He stepped into the White House with a promise to take America out of the war in Iraq. Now, he is forced to return to the region and become the fourth American president who gets his country involved in a conflict in an Arab state. It looks like his successor is going to be the fifth one – the coming battle won’t be short or simple.
The enemy in the new round in the war against terror has many names — it started as one of the many factions under the name al-Qaida, became notorious as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant and shorten its name to the Islamic State after it proclaimed itself a caliphate in the Middle East in June. Whatever label it puts on, the group is enemy number one for the U.S. and Europe and it has been condemned by both Sunni and Shiite. Even archenemies Iran and Israel, as well as Pope Francis, have joined the crowd asking to stop the Islamic State group’s rise.
Stopping it won’t be easy, even if the most reluctant U.S. president to military involvement in recent years is pushed again towards the quicksand of the Middle East. The cynical interpretation of the events shows that the execution of two American journalists and one British humanitarian worker did what the death of 200,000 people in Syria did not. But bombs falling from the sky simply won’t be enough to accomplish the goal — a complete annihilation of the military, financial and ideological resources of the Islamic State group.
Time and luck will be necessary for the success of the strategy announced by the president on Sept. 11 — what irony — to abolish al-Qaida’s little brother. The strategy builds around four main components — airstrikes, further support for local troops on the ground (but no American boots), tighter anti-terrorist measures and humanitarian aid. The plan, marked by numerous weak and unclear points, lacks detail, takes serious risks, and could produce satisfying results only if Iraq and Syria get out of the chaos that gave birth to the bloody march of the Islamic State group on first place.
With a Little Help from (non) Friends
“This movement is so dangerous that all of us, gathered here today, believe it is necessary not just to make it retreat, but to make it disappear,” said the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sept. 15 after leaders and diplomats from more than 30 Western and Arab countries gathered in Paris and promised to back the fight against the Islamic State group with all means possible, including military action. This group is “not a state and it does not represent the Islamic religion,” declared Fabius.
The anti-terrorist conference in Paris produced many strong statements — Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott called the jihadi a “death cult” and promised to send 500 personnel and eight air fighters to support the Americans in the fight against the Islamic State group; British Prime Minister David Cameron had sharp words to say against the “monsters” and added his approval to the launch of airstrikes, although in a less conspicuous manner. France has already started surveillance missions by air in Iraq, but not Syria; the airstrikes are also supported by Belgium, while Germany, Denmark and Norway help the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds with weapons, ammunition and advisers.
The missing piece is the Arab states. The Obama administration, which claims that over 40 countries have joined the fight against the Islamic State group, is doing its best to avoid analogies with the war in Iraq launched by George W. Bush and his coalition of the willing. However, the group of 10 Arab states, who have expressed readiness to support the anti-Islamic State efforts, looks more like a coalition of the unwilling, the distrusting, the incapable and the self-centered. Their support is vital for the legitimacy of the campaign against the Islamic State group and for its final results.
There is hope that the common enemy embodied by the terrifying jihadi will loosen up the deeply rooted geopolitical, religious and ethnic differences in the Middle East and will unite the leaders and reshape the relations and the political agenda in the region. The Islamic State group’s rise, which came after the Arab Spring reshuffled the landscape of the Arab world, is seen by many analysts as the most turbulent event in the region since Muslims split into Shiite and Sunni. This opinion was also expressed by Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, in an interview with The New York Times.
Regardless of the gravity of the problem, the idea that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran would join a union against the Islamic State group doesn’t seem realistic. Iran was not invited in Paris and officially both the Obama administration and the ayatollahs in Teheran deny any talks on the subject. While they are supposedly not talking, many analysts, such as the senior editor of The Atlantic and former speechwriter of President George W. Bush Daniel Frum, are asking what price Washington has to pay for Teheran’s support.
“It is obvious that Iran has to be part of the ISIL solution – the Iranians are involved both in Iraq and Syria,”* he said in an interview for Capital Michael Stevens, a deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.
Besides, the White House seems to ignore the fact that right now the U.S. cannot brag with the trust and the sympathy of the Arab capitals visited by Secretary of State Kerry. They did not forget the failures of the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the back turned to their region overflowing with violence and war refugees trying to find a place amidst the ash of the conflicts of the Arab Spring.
“The Obama strategy is not likely to succeed. I don’t think that the nations of the Gulf really want to be part of it. They prefer to let Washington carry out the military intervention and let them pay for the consequences,”* he said in an interview for Capital Andrew Hammond from the European Council of Foreign Relations.
*Editor’s note: This quote, properly translated, could not be verified.