force in the region that can provide sufficient ground forces is Turkey. However, it appears that internal Turkish politics and the foreign policy of Turkish President Erdogan, are preventing Turkey’s massive army from responding.
As mentioned in last week’s Monitor Analysis, the overriding goals of the US and Turkey are very different in regards to Syria. Turkey has made it clear that it wants the end of the Assad regime, while keeping Turkey’s Kurdish population under control. The US, however, is willing to forgo the downfall of Assad in return for the “degradation” of ISIS. The US is also more willing to accept Kurdish independence, especially since Kurdish forces in Iraq are willing allies against ISIS.
Turkey’s Erdogan has made it clear that he wants a buffer zone in place and a no-fly zone over Syria before he commits ground forces to the battle. He also wants Washington’s support to defeat Assad. In the meantime, he is willing to stand by and see a degradation of Turko-Kurdish forces in Kolbane.
The Obama administration sees this more as an excuse. They note that round-the-clock air raids by the US effectively make the air over Kolbane a no-fly zone for the Syrian Air Force. “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border,” a senior administration official told the New York Times. “After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe.
“This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticizing an ally.
Despite criticism about not acting, Turkey is joining in the effort to fight ISIS financially. Illicit petroleum production from ISIS controlled oil fields have been interdicted in Turkey, which will hurt the ability of the insurgent gang to buy munitions and spare parts for their captured heavy equipment.
Turkey, in the meantime, is facing some internal turmoil because of its refusal to support rebels in Kolbane. Turkish Kurds represent a large minority in turkey and Kurds in the southeast are protesting the government’s limited response. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara that 19 people were killed and 145 wounded in riots across Turkey. A curfew was imposed in Mardin, Siirt, Batman and Van, according to Hurriyet newspaper.
At the same time, however, the Turkish Lira is under pressure as investors are concerned that Turkey may intervene militarily in Syria. Given the economic problems in Turkey, Erdogan may decide that inaction may offer better economic rewards for himself and his political allies than military action.
However, Turkey is the keystone of the anti-ISIS alliance. It has the largest and best equipped army in the region. It also borders key battleground areas and offers considerable logistical advantages for supporting allies in both Iraq and Syria. Without its active participation, the rest of the coalition is mainly limited to air strikes and some ground support via special forces. No major ground effort would be forthcoming.
These are the facts that are driving a reassessment of Obama’s ISIS strategy. American voters disapprove of his policy towards ISIS and the recent beheading of an American in Oklahoma has brought the threat home. If he is to salvage his last two years as president, he needs to lay out a plan that at least “degrades” ISIS so it is no longer a threat to American allies in the region or a domestic terrorist threat in the US.
If there is to be an effective ground component to take advantage of the air war, Obama must either consent to a larger US force presence or accede to Turkish demands. Given Obama’s reluctance to commit American forces, the likelihood is that eventually Obama will make some compromise with Turkey that would include some buffer zone, some sort of limited no-fly zone, and greater willingness to counter Assad rule seeking his removal.
By refusing to commit US ground forces to the conflict and relying on Turkish forces (who have a clear agenda contrary to the American one) and untrained indigenous forces, this strategy will guarantee that the conflict will be a long one and one that will not necessarily turn out the way America wants it.
The Rise of Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group: What It Means for U.S. National Security
By James Phillips
October 6, 2014
Issue Brief #4281
The air strikes against Islamist terrorist groups in Syria that the U.S. launched on September 22 included strikes against a group that few Americans had heard about before: the Khorasan group. Although sometimes mistakenly characterized as a new terrorist group, Khorasan is a new tentacle of an old organization—the al-Qaeda high-command or core group. The rise of the Khorasan group underscores that al-Qaeda’s core remains a dangerous threat, and that it has grown stronger by feeding off the corpses of failed states and by recruiting foreign fighters. To defeat al-Qaeda, Washington must address the regional trends that gave rise to Khorasan, not merely target the group itself.
Strategic Partnership in the Middle East: Respecting Our Arab Allies, Realism About Ourselves
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 9, 2014
It is easy to talk about a U.S. strategy based on strategic partnership and coalitions. It is far more difficult, however, to make such efforts work. This is particularly true when the U.S. fails to honestly address its own problems and mistakes, minimizes the costs and risks involved, and exaggerates criticism of its allies. Strategic partnerships need to be forged on the basis of an honest understanding of the differences between the partners, respect, and mutual tolerance of their different needs and limitations. Some of the recent U.S. criticism of its Arab allies is justified, but much of it is exaggerated, makes sweeping generalizations, and ignores the differences between the values, priorities, and strategic interests of the U.S. and each Arab ally. At the same time, there is a false equity in U.S. criticism of allies like Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – not to mention another key regional ally, Turkey.
Iran’s Rocket and Missile Forces and Strategic Options
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 6, 2014
Iran’s rocket and missile forces serves a wide range of Iranian strategic objectives. Iran’s forces range from relatively short-range artillery rockets that support its ground forces and limit the need for close air support to long-range missiles that can reach any target in the region, as well as the development of booster systems that might give Iran the ability to strike at targets throughout Europe and even in the US. Iran’s rocket and missile forces are steadily evolving. While the lethality of most current systems is limited by a reliance on conventional warheads, poor accuracy, and uncertain reliability, Iran is developing improved guidance systems, attempting to improve the lethality of its conventional warheads, and has at least studied arming its missiles with nuclear warheads.
The European Union Must Face the Islamic State
By Marc Pierini
October 2, 2014
Diplomatic missions, think tanks, and the media are rife with analyses of the Islamic State. Assessments of how to deal with the jihadist group range from “wait and see” to “degrade and destroy,” and there are even mundane controversies about whether the entity should be called the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or Da’esh (the movement’s Arabic acronym)—even though these names carry almost identical meanings. The bottom line is that the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which has now taken hold in large parts of Iraq and Syria, is posing unprecedented challenges to the Western community of nations. The group is a particular threat to European states. To cope with those aspects of the situation that are specific to Europe, EU leaders must focus their efforts on five key areas: counterterrorism cooperation, the interruption of financial flows to the Islamic State, humanitarian assistance, political dialogue, and long-term policy reforms.
International Relations in a Time of Accelerating Dynamic Instability
By Lawrence Husick
Foreign Policy Research Institute
What do the rise of the “Islamic State,” the ebola epidemic, and widespread political polarization and gridlock have in common? Is it possible to understand these disparate phenomena in ways that inform and guide our reactions to them, and our planning for future events that may arise from the same conditions? If, as FPRI’s founder, Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé, liked to say, “a nation must think before it acts,” about what should the United States be thinking in times of domestic turmoil and accelerating international instability? The seeming breakdown of the Westphalian international order and emergence of differently governed regions such as those in Western North Africa, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and the “Islamic State” that now occupies the Syria-Iraq border is viewed as a continuing source of threat to the international community. More than just artifacts of a post-World War I line-drawing blunder by the European colonial powers that ignored, and in many cases exacerbated old tribal divisions, some of these new insurgencies seem to appear from nothing, emerging in a blink from the quantum vacuum of ungovernable expanses of territory. In still other cases, however, instability takes root in the dense urban centers of states with weak governments and especially in those states lacking in functioning organs of civil society (e.g., Somalia). None of this is new, nor is it unexpected.
We Bomb ISIL: Then What?
By Marina Ottaway
Military action in Iraq and Syria is moving ahead without a political strategy to accompany it. Although the administration argues that defeating ISIL requires the formation of inclusive governments, neither Iraq nor Syria has such government. The absence of a real political strategy will undermine any military success.
Turkey and the Battle for Kobane
By Soner Cagaptay
October 8, 2014
In the past week, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) launched another major offensive against the Kurdish-declared canton of Kobane (a.k.a. Ain al-Arab) in northern Syria. The group is now threatening to overrun this area, which is controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish faction affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant Turkish group. In response, the United States has launched airstrikes against ISIS military assets around Kobane. Yet Turkey, which nominally joined the U.S.-led coalition against the group on September 5, has been watching the battle from the sidelines. Ankara is also refusing to allow PKK members to cross into Syria to prevent Kobane’s fall.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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