Barack Obama announced on September 10th the new US counter-terrorism strategy against the Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL), the Sunni radical group that has gained territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
As Talking Points Memo put it, he is the fourth consecutive American president to deliver a prime time speech to the nation about Iraq. All of them, to announce military actions.
The strategy to degrade and “ultimately, defeat” ISIS involves a few critical elements. First, a dramatic expansion of the bombing campaign in northern Iraq to the rest of the country and Syria. Second, the provision of support, training and weapons to local allies (mainly the Iraqi Army, Kurdish troops and selected Syrian rebels). Third, the creation of an international coalition against ISIS to provide legitimacy to the effort. And all this, while avoiding direct US military engagement (no boots on the ground) and alliances with Iran and Syria.
The current US Administration has undergone a rapid evolution in strategic thinking about ISIS, driven by their territorial gains including control of Fallujah and Mosul, and the establishment of a Caliphate on June 29. Violence against civilians and the beheading of American journalists (massively propagated through social media) may have added urgency.
This video by Vox explains ISIS “in Obama’s own words: from a joke to war in 9 months.”
This is the territory controlled by –or with substantial presence of- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by September 10th, according to the Institute for the Study of War:
The discourse might have been carefully calibrated but contradictions emerge as a result.
Spencer Ackerman, of The Guardian, has done an amazing work in his annotated version of the speech. Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment, attributes discourse variation to internal politics: “He went back and forth between trying to reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party that he had not suddenly been possessed by the ghost of Dick Cheney and assuring the skittish American people that he was going to make mincemeat of the terrorist American beheaders.”
But there is more involved than the rhetoric. The references to Yemen and Somalia as successful examples of the kind of campaign coming out are legitimate causes of concern. The use of drones to carry on targeted killings of group leaders “has not defeated Al Qaeda but strengthened it”, says Rosa Meneses in El Mundo.
Absent again is a comprehensive political strategy. Phyllis Bennis suggested this week six steps short of war to address the problem posed by IS. The pre-condition is attention to the political and social factors that enabled the rise of this movement, particularly the fate of the Iraqi Sunnis after the 2003 invasion and the subsequent political turmoil and sectarian violence.
Mariano Aguirre, director of NOREF, stated in El País that a pact among Iraqi actors for decentralization and protection of minorities, negotiated with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, is as important as difficult to achieve.
This points to another deep problem: the allies. John Kerry has already visited Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in his effort to build support for a coordinated campaign.
Saudi Arabia has allowed the training of Syrian rebel forces opposed to ISIS in its territory. But apart from the democracy and human rights record, this country has had a prominent role in funding jihadist groups for years, if not decades. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
Last March, a resolution of the European Parliament called this country to improve control over funding of radical militant groups abroad (including Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others) and reclaimed a halt to any financial, military and political support of extremist groups in Syria.
This is hard language for a strategic ally.
Of course, we could also mention Egypt, or Bahrain.
Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent and author of The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, points to a non-existent American institutional or national semantic memory when it comes to this region. Remember Lebanon 1983? Remember Gaddafi? “All these forces of evil being vanquished over and over again, and then – bingo – there’s another force of evil to vanquish.” Or, in his words, confronting the greatest crisis in the Middle East since the last greatest crisis in the Middle East.
Will we ever see a US President announcing a truly different strategy?
This is the whole video in case you missed it.