No new US strategy in sight to deal with ISIS
Washington - Poor American foreign policy: It is on crutches at a time when the world is looking to Washington to sprint into action against the Islamic State (ISIS), which recently scored big victories in Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.
The 60-country, US-led coalition to defeat ISIS is being called a failure and Washington is under strong pressure to change course. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s May 31st bicycle accident in Geneva left him with a broken leg and did not make things better for the coalition or the administration.
Kerry’s accident came two days before a scheduled meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition in Paris. In his place, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to represent the United States at the talks, which were intended to take stock of what happened in Ramadi and Palmyra “with the idea of taking those actions necessary for the implementation of the strategy so it will be successful”, according to US Marine Corps General John Allen, special presidential envoy for the coalition, who spoke with France 24.
Influential voices in Washington are calling on the administration to adopt a new strategy, especially in Syria. Jeffrey White, defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that the Assad “regime’s short- and even long-term prospects seem dim”. He disagrees with the administration’s contention that there is no military solution in Syria. “In fact,” White said, “such a solution is emerging.”
White, who worked for more than 30 years for the US Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted that “some combination of the regime’s armed opponents will likely win — that is, drive the regime out of existence or perhaps into a Hezbollah-protected rump state on the Mediterranean coast”. But, he added, “eventually, the regime’s opponents could move to destroy this rump state, which would likely be unstable and unviable.”
Another report by the Washington Institute, written by former US officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations, warned that the Middle East state system risks collapse and that it is in the US interest to prevent this. The report cites two principal external threats to the system — ISIS and Iran — and calls for a comprehensive strategy to confront both.
The former officials counselled that the military option alone cannot defeat ISIS and that the United States needs to push back against Iran, whose “strategic view of the region is fundamentally at odds with ours”.
The authors — former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, former deputy secretary of state Samuel Berger, former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, former presidential envoy Dennis Ross and Washington Institute executive-director Robert Satloff — called for a “change in American policy towards Syria” and proposed creation of “a different kind of a safe haven inside Syria” to shelter refugees and give the opposition political and military credibility inside the country.
Others, however, like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, see “only two ways to control the downward spiral” of the region. The first is “if an outside power totally occupies them”, and the second is “just wait for the fires to burn themselves out”.
Since the United States “cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals”, Friedman prescribed a policy of “containment plus amplification”, combining help to “those who manifest the will to contain ISIS, like Jordan, Lebanon, UAE and the Iraqi Kurds” with amplifying “any constructive things that groups in Yemen, Libya or Syria are ready to do with their power”. But Friedman warns: “We must not substitute our power for theirs. This has to be their fight for their future.”
The White House is not showing signs that it will change course and downplayed the recent defeats. US President Barack Obama called them a “tactical setback” and said, “if the Iraqis are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do it for them.”
Allen, however, told French TV that Ramadi was “in fact, a defeat”. But he added, “Strategies are about long-term objectives, [and] the question is whether we need to change the ultimate objectives of the strategy and we are not there now”.
Allen counselled patience: “We need to take this in stride… This is a long strategy and we’re still relatively early in this strategy.”
This echoed what Obama said in an interview in April: “We are eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multi-year campaign.”
While the US administration sees a process that may go on for years, people in the region are reeling from the extremist groups’ brutality and their threat to the basic fabric of Arab society.
But Obama has been clear from the beginning that he will not fight other people’s battles and that his priorities are ending America’s wars and halting proliferation in the region.
In the April interview, Obama explicitly tied his legacy to the Iran deal and not to winning the war against ISIS.
“Look,” he said, “20 years from now, I am still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this.”
The president has never spoken like this on issues related to the Arab world or the upheavals that are engulfing it. So the administration’s strategy is on track: It is a long trip and all that is needed is patience.