In a televised address to the American people on Wednesday night President Obama outlined his grand strategy to combat ISIS. How comprehensive a strategy is it and what does it mean both for the region and those countries, like the UK, willing to partner the US in implementing the strategy?
The strategy comprises 4 pillars: a systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS; increased support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground; a substantial counter terrorism effort to cut of ISIS’s funding and to counter its warped ideology; continued humanitarian assistance to protect innocent victims.
The US President recognises then that the campaign against ISIS is likely to proceed in stages over a period of time and will involve a range of kinetic and non-kinetic instruments.
The strategy’s objective far exceeds that which Obama has previously set out. In his statement of 7 August Obama explained that the decision to launch air strikes against ISIS had 2 operational objectives: protecting US personnel and facilities and preventing a potential act of genocide.
Obama’s justification for this new overarching objective rests less on the threat that ISIS poses to the US and more on the danger that it poses to the people in the Middle East. Obama accepts, however, that if left unchecked ISIS might over time become a threat to the US and its allies.
This assessment that is not necessarily shared by some within his own administration or indeed for that matter analysts and pundits across Europe who are quick to argue that ISIS pose a serious threat to everything that we stand for. The competing understandings of the risk presented by ISIS needs to be teased out further.
As with his statement of 7 August, Obama’s statement of 10 September went to great lengths to make the case that “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqi’s what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. And that’s why I’ve insisted that additional US action be dependent on Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”
No one will mourn the departure of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, but it is far too soon to think that the appointment of Haider al-Abadio will lead to a government in Iraq that is both inclusive and functional. All too often inclusive government in Iraq entails carving up government ministries between a tiny elite drawn from each ethnicity and sect.
Further consideration also needs to be given to how the intensification of military action might impact disaffected and marginalised Sunni communities in Iraq? Will military action cement or alleviate the drivers of the conflict?
The deep sectarian divisions within Iraq are not lost on Obama and explains why he places such a premium on developing a broad regional alliance against ISIS. It remains uncertain, however, whether even such an inclusive coalition against ISIS will be sufficient to challenge the perception on the Arab street that this is just another western intervention.
A lot depends here on the division of responsibilities within the coalition for taking this strategy forward. The drawing together to date of 37 countries from Albania to Saudi Arabia sounds impressive, but if it is only the US undertaking airstrikes with others providing humanitarian aid or supplying arms from afar then this strategy is likely to run into the buffers prett quickly.
Doubts also exist as to whether Obama will be able to maintain such a diverse coalition over the long-term. The emerging coalition appears united in its fear of ISIS, but the coalition might come unstuck when ISIS is in retreat, but not yet defeated.
By setting the objective of destroying ISIS, Obama has widened the theatre of operation from Iraq to Syria. The strategy rightly recognises the transnational character of ISIS, but it is short on details of how the fight against ISIS will be taken forward in Syria and the time frame over which this will be pursued?
Will the campaign in Syria be sequential or concurrent to the effort in Iraq? Is the intent to degrade ISIS in Iraq before moving to destroy it in Syria?
This ambiguity is understandable given the decidedly more complex environment any coalition of the willing faces in Syria. In his address on Wednesday, Obama rules out working with the Assad regime in combating ISIS in favour of strengthening the opposition as the best counterweight to ISIS while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.
All this sounds fine and dandy, but – as Obama acknowledged in an earlier interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times some weeks back – the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”
It’s hard to know what has changed in the last 2 weeks to change this assessment. Is there a danger of allowing our fear of ISIS to over ride our better judgment that has so far held that the situation on the ground in Syria is so murky that risks of arming a volatile and fragmented far outweigh the potential benefits?
Obama’s emphasis on finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria is welcome and remains the best long-term strategy of defeating ISIS, but the failures of Geneva II earlier in the year underline how wicked and intractable the conflict in Syria has become. The diplomatic fall out between the West and Russia over Ukraine adds a further layer of complexity that ward against a diplomatic solution.
To be fair to Obama, the televised address to his fellow Americans was a public relations exercise. The aim was to reassure a public worried both by the ISIS threat and the fear that the US might find itself embroiled alone in another conflict in the Middle East with all that it might entail in terms of boots on the ground. Despite its billing this was never going to be a speech that was high on detail, but at some point someone needs to do just that.
What does all this mean for the UK?
Of the strategy’s four pillars the last 2 are probably least problematic politically for the UK. On the humanitarian side, the UK has so far provided £23 million of aid, while it led on the effort to secure a strong UN Security Council resolution to disrupt ISIL’s financing flows. In both these areas it is likely the UK will want to continue to play a proactive role.
The UK is also playing a role supporting forces fighting ISIS on the ground. As with opposition groups in Syria, this support in Iraq has taken the form of providing non-lethal equipment.
The question will arise, however whether the UK should move to provide lethal equipment as well? This might be less problematic in Iraq – where the Peshmerga forces are a more cohesive unit – than in Syria, but it will still need close public scrutiny to ensure that any assistance does not contravene the government’s own ethical criteria that underpins its arms transfer regime.
More problematic for the UK is the question of whether it should take part in the systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS? There will be some MPs who will want to make amends for last year’s Parliamentary decision against military action in Syria, but there will be others who, while supportive of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, will be more cautious about extending air strikes to Syria. No 10’s rebuke of the Foreign Secretary’s comments yesterday ruling out British airstrikes in Syria indicates that this tension runs deep throughout Government.
And yet, still others will be resistant to any military involvement even in Iraq, on the grounds that each time the UK, and others, have intervened in that country over the last 30 years it has generally left the country worse off. Why military action this time around will be any more successful than in the past is an uncomfortable question, but one that still needs answering.
The body of questions that arise then when debating whether Britain should commit to airstrikes against Iraq aren’t just political or strategic, but deeply ethical. It is important that they get raised in the debate. We can’t allow the horrors committed by ISIS to lead us blindly into using military force without first thinking through the appropriate checks and balances as to its use.
Similarly, we shouldn’t allow the terms of the debate to be narrowly drawn. We need to look at how the use of military force fits in with the overarching strategy and whether this strategy is itself coherent.
At present the lack of any detail makes it very difficult to have an informed debate and to reach a reasoned positioned on how best to proceed.