Obama’s strategy against ISIS looks successful but comes at a high price

Sunday 27/11/2016
A US Air Force airman stands inside a bunker as an incoming mortar alarm is called at a coalition air base in Qayara, some 50km south of Mosul, on October 28th. (AP)

Washington - The offensive against Mo­sul that is designed to rid Iraq of the Islamic State (ISIS) and increasing pressure on the jihadist group in Syria would seem to vindi­cate US President Barack Obama’s strategy of fighting with air power and advisers.

The price, however, of this strat­egy has been a painfully long wait for those suffering under ISIS rule and an unwillingness to intervene in other crises.

Obama entered office as a strong opponent of the Iraq war who was determined to reduce the US mili­tary footprint in the Middle East. Although he was by no means a pacifist, exemplified by his fre­quent use of drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and his initial surge of troops in Afghanistan, he said that an ongoing US military presence in the Middle East did more harm than good.

Controversy still rages in US po­litical circles over what Obama had in mind in Iraq. Administration of­ficials said he wanted to keep a residual US military force in Iraq but, because the Iraqis refused to approve a status-of-forces agree­ment, he had no choice but to with­draw all US troops. His Republican critics, however, insisted that he was so eager to withdraw US troops that he never tried hard enough to obtain an acceptable status-of-forces agreement.

The rapid ISIS advance from eastern Syria into Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014 that not only took large portions of territory in northern and western parts of the country but threatened Baghdad compelled Obama to change course, albeit cautiously. He deployed several thousand US military advisers to help retrain the battered Iraqi Army and undertook air strikes against ISIS targets, the latter with help from European and Arab partners.

This strategy to “degrade and ul­timately defeat” ISIS seems to be a success within the parameters of what Obama aimed to accomplish. The strategy is based on the United States playing a supportive role while Iraqi government forces, Syr­ian Kurdish forces and various trib­al and militia forces take the fight to ISIS on the ground and win back territory. There is a good chance that Iraq will be cleared of ISIS by the end of Obama’s term and that the ISIS caliphate’s capital, Raqqa , in eastern Syria will fall in 2017.

But this slow-and-measured approach — designed to limit US boots on the ground to only ad­visers and a few hundred special forces — has meant that for at least two-and-a-half years, people under ISIS control have suffered terribly. As is well-known, ISIS has execut­ed thousands of people, including Muslims not agreeing with its ver­sion of Islam, destroyed churches and forced Christians to convert or pay a special tax and killed or en­slaved thousands of Yazidis.

The torment of Yazidi women and girls who have been made into sex slaves has been particularly appalling. Their anguish, reported in a recent opinion article in the Washington Post, is such that one of them recently got word to relief workers to tell the United States and its partners that “if you can’t save us, please bomb us. We can’t bear to live.”

The Arab states and the inter­national community, not just the Obama administration, also bear responsibility for tolerating these atrocities for so long. The reluc­tance of all to put a quick end to ISIS’s rule has meant prolonging the anguish of those under ISIS’s occupation.

The other fallout from the success against ISIS has been a US reluctance to engage in related crises in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian war. Although the Obama administration has given billions of dollars to the United Nations for the care of Syrian refugees, it has been reluctant to attack the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad even as they continue to commit atrocities in Aleppo and other cities.

This hands-off strategy is the result of Obama’s desire not to get bogged down in another Middle East quagmire and his apparent belief that another engagement would complicate the anti-ISIS mission by diverting US military assets to fight against Assad. Rus­sia’s military support for the Assad regime has probably made Obama even less likely to intervene mili­tarily.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts has been convening to try to sway the new administration led by Donald Trump to be more willing than Obama to engage and inter­vene in the region. As one former Obama official noted: “There is a widespread perception that not be­ing active enough or recognising the limits of American power has costs” and “so the normal swing is to be more interventionist”.

No one wants a repeat of the Iraq war of 2003 but there is a growing consensus, at least among foreign policy elites, that limited US en­gagement in the region has real downsides — morally and strategi­cally.