Obama’s war on ISIS is an improvisation game

Obama must come under no illusions that ISIS effaces the other atrocities that he decided to ignore in Syria

Raghida Dergham
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Everything we know and everything that is repeatedly being said indicates that this war could last for years. We do not know exactly what strategy President Barack Obama has in his war on ISIS. This terrorist group has succeeded in luring the U.S. president into a war, effectively putting itself on the map, if not seizing the map and becoming a household name.

We know then that ISIS has a comprehensive strategy, part of which is directed at the U.S. president, another part at the leaders of the Middle East, particularly Arab nations, and a third part at the media, with a view to create an unmatched global footprint to establish the group as an extraordinary player.


Around 40 countries are taking part in the U.S.-led coalition seeking to degrade and destroy ISIS. Some are taking part in operations in Iraq exclusively, others have joined the coalition to shake off accusations of supporting ISIS, while certain countries have been drawn into taking part in operations in Syria begrudgingly, fearing that they might be practically assisting the axis they have an animus with, namely, the axis comprising Iran, Russia, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.

This war could backfire

It’s a mess. This is a quasi-improvised war that relies on air strikes to achieve success without soldiers on the ground who are truly convinced of its goals. This is extremely dangerous because an improvised war lacking in specific political goals could backfire. If that happens, everyone will be in the eye of the storm, including the members of the coalition that had protested Obama’s political non-strategy, and that had tried to convince him to adopt a clear regional policy, to no avail at the time. Obama’s war will not achieve its goals, but could end up fueling the forces that seek to thwart it and take revenge against it.

Obama must come under no illusions that ISIS effaces the other atrocities that he decided to ignore in Syria

Raghida Dergham

Last week, international delegations flocked to the United Nations in New York to take part in the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly, in completely different climates from those of the 68th session. Back then, the Americans and Russians came as partners and friends, after Barack Obama backtracked from his “red line” at the 11th hour, where he had convinced the world he was about to carry out a strike against the regime in Damascus for having used chemical weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were ecstatic for having come up with a solution that led Obama to back down. It was when President Bashar al-Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons arsenal.

Animosity over Ukraine

The events in Ukraine overturned this equation, and turned the détente and partnership between the U.S. and Russia into animosity. When the U.S. president spoke from behind the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, he mentioned three threats to the world, and placed Vladimir Putin’s policies between the Ebola threat and the threat from ISIS terrorism.

The U.S. president turned against his Russian counterpart because of Ukraine, and not because of Putin’s continued support for Assad, his insistence on Assad remaining in power, and his obstruction of the Geneva process based on establishing a transitional governing body with full powers in Syria that would bring together both the government and the opposition.

His speech before the General Assembly was by far the most appeasing toward Damascus and Tehran. Obama avoided repeating what he said in the past about Assad’s legitimacy, and failed to deliver on what his partners in the coalition wanted him to do, namely, to tell Tehran that Washington does not consent to its regional ambitions, which are characterized by seeking to dominate key Arab nations like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The U.S. president focused exclusively on the need to fight ISIS, considering it to be the sole threat.

Russia-Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis

Some Gulf countries celebrated and contented themselves with the U.S. president’s insistence on keeping Damascus, Tehran and Moscow outside of the coalition. Yet others saw the move as actually benefiting the three governments because Obama stopped at excluding them from the coalition and did not demand more. Thus, the United States and the members of the coalition appear to be waging war on behalf of the Russia-Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis without any cost to speak of for the latter parties, if not at no cost for them at all, because this war is all about removing one of the most important and most violent enemies of this axis.

The moderate Syrian opposition represented by the Syrian National Coalition, led by Hadi al-Bahra, decided that Obama’s war on ISIS helps because it removes the burden of having to fight on two fronts: against ISIS and against the regime in Damascus. But there are those in its ranks who have a different point of view, not out of admiration for ISIS but for fear that the Syrian opposition could end up being used in a war without a political horizon and without guarantees.

The armed Syrian opposition is the de facto “boots on the ground” just like the Iraqi tribes, which will turn against ISIS, and which are in turn the de facto boots on the ground in Obama’s war. But they have obtained from Washington promises that come “after” rather than “before,” in the sense that they were told to do what they are asked to do, before they are given what they want later.

Obama’s great gamble

The main reason behind Obama’s insistence on rushing to execute the priority of destroying ISIS before addressing the political aspect of the crisis in Syria and Iraq is Iran. The U.S. president still believes he can shape his historical legacy based on an agreement with Iran, especially in the nuclear issue.

The nuclear negotiations have stalled. Britain – through its national government and through Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief – is very eager to turn a new leaf with Tehran and conclude a nuclear deal at any price. Britain believes that the opportunity to achieve this is available through the personality of Barack Obama, who in turn is very eager to push Iran towards compromising and agreeing to a nuclear deal.

President Obama does not have on his mind, nor does he seem prepared to tackle the main issue of concern with Iran, against the backdrop of his war on ISIS. He does not want to raise the issue of the Iranian element in the Iraq scene too strongly.

The U.S. president is making a great gamble in this approach, implicating his Gulf allies in the coalition because the Sunni popular base in the Gulf nations – and within Iraq – wants to understand now and not later after obtaining guarantees. The Sunnis there do not trust the U.S. president and they are not prepared to be the ammunition of his floating war, especially if it turns out to be a war for the sake of Iran and its ambitions in Iraq.

Syria and Iraq

Iraq is a relatively easier issue than Syria, where Iran is waging a devastating war through the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah directly, rather than through political influence as in Iraq’s case.

President Obama is not confronting Tehran over Syria. He is exempting Iran from accountability, which in turn embarrasses his allies in the coalition and paves the way for his war on ISIS to backfire. If he thinks that the de facto boots on the ground are going to wait years before they can learn their fate in the equation, he is gambling and faces the prospect of an unpleasant surprise.

The concern here is not just about Obama’s war. The concern is of the possibility of a rebellion by the popular base against some governments allied to the U.S. president, as he wages a floating war without a political horizon and for years.

This popular base includes some institutions in these countries, such as the military, which could refuse the tactic of delaying political guarantees until after military operations, guarantees that are wanted before, and not after their participation. The fear is for this base to turn against Obama’s war, not out of fondness for ISIS, but in rejection of the U.S. president’s neglect of this base and its demands.

One year ago, President Obama refused to wage war in Syria, earning himself a reputation for dithering, pussyfooting, and lacking confidence and determination. Today, he is in desperate need to rehabilitate himself as a serious leader in the minds of many in the Middle East.

ISIS had a nurturing environment in Iraq, and rose to prominence with support from groups and clans that wanted to protest against a fait accompli imposed by an Iranian decision and American contribution – either deliberately or accidentally. It is not easy to restore confidence despite the honest willingness to give new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi a serious chance. For one thing, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left his post through the door only to return through the window, so to speak, to the post of deputy president, while the posts of defense minister and interior minister are still the subject of a dispute.

The U.S. president must understand that Iran, with the moderate wing represented by President Hassan Rowhani and the hardliner wing represented by Revolutionary Guards commander General Qassim Suleimani, wields formidable influence in Iraq. What the Iraqis want is for Obama not to pretend otherwise. They want him to lead seriously on the political issue, if he wants the Iraqis to be serious about rising up against ISIS. His airstrikes are not enough, and his predicament will be deeper and broader if he fails to understand the importance of the political aspect, before and not after his war on Iraq.

The U.S. president must act without burying his head in the sand when it comes to the Iranian role in Syria. He has been blamed for many things, including his failure to engage from the outset, and for the distance he kept between his administration and the situation that has led to the death of 200,000 people and the displacement of about 10 million others. He must not expect other countries to automatically join his war into which he has been lured against his will, and he must come under no illusions that ISIS somehow effaces the other atrocities that he decided to ignore in Syria, because it suited him at the time. President Barack Obama does not have the right to summon the Middle East region to join his ambiguous war for years, without putting forward a clear roadmap for the objectives of the war beyond the destruction of ISIS, now and not later.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 2, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham

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