Friday, June 12, 2015

Opposites attract - Why Obama wants one thing with ISIS, and gets the other

When the Obama administration began implementing a plan to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS last year, many people warned of its incoherence. Since then, the group’s expanding reach in Iraq and Syria has only exposed a policy in disarray.

At the heart of Obama’s problems are the myriad constraints he has imposed on his administration’s actions, all creating an ambiguous policy designed to show that the United States is committed to the fight, but not that committed. The ensuing confusion has been frustrating for Washington’s allies and heartening to ISIS, which has exploited the large holes in the Americans’ often-incomprehensible strategy.

Obama’s guidelines for his recent decision to expand the American military presence in Iraq to help train Iraqi forces are a case in point. The president intends to send 450 more troops, but everything about his scheme ensures that, at best, the process of degrading, let alone defeating, ISIS will be slow.

American advisors will be present with Iraqis in their headquarters, but will not deploy near the front lines or be used as spotters for American bombing missions. As the Washington Post put it: “The president’s focus, for now, is on forcing the Iraqis to solve their own problems. He is also determined to keep Americans—who haven’t suffered a single combat casualty in the fight against [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria—out of harm’s way.”  

However, forcing the Iraqis to solve their own problems can come with a price. Because the Iraqi army has proven so incompetent, the fallback mechanism has been to rely on sectarian Shiite militias. These militias are close to Iran, and their expanded role has undermined the authority of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, whom the Obama administration is backing.

That is important because Abadi has gone along with an American project to arm and train a Sunni national guard to fight ISIS—the intention behind the sending of the additional American troops. Yet the Iraqi prime minister has had trouble advancing this due to opposition from Shiite politicians in Baghdad. Indeed, Iran itself is not keen to see Iraq’s Sunnis rearmed, as it could threaten its power in the country.

As a consequence, Abadi’s, and Obama’s, idea to empower Sunnis is faltering. Shiite militias have gained the upper hand, and against its own declared aims the administration has said that the United States would support the “multi-sectarian, popular mobilization” force seeking to retake Ramadi from ISIS.

The convenient use of the word “multi-sectarian” has fooled nobody. The units fighting in Ramadi are in their vast majority Shiite. And the Americans, so keen to rout ISIS, have no choice but to rely on such militias if they want to make any gains against the group. Obama’s actions are leading to outcomes diametrically opposed to those the president says he seeks.

A second Obama condition—that the United States not get involved in the Syrian war—is proving equally tricky. While the president’s reluctance is understandable, given the mess in Syria, it has also highlighted a major shortcoming in his anti-ISIS efforts. ISIS has been adept at shifting men, arms and equipment between the Iraqi and Syrian fronts, so fighting the group in Iraq but only modestly so in Syria makes no sense.

Obama’s only real action in Syria involved defending Kobani. The defeat may have had a negative psychological impact on ISIS and probably caused heavy casualties, but the group soon got over it and moved in other directions. Yet the United States has not done so. The expansion of ISIS into areas of Syria is, at best, being lightly opposed by the Americans today.

As the dynamics in Syria have shifted in recent months, with the Syrian regime losing ground, there have been no adjustments in American behavior toward the country. That whatever happens in Syria will affect the fate of ISIS is inevitable, but until now Washington has not fundamentally altered its conduct in Syria.

The reality is that Obama has so tied American policy in knots to ensure that America remains disengaged in the Middle East, that he has created numerous incompatibilities. The United States wants to be less engaged in Iraq, but is slowly becoming more engaged because its policies have not been working; it wants to reinforce the authority of the Iraqi government and favors Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, but is assisting sectarian Shiite militias that have actively undermined Abadi and national reconciliation; it wants to degrade ISIS, but is pursuing a minimalist approach in Syria that has only helped revitalize it.

Washington may believe that a nuclear accord with Iran will somehow allow it to shift the burden of fighting regional terrorism onto Tehran and its allies. Yet that’s an optimistic reading of the Iranians’ capabilities. They have no interest in taking on the entire Sunni world. Worse, American recognition of Iran’s stakes in the Levant could heighten sectarian tensions even more, allowing the likes of ISIS to gain ground.

A great deal will be determined by what happens in Syria. Amid reports, all unconfirmed, that the Russians and Iranians may be nearing acceptance of an arrangement that could lead to Bashar Assad’s departure from office, there has been talk of Russian-American contacts to reach a political solution. Allegedly, there is still no consensus over what political structure would prevail in a postwar Syria. But a negotiated settlement, if successful, could paper over the very real problems in Obama’s approach. We’re far from that stage yet, unfortunately, and until further notice the Americans will continue to work against themselves.

No comments: