By Sharif Nashashibi

September 18, 2014 “ICH” – “MEE” – – US President Barack Obama, having criticised his predecessor’s quagmire in Iraq, looks set to create his own. Last week, he ordered the intensification of American strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, and the expansion of such operations to the group’s positions in Syria. There are so many holes in Obama’s strategy – if one can call it that – that he is setting himself up for failure, to a great extent by repeating the mistakes of George W Bush.

Bush’s “war on terror” lacked a clear definition, goal and timeframe, as does Obama’s. “We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are… If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” said Obama last week, sounding indistinguishable from his predecessor in threatening a vague, widespread, unending military campaign.

This is in stark contrast to his statement in June that, “what we’re not going to be able to do is play whack-a-mole and chase wherever extremists appear,” and his acknowledgement in May 2013 that, “we can’t use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root.” Obama should heed his own advice.

He said last week that his aim is to “ultimately destroy” IS. Every American president since al-Qaeda’s creation has failed to vanquish the group, which this month announced its expansion to the Indian subcontinent. As such, how Obama thinks he can do so against the IS is a mystery. It is a great deal harder to destroy an ideology or an amorphous militant group, compared to a standing army, particularly when the focus is on effect rather than cause.

Eliminating the IS will be a monumental struggle on its own, but Obama also wants to “ultimately snuff out this particular brand of Islamic extremism.” This suggests that other jihadist groups may also be targeted, and there are plenty to choose from. This is eerily reminiscent of the “potentialglobal war across many theatres” that was envisioned in a September 2000 report by the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century.

The majority of Americans (64 percent) support Obama’s campaign of airstrikes, according to a Reuters / Ipsos poll published last week. However, “there’s absolutely no appetite for re-engagement in that region in any prolonged way,” said Ipsos pollster, Julia Clark.

In this regard, Obama has painted himself into a corner. There is no way he can hope to significantly degrade the IS, let alone destroy it, in the short or even medium term. General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, on Tuesday spoke of “persistent and sustainable” operations. So either Obama stays for the long haul or cuts the campaign short – either way, his administration will take a major hit domestically.

Like Bush, Obama is accused of abusing executive authority by saying he does not need the approval of Congress. The White House cites the 2001 Authorisation for Military Force against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which was passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks.

However, this applies to nations and organisations that “planned, authorised, committed or aided” the attacks. The IS did not exist at that time, and was disavowed by its parent organisation, al-Qaeda in February this year.

“It’s preposterous to suggest that a congressional vote 13 years ago can be used to legalise new bombings in Syria and additional (non-combat) forces in Iraq,” Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, wrote in the New York Times. Obama’s “refusal even to ask the Justice Department to provide a formal legal pretext for the war on ISIS is astonishing.”


In terms of implementation, US officials have acknowledged that airstrikes alone will not do the job. This is particularly true now that American intelligence has sharply raised its estimate of the number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria to between 20,000 and 31,500, from its June estimate of around 10,000. However, airstrikes are the only military tactic being deployed at the moment.

Ground troops would be even more problematic, and US officials have sent mixed signals about whether this is an option. Secretary of State, John Kerry has said no, but Dempsey on Tuesday saidyes.

There is no regional or domestic appetite for ground troops, given the costs and risks involved, and America’s destructive record in the Middle East. It would also massively inflame the situation. So Obama’s military options – airstrikes or ground troops – seem incapable of realising his grandiose plan.

Even the expansion of airstrikes into Syria is by no means certain, with the Assad regime, and his key allies Iran, Russia and China, strongly opposed to this. They claim it would be an aggression, and a violation of national sovereignty and international law without Damascus’ approval.

Member states of the anti-IS coalition have also ruled out participating in airstrikes in Syria. In fact, France is the only member, so far, to have publicly committed to airstrikes at all. The others are either undecided about their level of involvement, or participating to a very limited extent. For all Obama’s efforts to avoid the campaign being perceived as an American adventure, this is largely what it looks like.

Patchy coalition

It is also missing key regional players and power-brokers. Turkey has ruled out the use of its airspace, and is undecided about whether to join the coalition. Neither Damascus nor Tehran were invited to Monday’s meeting in Paris to discuss strategies against the IS. Both refuse to join the coalition anyway, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei describing the Americans as having “dirty hands.” Likewise, the US refuses to work militarily with Tehran.

In a move that has surprised many, the moderate Free Syrian Army – which is fighting the Assad regime and the IS – will not join the coalition without a guarantee that the US is committed to Assad’s overthrow. Other Syrian rebels have recently agreed ceasefires with the IS.

Furthermore, Iraqi Sunni tribes are divided over whether to join the coalition, torn between the abuses of the jihadists, and those of the army, Shiite militias and Iranian troops. Even Iraqi elements that are part of the coalition – such as the government and the Kurds – are suspicious of each other.

Reports of Israel providing satellite imagery and other intelligence to the campaign will also arouse anger in a region deeply opposed to Israeli and American hegemony. There is also widespread consternation that while Obama is willing to bomb the IS in Syria, he has failed to do so against Assad’s regime, which UN war crimes investigators on Tuesday said “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.”

Just as Bush’s “war on terror” created more of such terror, so too may Obama’s. His justification of protecting the American people has been met with IS threats against the US. In some respects, his campaign is strengthening the group rather than weakening it. Despite its fallout with al-Qaeda, the latter’s wings in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have expressed support for the IS, and others in al-Qaeda have defected to the offshoot.

Deepening western military involvement may further swell IS ranks (as happened with al- Qaeda previously) if the group is seen as resisting imperialism and foreign domination. The same is true if the IS manages to feed off resentment towards the participation of autocratic Arab governments and Shiite – particularly Iranian – forces. Action against the IS is necessary, but Obama’s strategy risks adding fuel to the fire.

– Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council “for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting” on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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– Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council “for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting” on the Middle East.

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