If Barack Obama believes he’s come up with a strategy to defeat Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq, he should think again. Far from devising a plan to crush the dangerous fanatics, all he has done is provide what is potentially a recipe for disaster.
The US President may want to end a long decade of war, but he can only do this if America’s enemies are sufficiently tired of the game that they no longer threaten the country and its allies. And as far as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is concerned this is patently not the case, as they have demonstrated with the gruesome murders of two American journalists, and the alarming prospect of more to come.
The self-styled caliphate that ISIL has created in territory captured in northern Iraq and Syria is also a potential recruiting ground for jihadis from all over the world, the fear being that many of them will return home to apply their new-found terrorist skills. Even a conflict-averse president like Obama must realise that, as commander-in-chief, he is duty bound to destroy an organisation that poses such a direct threat to America and its interests. The only problem is that the measures Obama outlined in his prime time speech on US television on Wednesday night fall well short of an effective strategy. One of the fundamental difficulties he faces in trying to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the fanatics is his refusal to use ground forces — the best way to eradicate a Mad Max outfit like ISIL.
This is partly due to the President’s determination to avoid the mistakes of previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US found itself ensnared in long and costly military campaigns that lost public support. He also seems to be taking his cue from the Clinton era, when his Democrat predecessor preferred to confront America’s enemies by remote control, constantly firing cruise missiles at indeterminate targets in places such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. This was to give the impression that the White House was taking firm action, when in fact most of those being targeted, from bin Laden to Saddam, escaped without a scratch.
Modern bombing techniques are a great deal more deadly and accurate than they were during the Clinton era, as we saw during the 2011 air campaign against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. But you have only to look at the unholy mess we have created there since the campaign ended to see the limitations of relying on air power alone. Bombing ISIL fanatics from 20,000 or so feet may well succeed in degrading their military strength, but it is hardly going to achieve a comprehensive defeat.
To do this you need boots on the ground. But rather than committing American forces to drive the jihadists from their Islamic State fiefdom, Obama intends to rely on a disparate network of proxy militias to do the dirty work for him. By providing military support such as trainers, intelligence and basic arms, the idea is that groups such as the Kurdish peshmergas, Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shia militias and the more moderate elements within the Syrian opposition will be able to tackle the Islamist threat. This policy also happens to be the favoured option in London where Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, earlier this week announced that Britain is to supply the peshmergas with £1.6 million worth of machine guns and ammunition.
Compared with the hundreds of billions of pounds that have been squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade, this might seem like good value for money. Nor is the idea of having proxies fight our wars for us entirely without merit. During the initial 2003 invasion of Afghanistan, we relied heavily on Northern Alliance fighters to drive the Taliban from Kabul, even though significant numbers of US-led Special Forces and infantry units were on hand to eradicate al-Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure.
The problem this time round is that if the American and British governments remain true to their mantra of having “no boots on the ground”, our ability to influence the conflict’s outcome becomes extremely limited, as we saw in the Libyan conflict. The peshmergas may be good fighters but they are more interested in risking their lives to defend Kurdish interests than those of the US and Britain. Moreover, the revenge beheadings carried out by the Imam Ali Brigade, one of the Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting in Iraq, demonstrates that some of these groups are pursuing their own radical agendas, in this case terrorising Iraq’s minority population into submission.
And herein lies the paradox in the President’s proposition: to defeat ISIL Washington is to rely on the tacit support of countries like Iran which, in other circumstances, are inimical to western interests. In Syria the situation is even more complicated because to defeat ISIL, we are to support rebel groups whose main objective is the overthrow of the Assad regime in Damascus — which just so happens to be Iran’s closest regional ally.
Obama’s plan for defeating ISIL is not a strategy: it is more a half-baked exercise in wishful thinking, where the White House hopes that simply by talking tough and dropping a few bombs, this pernicious threat to our security will simply fade away. Given the determination ISIL has shown in setting up its caliphate, this is not going to happen. On the contrary, the President’s inability to devise an effective strategy to counter this menace will only confirm the widely held Islamist view that the decadent West simply has no stomach for a fight.
© The Daily Telegraph