The president can strike the terrorist group from the air but a more permanent solution needs future plans which he won’t be a part of.
Barack Obama plans to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIL but he won’t be around as president by the time the terrorist group breathes its last. Obama’s campaign to destroy the Islamic State will outlast his remaining time in office, for this is a task that will take years before any sort of real success is realised.
Still, Obama apparently wants to lay the groundwork, the foundation for such a venture in the hopes that he will go down as a president who had a plan and a vision. It’s certainly better than being remembered for saying, very recently, that his administration “didn’t have a strategy yet” for countering the Islamic State despite the fact that ISIL is these days the most feared and most dangerous terrorist group on the globe. It also beats Obama’s foreign policy which he said is based on not doing “stupid stuff”.
The stupid stuff seems to be not sending Americans into war after US troops were finally extricated from Iraq and Afghanistan. But in his address on Tuesday, Obama said what he probably never thought he’d say: he now would launch airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq, becoming the fourth US president in succession to militarily attack Iraq.
Albeit the attacks will be launched solely from the safety of the skies, it is nevertheless a huge turnaround for a president who campaigned to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has generally been deeply reluctant to use US military might since he took office in 2009.
This is Obama’s more aggressive posture, not necessarily so scary, but it’s being taken with more in mind than protecting US interests or helping resolve humanitarian disasters. It reflects a new direction for the president.
Obama was certainly encouraged by the formation of what the US sees as a more inclusive government in Iraq under Haider Al-Abadi, the new prime minister. He replaces Nouri Al-Maliki whose outgoing Shia-dominated government of eight years in office, alienated many Sunnis who felt marginalised, a sense of alienation that helped make it easier for ISIL to make dramatic advances in Iraq.
Obama’s other big U-turn was announcing US airstrikes in war-ravaged Syria where the Islamic State has a safe haven. Obama has long avoided taking military action in Syria, concerned about indirectly assisting President Bashar Al-Assad and his government. But Obama has conceded that one reason why ISIL became as powerful as it has was because of the power vacuum in Syria.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in reversing the ISIL tide is preventing it from killing off what remains of the more moderate Syrian opposition to Al-Assad. These groups are now caught between the ISIL and the Syrian army. Supporting the Free Syrian Army earlier might have blunted ISIL but the remnants have fragmented and are deeply resentful of failed Western promises to provide the sort of military aid that would have tipped the military balance.
Present airstrikes against ISIL formations in Iraq are very useful in limiting territorial expansion and are essential to rolling back ISIL because neither Iraqi security forces nor the Peshmerga are capable of taking the offensive as was painfully witnessed when Iraq’s 350,000-strong army was routed in June by a few thousand ISIL fighters.
But in terms of destroying ISIL, the US is not even close. There is a long way to go before real progress against ISIL can be demonstrated. Airstrikes can be used to contain ISIL advances, but not forever. The US military may be able to blunt the advances of ISIL but there is only so much it can accomplish through airstrikes. Any lasting change will have to come through political reform, as evidenced in the new Iraqi make-up, or in rallying a coalition of the willing which US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently trying to do on his current Middle East swing. Kerry is gauging the level of commitment by Arabs to a growing worldwide coalition that is uniting against the Islamic State. He says nations from Canada to Estonia to Kuwait to Australia have already contributed a mix of assistance. The hope is that by including Sunnis, the new administration can win the support of the Sunni population in areas controlled by ISIL and turn them against the radicals.
Obama really does have long-term ambitions to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, he recognises that this is impossible in the near term, and that the best the US can do is lay the groundwork for ISIL’s eventual collapse.
Obama’s job is not to confuse what he can do with ISIL now and what he can do for successor presidents so that they may finish the job. The two are not mutually exclusive but neither are they the same.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.