Obama: Can his plan save the Levant?

Will Obama’s new multilateral strategy against the Islamic State group turn the tide of the conflict

Unlike last year's aborted Syria intervention, the president appears to have the backing of Congress and the US public, writes Denselow [Reuters]

Tonight, US President Barack Obama will announce the latest chapter of US military intervention in the Middle East. The president is a reluctant interventionist with his foreign policy to date defined by caution and an attempt to distance himself from the conflicts started by his predecessor. However, the dramatic rise of the self-styled Islamic State group, which the world woke up to in June when they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has forced his hand.

The Mount Sinjar crisis, which raised real concerns that the Kurdistan Region could fall, and the horrific executions of US journalists are all milestones in the run-up to the new strategy Obama will announce to the American people on prime-time tonight from Washington.

Unlike last year’s aborted Syria intervention, the president appears to have the backing of Congress and the US public. Polling this week showed that 71 percent of all Americans support airstrikes in Iraq – up from 54 percent three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Obama has the lowest personal ratings in his entire presidency and last month candidly admitted that the US didn’t have an Islamic State strategy. 

‘The gates of hell’

Tonight’s speech will provide clarity on what Obama’s “offensive” against the Islamic State group will look like. The rhetoric has already been set with Obama describing the group as a “cancer” and Vice President Joe Biden promising to take them to “the gates of hell“. Briefings ahead of the announcement speak of a three-year conflict that recognises that the Islamic State group operates across borders but could initially focus on the battle for Iraq.

The US has already conducted over 140 airstrikes in Iraq since early August and has hundreds of military advisors on the ground (presumably not wearing boots). There is no coincidence that Obama’s speech is timed to follow a new Iraqi government being announced on September 8, despite not having defence or interior ministers, which is a bit like launching a car with critical components absent.

The US military can now reinforce both the Iraqi and Kurdish forces and act as the “stick” to the “carrot” of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi’s new inclusive mode of governance to entice the Sunni population away from the Islamic State group.

Obama’s strategy is based on a credible theory that the new Iraqi government will have legitimacy born of its national power-sharing formula and will be strengthened by having the might of a fully engaged US administration behind it, through acting as the new government’s air force, as provider of satellite intelligence, logistical support and arms supply. On September 9, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that £1.6 million ($2.6 million) worth of arms was being provided to Kurdish forces, others will follow.

Extra pressure

However, the new US strategy will place huge amounts of extra pressure on an Iraqi body politic that has been characterised by inertia and infighting over the past 11 years. The key question is whether Abbadi’s new and incomplete cabinet can cope with the challenges that the country faces. Entrenched constitutional issues like federalism, resource sharing and ethnic-sectarian reconciliation have been time and time again kicked down the road without resolution. The Kurds are now demanding that a deal be reached within three months and with the Islamic State group very much alive and kicking, Abbadi has a vast job on his hands.

The Syria conundrum is perhaps where Obama’s new strategy will have to be at its most creative as the US has previously lacked both a political strategy and reliable proxies on the ground to support.

Meanwhile, the Syria conundrum is perhaps where Obama’s new strategy will have to be at its most creative as the US has previously lacked both a political strategy and reliable proxies on the ground to support.

Whereas the Iraq side of the strategy may be seen as more a classic counterinsurgency that seeks to protect and reinforce the Iraqi state and the Kurdish statelet, the Syrian dimension may be more akin to a counter-terrorism approach along the lines of Yemen and northern Pakistan – but crucially, without Washington working with the Assad regime in Damascus.

US drones have reportedly already been spotted over Raqqa and an announcement that Obama feels he has the authority to attack Islamic State group targets in Syria may be part of tonight’s speech.

If the Iraq phase of the strategy is successful – and remember that defeating the Islamic State in Mosul where they have been in control for three months, could turn into a bloodbath – then the US may look to rebuild and reinforce the 605km Syria-Iraq border and attempt to isolate the Syrian battle space.

Strategic depth

To stand a chance of success, the strategy will need regional buy-in to attempt to shut down financial support and fighter recruitment that provide the Islamic State group will its strategic depth. To this end, the US tabled a UN Security Council resolution on September 8 that plans to demand countries “prevent and suppress” the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters by ensuring it is considered a serious criminal offence under domestic laws.

Analyst James Denselow talks to Al Jazeera on US’ new strategy to defeat the Islamic State group

Obama’s foreign policy is characterised by leading from behind and he will seek to ensure he has active regional partners as he did in Libya and that steps are taken to contain the Islamic State across the region and that airstrikes are not conducted by the US alone.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser, are all travelling to the Middle East this week to line up the dots on what is a US military-diplomatic surge in the region.

This is an important chapter in Obama’s presidency that comes at a time of vast upheaval across the region. German General Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf famously coined the phrase “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Tonight across a territory the size of Jordan, Islamic State fighters will be waiting to see what Obama has in mind for them.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.