8 Problems with Obama’s Plan to Fight ISIS

Many are worried that the United States is about to embark on yet another war in the Middle East with no long-term strategy ISIS massacreand no exit plan. They have every right to be concerned.

ISIS [the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] has successfully goaded the U.S. into engaging them on their own territory through its brutal actions against the local population and two provocative videos showing American journalists being decapitated.

But the U.S. will face enormous difficulties in defeating ISIS. Here are 5 basic problems with President Obama’s recently announced decision to engage ISIS.

1) U.S. military leaders are agreed that this war cannot be won from the air alone; it will have to rely on ground troops. After 13 years of was in Iraq with many thousands of American casualties, the U.S. is extremely hesitant to put American troops back on the ground there. President Obama has flatly stated that he “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

So the fighting will have to be done by local factions that the U.S. equips and trains. That will not be an easy task.

A recent article in the Washington Post summarized the challenge as follows:

In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with convic­tion. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces.

Militia group2) There are hundreds of different factions in this region, each with different ideologies and goals. The fighting forces in this area are a morass of tribal groups and splinter movements with rapidly shifting alliances. Some have ties with extremist groups. All are prone to brutal actions in combat. The U.S. must somehow differentiate between, selectively enlist, then train and equip local “moderate” militias, turning them into an effective ground force against ISIS. That is going to be immensely difficult.

Northern Iraq contains four major groups all in open conflict with each other: the Shi’a-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, various Sunni militias comprising elements of the former Baathist army of Saddam Husain, the radical Sunni ISIS group which some of the former Iraqi generals have joined, and Kurdish militias who are fighting against all the others as they seek political autonomy.

In neighboring Syria, the situation is even more complex with various Sunni groups fighting to overthrow a Sunni government. As was recently reported in the New York Times,

After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad — and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

2) It is not necessarily true that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Many of those who would eagerly take up arms against ISIS are not supportive of American interests. Some local militias in Iraq, for example, once armed by the Americans would, after dealing with ISIS, quickly turn their attention to fighting the U.S.-backed government in Iraq. Others have connections to al-Qaeda-related groups. (Remember, ISIS split off from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda now views ISIS as being too extremist to support.) Potential allies fighting against ISIS may themselves use extremist tactics in pursuing their goals.

Syria-Iraq map3) One must also consider the interests and influence of the two main rival powers in the region: Saudi Arabia and Iran. For decades the U.S. has consistently backed the Sunni-based Saudi kingdom against the expansionist interests of the Shi’a government in Iran. Yet al-Qaeda has consistently received support from conservative elements within the Saudi state (Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists in the 9/11 attacks on America were Saudis) creating problems for both the U.S. and the Saudis. Meanwhile, the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is strongly backed by Iran (and Russia) and the Iraq government under al-Maliki is also strongly pro-Iranian.

5) Weakening ISIS could actually strengthen America’s enemies in the region. ISIS poses the greatest military threat to al-Assad’s rule in Syria. How does the U.S. move to defeat ISIS there without indirectly strengthening the hand of the Syrian government? And how does it arm the Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq to fight ISIS without endangering the Shi’a government there? In addition, how does the U.S. guarantee that the heavy arms and equipment it gives to these forces do not fall into the hands of ISIS, as has already happened in Iraq? It boils down to this: Can the U.S. support a lengthy campaign to defeat ISIS without strengthening the hand of Iran and its allies?

6) The U.S. is pinning its hopes on tactics that have so far proven largely ineffective. President Obama is backing a two-pronged approach of combining limited air strikes with locally backed ground forces. He stated in his address on Sept. 10 that,

This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Yet, as Hayes Brown notes in Think Progress,

[T]his is probably among the least encouraging thing that Obama could possibly say. … After nearly 13 years of using the authority granted to President George W. Bush to destroy al Qaeda in 2001, the United States is still trying to prevent the spread of terror in those countries, making the odds that the fight against ISIS will be a short one extremely low.

A recent article in the New York Times adds that,

The approach — training and arming local fighters — has also not been effective in other arenas, whether Iraq, where the military melted away when ISIS attacked, or in Mali, where forces trained in counterterrorism switched sides to join Islamist fighters.

iraq_isis_bombed_460[7) An air campaign against ISIS will produce only limited results.

Bombing missions against ISIS cannot be used in the cities they occupy without yielding massive civilian casualties. Juan Cole notes that in the Syrian town of Raqqah, which ISIS uses as its headquarters,

Some 80% of Raqqah’s 240,000 inhabitants, i.e. about 190,000 people, are said to have remained after ISIL took over the city, despite its harsh and arbitrary rule. It is inevitable that US and allied bombing on important Raqqah military targets will kill a certain number of civilians.

But ISIL are guerrillas, and they will just fade away into Raqqah’s back alleys … where you can’t bomb them without killing a lot of civilians (and they will video the victims for you).

8) Will the U.S. itself become liable for war crimes?

This final point brings up the sensitive issue of the need to insure immunity from later allegations of war crimes. As Byron York reminds us,

President Obama has always explained that the U.S. left Iraq entirely, instead of leaving a residual force of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 troops, because the Iraqis would not go along with a status-of-forces agreement defining the terms of the American presence in Iraq, including immunity for American troops and contractors. … So what happens when the bombs fall, the rockets are fired, and people, including, inevitably, some innocents, are killed?

Quoting Peter Feaver, a national Security Council official in the Bush administration, York states,

“We appear to be ramping up without a status-of-forces agreement, without the immunity protections the administration said was necessary. What’s the scenario if there is a horrible collateral damage problem that triggers the immunity problem? Things like that happen in war. And one of the reasons the administration didn’t stay behind is that they didn’t think the immunity provisions were strong enough.”

Summing up:

All in all, I have a very bad feeling about the escalating U.S. involvement in this conflict. It will not end quickly or easily. And once ISIS is defeated the militias that that the U.S. has trained and equipped may very well turn to new conflicts that will further destabilize the situation in the Middle East.

As has been observed by many who are critical of the Bush-Cheney interventionist legacy, there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before the U.S. invaded that country. Now al-Qaeda and its militant offshoots have spread throughout the Middle East and anti-U.S. sentiment has increased a thousand fold. The U.S. did not win in Iraq. It instead destabilized the entire region. It is time to consider seriously what we have done before rushing in to do further damage with more naively conceived plans.

Photo credit: EFP Photo/HO