WASHINGTON – “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Remember this? This is what President Obama stated less than a year ago, in September 2014. A clear and bold objective:“Degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”.
Well, so far not so good. The US strategy based on building a coalition (believe it or not, more than 60 countries signed up) that will do the fighting on the ground, while America conducts critically important air attacks, is at the very least work in progress.
A less charitable view is that it was and is just hot air. In other words, there was never any intention to mount and conduct a serious military operation. Given this obvious disconnect between stated goals and means allocated to the anti-ISIL mission, this operation is turning (or it has already turned) into a disaster, and consequently an immense blow to US credibility and prestige.
ISIL is winning
We know the facts. As improbable as this may look, ISIL (or IS) is very much entrenched in large parts of Syria, while it controls now almost the entire Sunni portion of Iraq. Just days ago IS occupied Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar Province, a major city just a short distance from Baghdad.
True to form, the Iraqi army did not fight that much. Confronted with a massive attack, the government troops fled, leaving behind arms and ammunitions so that IS militants can help themselves.
Timid US effort
So, here is the thing. The intention to “degrade and destroy” may be there. But the reality on the ground is that IS is winning. The US-led air campaign while active is very modest in scale and scope. American bombing raids do hit targets here and there; but they are unable to inflict serious damage to IS forces, and thus turn the tide of the war.
And the US Government made it clear from the beginning that it has no intention to deploy ground troops to Iraq. The US-led coalition, with all its 60 members, so far has done nothing that looks even remotely like assembling a ground force to be deployed in Iraq and Syria that will engage and fight ISIL until it is indeed “degraded and destroyed”.
So, where do we go from here? The prospects are bad. Right now IS controls a huge chunk of Iraq. The Iraqi Sunnis are unwilling to fight. The US is training some Iraqi troops. But who knows how long that will take. And, equally important, who knows if these trainees will fight or flee, just as the others have done.
In the meantime, the plan announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send Shia militias (some of them trained and equipped by the Iranians) to liberate the Sunnis in Ramadi may create additional problems. The Sunni population of Ramadi may not like IS. But they like Shia militias even less.
US lost credibility
There are many angles to this story. All of them disheartening. But let me just focus on the most obvious one.
Any US President who makes big, bold promises he cannot keep (“degrade and destroy ISIL”) at best loses credibility. At worst, he looks like a fool.