Obama’s Anti-ISIS Strategy Hits Stumbling Blocks

by Wayne White

As it attempts to hammer out a coalition to combat the Islamic State (IS, ISIL or ISIS), the Obama administration is encountering a variety of complications. More strident calls from certain domestic political quarters for broader US intervention threaten to undermine the overall effort, and potentially increase the danger to Americans. The iffy response of many regional and other allies to US requests for meaningful military participation could also harm US efforts. At this point, a clear vision of the situation even a few months from now is impossible to predict.

Some American politicians seem to be implying that ISIS could be confronted in a manner that would involve practically no threat to the “homeland,” such as by committing far larger US forces. That would not be true under any scenario. Indeed, the harder US forces hit ISIS, the more its assets in the region and acolytes far beyond would likely attempt to exact revenge.

Yet, even with all that in mind, no attempt has been made from Congressional hawks to put the ISIS threat at home in perspective. Americans have vastly more to fear every day, for example, from the ongoing epidemic of violent crime and traffic fatalities than ISIS.

Perhaps the wildest comment so far amidst hyperventilating in Washington came from Senator Lindsey Graham on Sept 13: “This is ISIL versus mankind,” he said. “It’s going to take an army [ours] to beat an army.” He also urged President Obama to put combat troops into Iraq and Syria “before we all get killed back here at home.”

ISIS is appallingly barbaric, but the Senator’s comment implies that ISIS could kill millions of Americans as if it had suddenly inherited a sizeable nuclear arsenal. Moreover, the desire to commit US combat troops en masse as crisis firemen probably rests on the delusion that prior robust US military intervention in Iraq was a thumping success.

Ironically, if Sen. Graham’s prime concern is American lives, sending large numbers of US combat troops into battle against ISIS would result in quite a few American fatalities. Even the 1600 US non-combat troops in Iraq now could become victims of ISIS suicide bombings that occur regularly throughout that country. Nonetheless, ISIS still poses a far greater threat to nearby Middle East countries than it does to Europe or the US.

Adverse Effects

The more US allies inside and outside the Middle East get the impression that Washington will increase its military support, the less incentive they will have to bear more of the military burden. In Iraq itself, the more the US does, the less the new Shi’a-dominated government might feel it has to do to woo back Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. And many Sunni Arabs might not make deals with Baghdad if they could do so with US ground forces instead (as they did during the so-called “Awakening”). So, saber-rattling along the lines that the US might commit far more military assets could do more damage to the anti-ISIS cause and long-term stability than to ISIS.

That is why US Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey’s comment on Capitol Hill on Sept. 16 regarding the prospect of greater involvement of US “advisors” on the frontlines against ISIS also serves to muddy the waters. He admitted that President Obama has left open the possibility of employing US troops in more exposed combat-related roles on a “case by case basis.” The White House, however, later stated that no US combat troops would be deployed to Iraq or Syria.

Coalition Foot-Dragging

The last thing Washington needs is more trouble in extracting commitments for concrete military action from its allies. There have been statements that a number of allies—including those in the region—are prepared to participate militarily. Most of these assertions, however, have stopped short, perhaps ominously, of specifics. In the region, especially among Sunni states closest to Iraq and Syria, no less than four concerns have produced widespread reluctance to become involved directly and militarily.

First, these countries fear military operations against ISIS (even limited military cooperation, as in basing) would make them high profile targets for retaliation from the group (as well as its sympathizers among their own populations). Turkey’s refusal to base coalition aircraft was a serious setback. Then there is the desire to avoid conflict with fellow Sunnis, regardless of how wayward they have become. Making confrontation with Sunnis that much more dicey would be doing so alongside a Shi’a-dominated, partially Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.

Lastly, based on its appalling past track record under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, there are doubts whether the Iraqi government under new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will offer full inclusion to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Parallel fears exist concerning Iraqi Shi’a militia excesses during an anti-ISIS ground campaign; some already have occurred.

Meanwhile, exposing its iffy ability to chart a more enlightened course, the Abadi government’s defense and interior ministry nominees were once again rejected Sept. 16 by an Iraqi parliament still riven by sectarian and factional differences. This leaves the cabinet’s two premier national security posts in limbo.

European allies also have concerns much like their regional counterparts over making themselves more inviting targets for ISIS terrorism by signing up for greater military cooperation with the US. Memories of large-scale 2004-05 extremist attacks in London and Madrid in retaliation for European participation in US-led military intervention in Iraq remain painful. Aside from grisly beheadings of Western prisoners, there have been online threats of ISIS retaliation in response to allied military cooperation with the US against ISIS.

Even in the United States there can be no genuine political consensus on how to respond to the ISIS threat in the politically heated environment close to November’s Congressional elections. Views range from leaving the mess entirely to Iraqis, Syrians and neighboring countries to calls for massive US intervention along the lines suggested by Senator Graham. Furthermore, broad international coalitions are notoriously unwieldy, and the one now being assembled by the US is shaping up to be no different. At this point, no one is in a position to predict the situation in the region affected by the ISIS challenge a few months from now with any certainty—let alone several years down the road.

Photo: President Barack Obama talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to congratulate him and the Iraqi people on the approval of a new Iraqi government during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 8, 2014. Credit: White House/Pete Souza)

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. What would happen if the U.S. stated flatly, that it was with drawing from the M.E. and every other posts that U.S. Military troops are in? Perhaps that might get others attention. I suppose that all the neocons and their sycophants could go in place of the military, but then, like the coalition of the missing, they would be too. As or the comment of of ISIS suddenly inherited a sizable nuclear arsenal, he should be careful what he says. One might think that this scenario is already planned?

  2. Many years ago St Thomas Aquinas wrote: The same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time. Politicians use this contradictory rhetoric all the time. Prez Hussein has lined up 10 autocratic Sunni Arab countries in this endeavor. On one hand they affirm their support of US foreign policy in the Middle east, on the other hand, they will deny , more or less, that that they are in fact offering money, aid and comfort to Sunni terrorists in the region, It is common knowledge that the autocrats are playing with both sides trying to keep their power in place. It is common knowledge in the Arab regions for speakers to look into the pupil of their opponent’s eyes to see if they are lying. The other side in this conflict is Shiite, Iran, Syria, and Hesbellah of Palestine. Who is most trustworthy? Iran, Syria, Palestine on Shiite side, on the other side, the Sunni GCC autocrats led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and U S, majority Christian and Israel, Jewish majority with five denominations, make up the triangle of conflict, the threesome. With friends like this who needs any enemies?
    Has anyone noticed that media and congress have not advocated a WAR TAX to pay for this humanitarian intervention in the Middle east?

  3. Obama is just buying time in Syria. What he wishes for is that the Syrian Army aided by Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Shia fighters weaken ISIS and flush it to Iraq. There they would be dealt with by the US bombing, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga. That would allow Obama to skip the bombing of Syria which is prone to many complications.
    As for ‘training and arming’ the rebels, Obama knows very well that until the ‘moderate Syrian rebels’ are vetted and trained ( and surely brainwashed by Wahhabi mullahs) many months will pass. That gives “carte blanche” and ample time for the Syrian army to intensify its attacks indiscriminately on ISIS and the rebels under the flag of the “war against terrorism”.
    In addition we are seen a major shift in the countries that have been supporting the rebels in Syria
    Smart Qatar has just denied to Merkel that it funds any terrorist group in the Middle East. Tureky have been doing that too. It seems that now that the USA is proposing to fund, train and arms the rebels in Saudi Arabia, Qatar andTurkey have decided to withdraw from funding these groups and are rebuilding a new “virginity” to continue doing business in Europe and in the Arab world. They are well inspired as the situation in Syria is turning in favor of Bashar al Assad and they prefer to leave Saudi Arabia and the USA take the responsibility of the failure.
    Saudi Arabia is now the single serious partner of the USA both of the war against ISIS and the war against the Syrian government.
    With the looming failure of the US strategy in Syria, Saudi Arabia will come out weaker and humiliated and that’s what Qatar and Turkey are hoping for. Qatar and Turkey could again promote the Moslem Brotherhood re-branded as a new ‘Moslem moderate’ political group to make a deal with the Alawites in Syria, thus discarding Saudi Arabia.
    What you see is NOT what you get

  4. I think Obama should abandon his notion of overthrowing the Syrian government.

  5. James

    I think he already did. The plan voted by the Congress is to get the “vetted” Syrian rebels trained and armed to fight ISIS and not the Syrian government. They may end up fighting along the Syrian army. This implies that the USA believes that the Syrian government is here to stay.

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