In his mercifully brief address to the nation about ISIS, President Obama assured Americans that the military action he has in mind will differ from the action we took under President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those campaigns, we used U.S. ground troops. In the upcoming campaign, we will not, relying instead on Iraqi forces and Kurds in Iraq and the Free Syrian Army in Syria.
While some may find Obama’s distinction reassuring, we should not forget that the action President Bush took in Iraq and Afghanistan accomplished its primary mission. Saddam Hussein’s forces were routed and his regime fell. The Taliban was routed and its regime fell.
Obama says his mission against ISIS is intended to achieve a similar goal — the degradation and destruction of that outfit. Will it succeed, absent the commitment of U.S. ground forces? There is plenty of reason to doubt that it will.
Let’s start with Iraq. There, the boots on the ground will be supplied, Obama hopes, by Kurds and the Iraq government. Are these forces, supported by the U.S. from the air, capable of destroying ISIS or, alternatively, driving it out of Iraq?
There is little reason to believe they are. It took a substantial U.S. troop commitment to drive al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s earlier incarnation, out of Anbar province in 2007. And al Qaeda in Iraq was a smaller, less battle hardened, and less well-armed force than ISIS.
Syria seems even more problematic. There, Obama will rely not on a regular army (as in Iraq), but on a group that just last month he ridiculed as a collection of former doctors, farmers, and pharmacists.
Actually, the Free Syrian Army did not deserve that level of ridicule. Its core, as I understand it, consists of former elements of Assad’s army.
Nonetheless, Obama may well have been right when, in the same remarks, he described as “fantasy” the idea that this force, even if armed with sophisticated U.S. weapons, could prevail in the Syrian civil war.
Keep in mind first that the Free Syrian Army exists to fight the Assad regime, not to serve as a U.S. proxy force against ISIS. Second, by all accounts the Free Syrian Army has steadily lost strength and influence thanks in part to Obama’s failure, for years, to support it.
Will the provision of U.S. arms and air support at this late date reverse this trend? Possibly.
But will the reversal be dramatic enough to enable the Free Syrian to fight off Assad forces (backed by Hezbollah and Iran) and degrade and defeat ISIS? Doubtful. I fear that we’ll be lucky if the weapons we supply don’t fall into the hands of ISIS and/or other forces hostile to our interests.
Speaking of Assad, does Obama plan to use air power against his regime if necessary to protect the Free Syrian Army and keep it viable as our proxy in the fight against ISIS? I don’t know. Perhaps Obama hopes to make a side deal with Assad and Iran to protect the Free Syrian Army in exchange for its giving up the fight against Assad.
Or maybe Obama has no strategy to deal with this contingency.
More broadly, we are left to wonder how real Obama’s campaign against ISIS actually will be. Will Obama actively work to keep his proxy forces, such as they are, engaged in the fight against ISIS? Does he have a Plan B? Or was Obama simply checking a few boxes tonight in the hope of stopping the political bleeding his presidency and his Party is experiencing?
I don’t know. I was not reassured, however, when Obama, compared his strategy for dealing with ISIS to the one he has employed in Yemen and Somalia. For one thing, as I argued here, ISIS is not analogous to the terrorists we are dealing with in Yemen and Somalia. Beyond that, the U.S. hasn’t destroyed the terrorists in those two countries. In fact, things seem to be going rather badly in Yemen.
At best, then, we have a president who, though finally taking ISIS seriously, has failed to devise a fully serious strategy. At worst, we have a president who still doesn’t take ISIS very seriously except as a matter of domestic politics.