The last thing President Obama wanted is to bequeath to his successor the “dumb war” in Iraq he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. President Obama is painfully aware of the fact that he is the fourth president in a row to do battle in Iraq inconclusively. Before them President Ronald Reagan participated in the Iraq-Iran war, the longest conventional military conflict in the 20th century, but as a powerful proxy helping Iraq. Obama’s speech on Wednesday outlining his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and the formation of a “broad coalition” to do so, guarantees that the United States will likely remain a combatant in Iraq (and in Syria) for the next few years.
The strategy, however does not guarantee the destruction of ISIS, an objective that requires political, cultural and ideological tools, in addition to brute military force. Ultimately, the defeat of ISIS can be achieved, only when the Arabs exorcise the political and ideological demons that created Islamic extremism that metastasized over the years and morphed into ISIS. In this epic battle, the U.S. can and should help, since it did contribute its share to the environment that created ISIS following its invasion of Iraq.
From junior-varsity to a Hydra
In few months President Obama moved from minimizing the threat of ISIS, calling it in an interview in January an al-Qaeda junior varsity team, to the realization that ISIS is truly monstrous, and a Hydra-like serpent with many heads. Like the Greek myth, if you chop off one head, two more are grown in its place.
The defeat of ISIS can be achieved, only when the Arabs exorcise the political and ideological demonsHisham Melhem
In addition to succeeding in describing the nature of the threat, one could say that the president appeared to have dropped his passivity on Syria and crossed his own self-imposed Rubicon to the other bank; where American jet fighters and bombers may now fly combat missions. In less than a month, the “evolution” of President Obama’s views on ISIS was very rapid. When Obama was talking about “containing” ISIS, his secretary of state John Kerry was talking about ‘destroying’ it. And, while Obama’s DNA is missing passion, his vice president Joe Biden who has a surplus of the stuff, assured us –instead of the Commander-In-Chief – that the US will chase ISIS “to the gates of Hell.”
For all the talk about a new strategy, expanding the air strikes to Syria and the formation of an international coalition to destroy ISIS, the president’s approach is still minimalist. And while the stated objective now is to destroy ISIS, the Obama administration is still averse at describing its lethal duel with ISIS as a war. Secretary Kerry was struggling with semantics and the reporters accompanying him on his travels in the Arab world and Europe at the same time. He insisted that "What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter-terrorism operation.” And to eliminate any lingering doubts, Kerry was blunt saying “and it's going to be a long-term counterterrorism operation. I think war is the wrong terminology and analogy but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity."
The president’s strategy has many components; targeted attacks on ISIS in Iraq and potentially in Syria, keep pushing Iraq to overcome its political dysfunction and create a truly inclusive polity – something that will not be achieved fully any time soon, assuming Iraq will remain a unitary state- while accelerating the process of vetting, training and equipping the “moderate” Syrian opposition. A key component for the success of such a counter-terrorism strategy, especially when it does not include deploying “boots on the ground” to counter ISIS’s “sandals on the ground,” is the emergence of a regional coalition willing to engage ISIS in a long struggle on multiple fronts: military, intelligence gathering, cutting off funding, tightening border control, and countering the propaganda machine of ISIS. And this list did not include the president’s rocky and complex relations with the congress, including with some members in his own party, few weeks before the mid-term elections.
Failed states as models
When President Obama was trying to reassure the American people that “this effort” (not war) against ISIS will not involve deploying combat troops fighting on foreign soil like Afghanistan and Iraq, he committed a faux pas. The president said “this strategy of taking out terrorists, who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Those who advised the president to include such a reference had in mind the American public opinion, as if in this wired world one can only design a message solely to the American public opinion. To begin with, the air raids, the targeted drone attacks have succeeded in degrading the al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia, but the terrorism cancer is still entrenched in the body politics of both countries. If this success in Yemen and Somalia, one wonders how failure will look. And while the president did not mean to tell the Iraqis and Syrians, that greater American military intervention in their countries will hasten their slide into the status of failed states, he sure sounded like that.
Climbing down the tree
For more than three years President Obama went out of his way to avoid intervention in Syria, including serious political intervention in the sense of using his leadership to influence the behavior and policies of those Arab states, and Turkey that became deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. But his single most political damage was his constant denigration of the Syrian opposition, and his willful disingenuous comments about the nature of the opposition, their capabilities and intentions.
The president claimed in disparaging remarks that members of the Syrian opposition are “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists… or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting.” The president conveniently forgot that most fighters in the opposition, particularly during the first year of the uprising were former regime officers and soldiers who defected and joined the opposition. The president rejected the criticism that had he armed the opposition earlier the battlefield realities would have been different. “The notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly-trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.” Now that accelerating the process of arming and training the moderate Syrian opposition is an imperative in the new strategy, the president finds himself trying clumsily to climb down that tree and eat his own words.
‘The long and winding road’
The long and winding road to degrade – let alone – destroy ISIS, is fraught with traps and mines and some of the fellow travelers may defect or conveniently become stragglers. Even the partial success of the strategy is contingent on many factors that are not under the control of the U.S. Can the flow of jihadists to Syria be stemmed without an all-out effort by Turkey to tighten control on its borders? Turkey participated in the recent Jeddah meeting but it declined to sign the joint communique. The Arab support for the strategy outlined to them by Secretary Kerry was described as “tepid.”
Will the Arab members of the coalition deliver on all their commitment, including military participation in any air campaign in Syria? Egypt’s reluctance to play a major role was plain to see. Egypt would like the United Nations to give its approval to any military action in Syria, knowing in advance that this will not happen. I believe Egypt also uses its disagreements with Washington over human rights violations, freezing delivery of military hardware to justify its cold approach to the coalition. But the reality is that Egypt has been considerably weakened in the last few years and is consumed with its own political and economic dysfunctions.
Ironically, the U.S. has some justifiable doubts about the staying power of some of the Arab coalition members, just as most Gulf Arab states have their own justifiable doubts about the stamina and staying power of President Obama, given his weak track record on Syria .
A problem from hell
The U.S. is entering into a new phase in the military confrontation with ISIS that could last for years, as was and is the case with al-Qaeda. But just as there was no clear and solid way of knowing that we defeated al-Qaeda, given its defused nature, ISIS will present an even harder challenge, given its battlefield experiences, control over large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territories, its resources, savagery and its ideological appeal to some zealots to live in the “restored” Caliphate.
Degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS will take years, because its emergence took many years as a result of the depredations of the so-called secular Arab regimes, the alienated and radicalized Islamists, the festering Arab-Israeli conflict (which was used by Arab regimes to justify their failures) and finally the blunders of the U.S. in the region, such as the invasion of Iraq which hastened the unraveling of a country that was broken by the tyranny of the Baath regime. I believe ISIS is Arab made. And ISIS should be defeated by Arabs with a little help from their friends. The first step is for the Arabs to recognize this bitter truth and to own this problem from hell.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem