Does Obama Mean Business Against ISIL? There is a huge gap between stated goals and military means

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WASHINGTON – A few days ago, after President Obama via a prime time TV address had announced America’s goal to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, I expressed the wish that the President’s political opponents would refrain from attacking the announced plan just for the fun of it.

No partisan attacks, please

I expressed the hope that those who have something to contribute should do so discreetly, and not in the form of very public, politicized partisan attacks.

I did write all that assuming that the President had a robust strategy, even though others might have different ideas about the best wat to conduct this fight.

Well, now I have to reconsider what I wrote. And this is because the President has failed to present a plan that has an even remote chance of producing the objective he stated –degrade and destroy ISIL– within a reasonable length of time.

Here is the plan

Simply stated, based on what has been announced, the President wants to destroy ISIL, a motivated, reasonably strong and well equipped enemy now controlling a territory the size of Indiana through a campaign that is not a war, and without the use of any US troops.

Success seems to hinge largely on the hope that Arab forces, after having received training by US military advisors, will be able to fight and ultimately defeat ISIL, while America will support them through its significant air power.

This strategy would make some sense if there were large numbers of Arab fighters, especially in Syria where ISIL has its strongest power base, and if US experts who are familiar with this type of training would be confident that a mix of well-trained Arab fighters and US air power will be enough to do the job.

Not enough Arab fighters

Well, the experts have little or no confidence that any of this could work. To start with, the number of Syrians eligible for training is very small. May be not even 5,000. Beyond that, according to most estimates, training this small number of moderate, (pro-Western, anti-Assad and anti-ISIL) Syrian fighters will take at least a year. Since they are the only ground troops we could rely on to fight ISIL in Syria, forget about that part of the operation, at least for the time being.

Enlisting Sunnis in Iraq

Fighting ISIL in Iraq looks more promising, but only a little bit. Indeed, we know that any success in driving ISIL out of Iraq is predicated on enlisting the support of Sunni tribal leaders who for the time being decided to team up with ISIL because they believe that being ruled by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is a worse option.

Which is to say that, in order to gain real Sunni support for an anti-ISIL military effort, the Iraqi Sunni tribes need a credible reassurance that the Shia majority in power in Baghdad will really change its attitude towards Sunnis, not just as a tactical adjustment, but because they truly believe in the wisdom of an inclusive, democratic government. Well, considering that Iraq now has a new, supposedly more moderate, Shia Prime Minister, this may be possible. But achieving and sustaining this complicated political balance is going to be very difficult in a country now torn apart by sectarian fighting.

Who else is willing to help?

And who else is there to fight ISIL? Well, we do have the Kurds in the North East of Iraq. They mean business. But they are mostly interested in protecting their own Kurdish territories. And then? Anybody else? Well no. So far, that’s it. So far, no Arab state has committed itself to provide regular armed forces to fight against ISIL.

That’s it, no more help

Got that? No additional Arab ground troops against a vicious enemy that threatens the stability of their Region. And, remember, no US ground troops. Well, even though we recognize that the situation is fluid and that there may be a positive breakthrough, so far, not so good.

War with no soldiers

So, here is the picture. America declared that it will defeat a well entrenched, vicious enemy in a conflict that is not a war, with no American troops engaged, and preciously few others who will do the actual fighting, (after they have been trained, of course).

So, here is a novelty for you: “a conflict with no real army to fight in it”.

Obama wants to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL counting on a small number of yet to be trained Syrian fighters and on a mix of a mostly Shia Iraqi army coordinating with Sunni tribesmen whose committment to the fight is largely contingent on the expectation that the Shia government in Baghdad will treat all Iraqi Sunnis in  a fair manner.

This is the coalition

Even assuming American diplomatic brilliance in bringing all these parties to the table, while keeping them focused on the common anti-ISIL objective, let me say that this is really a tall order.

Putting together such a coalition will be extremely complicated. And do keep in mind that President Obama, given his past record of passivity and lack of interest in this festering Syria-Iraq crisis, cannot lead on the basis of his prestige as a determined and resolute US Commander in Chief.

The fact is that few Arabs really believe that Obama means to get fully engaged in order to win this conflict. And if America does not lead, no other country is willing to take the responsibility to do this.

Gap between goals and means to achieve them

Given all this, we see once again Obama’s tendency to declare sweeping objectives (remember “Assad has to go“?) with no intention to provide the means to achieve them within a reasonable length of time.

In truth, the plan announced by the President seems to be more in line with the more limited objective stated earlier on by Obama about “containing” ISIL, rather than a plan aimed at destroying it.

In fact, I am not even sure that these modest means will be enough to contain this terror group, let alone finish it off.

 

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