Updated: September 12, 2014 12:05:26 am
In his address to the American people on Wednesday night, Barack Obama made a nuanced case for expanded military operations in Iraq and Syria to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). He carefully avoided portraying the danger to the US as immediate and pledged that no ground troops would be committed to either country. He tried to stanch concerns of mission creep and promised that America would lead a “broad coalition” comprising European, Arab and Muslim countries, instead of going it alone. Yet Obama’s predicament is striking: he finds himself back in the Middle East, a warzone he spent much of his first term leaving.
The strategy significantly expands the bombing campaign already under way in northern Iraq, where Kurdish soldiers and the Iraqi army have managed to reverse some of the IS’s gains. This limited success seems to be the lynchpin of Obama’s anti-IS plan: encourage competent local allies to launch ground offensives that will be backed by “systematic” US airstrikes. The US will also strike Syria, along the Iraqi border for now, to cut-off the IS’s supply lines, but presumably eventually across all of Syria. Of course, such efforts are complicated by the fact that America has no allies on the ground there, and Obama has rightly insisted that “we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorises its people”. The US president also stressed the importance of international buy-in for his plan, and it is especially vital that predominantly Sunni nations, which may have played an important role in the IS’s rise, get involved so that the campaign is not seen as an American war, or a sectarian one. So far, only Saudi Arabia has signed on, but Turkey’s participation is crucial.
In recent months, Obama’s foreign-policy cautiousness has come under sharp criticism, not just from the Republican party but also from his aides. When not bemoaning his alleged weakness in the face of Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine, they have disparaged his handling of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Now, with US public opinion galvanised by the gruesome beheadings of two American journalists and the spectre of a rogue army of insurgents acquiring more weapons, territory and even personnel, Obama had to be seen to be acting to protect American interests. But the obstacles to success, even for a strategy as apparently reasonable as this, are immense.
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