Building a Strategy — With Caution
WASHINGTON — The United States imprudently rushed into war in Iraq in 2003. At least nobody can make that criticism this time around.
The administration is moving cautiously to fulfill President Obama’s promise to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Yes, Obama does seem to have a strategy, and it gets pretty good marks from allies abroad. But many components aren’t ready yet, and some aren’t fully conceptualized.
Obama’s decision-making on Iraq and Syria has been the policy equivalent of the wariness that Abraham Lincoln famously characterized, in referring to Gen. George McClellan, as “the slows.” Obama still worries about the potential costs of getting it wrong; he needs to focus more on getting it right, including building political support at home.
Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism adviser, Thursday described the Islamic State as a “hybrid,” at once a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. Though its “indiscriminate violence” threatens the Middle East and Americans in the region, she said there was “no credible information” that it was plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland — yet.
So how does the administration propose to take down this adversary? The basic strategy is sensible: Work through partners and allies, and have them do
It’s a sensible strategy but a hard one to implement. The first phase is getting Iraq to agree on an inclusive new government. The Iraqis’ official deadline for government formation is next week, but the U.S. wants them to agree on a basic program — decentralization and reform of the military, oil-revenue sharing, rollback of some harsh de-Baathification rules — before the Cabinet portfolios are allocated. That’s properly putting the horse before the cart.
Let’s assume the Iraqis do the previously unimaginable and form a coherent government. The U.S. strategy assumes that the Iraqi army — which collapsed so disastrously in Mosul in June — will be rebuilt along regional lines, with Sunni-dominated units (drawn from tribal fighters) taking the fight to the Islamic State in the north and west, joined by Kurdish pesh merga fighters and Shiite brigades — all loosely coordinated under a new Iraqi defense ministry.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has opened a quiet back channel to Iran to “deconflict” potential clashes as both countries use air power to attack Islamic State targets. That’s sensible policy, and maybe the start of broader liaison discussions.
Phase two of the administration’s strategy is gathering allies in the region to encourage Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State. The three key partners so far have been Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Each country has hosted meetings with Iraqi tribal leaders in recent weeks. “We reached out to the Iraqis and said, ‘We’re prepared to open a new chapter with you,'” explains one key Gulf Arab official.
The trickiest part of the strategy involves Syria. Some in the administration are urging that the U.S. bomb the logistical and training centers in Syria that are the Islamic State’s safe havens. Those attacks are probably coming, but U.S. officials want to be sure that once America bombs inside Syria, moderate fighters from the Free Syrian Army will be ready to fill the vacuum.
The CIA has covertly trained more than 4,000 Free Syrian Army fighters already, and could increase that number quickly. The U.S. also plans overt training of 10,000 or more Syrians in a stabilization force that can control the areas Islamic State extremists have been forced to abandon.
Will this strategy work? I was encouraged by comments from Sheik Ahmad al-Jarba, a former head of the Syrian opposition and now head of its anti-Islamic State operations. In an interview, he agreed with the administration that airstrikes in Syria “won’t be effective unless they strengthen the fighters on the ground.” He said he has 4,000 FSA operatives in northern Syria, working with about the same number of Syrian tribal fighters. He says he’s coordinating operations with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
“Most Syrians believe that ISIS is crazy,” he said of the group that advertises its savage beheadings. “We Syrians do not accept this cancer within our body.”
Obama’s slowly emerging strategy against the Islamic State will succeed to the extent that Jarba and thousands of other decent Syrians and Iraqis follow through on that pledge.