Some Fights Are Right: Obama’s IS Strategy


Barack Obama has received criticism for his recent expansion of strikes against IS to include Syria. On the far left are those who object outright to liberal intervention, while on the right of the spectrum Senator Rand Paul labelled him a ‘neo-con’. However despite his perceived hesitancy, Obama’s strategy looks set to hit a sweet spot between reckless and cautious that is grounded in sound principles and is the best reasonable response to the current threat posed by IS.

IS are the closest the 21st century has to the Nazi’s- fundamentally motivated, exceptionally violent and on a quest that is their downfall before it has even begun. Their so called caliphate has no precedent in history. Killing Shia as easily as they behead innocent westerners or massacre Yazidi Iraqis, the group’s strategy is founded on brutality, with no room for any form of tolerance or compromise, to the point where they have drawn condemnation from Al-Qaeda. Mass murder of civilians and trafficking of women for as sex slaves are par for the course with IS . This incarnation of radical Islam is now the richest terrorist organization in history.  It has also shown itself to be a master of cinematic and striking (and ironically western style) media campaigns in a way that Al-Qaeda never was, making it the most hot brand of radical Islam. The stunning videos are a draw for young radicals of fighting age as well as rich benefactors who may be sympathetic to their cause, and is possibly the greatest threat posed by IS. However despite capturing swathes of Iraqi and Syrian cities (and open desert), the groups has united even larger swathes of the world against it through its actions. General consensus already exists. This includes almost every parliament and head of state in the world, as well as mainstream Muslim groups in western countries (see the “Not in my name” campaign if you feel like blaming regular Muslims).

It is this unity wherein lies the inherent soundness of the Obama strategy. Obama and John Kerry have centred their strategy on creating and supporting a more inclusive Iraqi government. This approach stands the best possible chance of success if adhered to. A truly inclusive Iraqi government which can get the Northern Sunni tribes on their side will stand a better chance than any other option. These northern Sunni tribes were the ones who were previously mistreated by the Shia dominated government, and in some cases gave their fellow Sunni members of IS a cautious welcome in their initial advance. However signs show that they have already worn out their stay and the excessive violence has turned these tribes against them. Other countries from across the globe are also vying to get in on the act, most recently Australia and an alliance of Gulf States. Local actors, unified and determined, with the backing of US airpower have halted the advances of IS and will continue to reverse them. This alliance of local and global actors will provide a multilateral political edge for a United States tarnished by unilateral action in this region. Such a recipe is the one with the highest likelihood of success.

Obama has emphasised that there will be no US ‘boots on the ground’, a popular statement but unlikely to be strictly true. It is likely that US Special Forces are operating on the ground in Iraq and possibly Syria already. Such forces can be used successfully in secret operations such as hostage rescue and high value target kill or capture missions. While some will wheel out the Black Hawk Down argument, the current members of the US special operations forces have the experience of thousands of successful raids similar to the Bin Laden raid, just without the media coverage. Such missions have already been conducted in Syria and have not caused uproar. Neither will they in future as long as they are limited, and only supplementary to the main effort by local forces.

The claim by some that the infamous beheading videos are intended to draw the US into another war are untrue. This argument was demolished by Robin Simcox in Foreign Affairs recently when he highlighted the fact that the surge in Iraq almost pushed the early incarnation of IS out of existence, from a force numbering several thousand to several hundred. The absence of the US since the pull out of Iraq is exactly what allowed them to swell to their current strength. Their videos are designed to test the resolve of western people for another war, as well as to draw support from sympathisers.

This cautious line taken by Obama is the most rational action to take. Although some are hesitant about another US ‘invasion’, the simple fact of the matter is some fights are worth fighting. As long as Obama and Kerry don’t deviate from this strategy of political victory in tandem with military victory, IS will be defeated. It will take a number of years, as Obama has made clear, and will probably roll on for the next administration to finish. The disaster of the Iraq invasion from 2003 is not a reason for inaction. This strategy is not comparable to the misguided 2003 invasion, but abstaining from involvement would be more comparable to a Rwanda scenario. While there will undoubtedly be setbacks on the road ahead, Obama has headed the US off in the right direction and is now charged with sticking to it.

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