Originally published September 11, 2014
The United States is relying on two key partners in the fight to destroy ISIS - the new Iraqi government and the moderate Syria opposition.
President Barack Obama announced in a speech Wednesday night a plan for U.S. airstrikes in Syria, as well as increased U.S. support for the Syrian opposition.
“In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” said Obama, referring to ISIS, which is also known as ISIL and the Islamic State, and also referring to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
The amount of manpower and resources that the U.S. is willing to invest in the battle against ISIS is yet to be seen; however, Obama made it clear that the plan will not include American boots on the ground in Iraq or in Syria.
The United States’ success in causing meaningful and permanent damage to ISIS is partially dependent on external factors - whether stability can be achieved in Iraq under a new government and whether ISIS in Syria can be defeated in a political environment that helped the terror group grow.
Will the new Iraqi government be effective in fighting ISIS?
About a third of Iraq is now controlled by ISIS, and the United States’ success in defeating the terror group is largely dependent on whether the Iraqi government can be an effective partner in the fight.
On Wednesday Obama said that “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”
All eyes are on Haider al-Abadi, who was recently nominated to become the new Prime Minister of Iraq, replacing Nuri al-Maliki.
“We should have made the decision not to support [al-Maliki] years ago. I think he played us and frankly I pegged him as a Shia leader, not a national leader,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat and a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. “The change in leadership is a positive development for sure.”
The United States welcomed the transition with the hope that al-Abadi will lead Iraq into stability.
“It appears to me that the United States is trying to contain ISIS to buy time for a political solution in Baghdad,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who commanded the training of Iraqi troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Monday, al-Abadi announced a new Iraqi government, yet some cabinet positions - including the interior and defense minister - are yet to be filled.
The announcement comes after weeks of sectarian tensions between Iraqi politicians due to a massacre in a mosque that killed tens of Sunni worshipers.
Secretary of State John Kerry praised the new government, saying, “The Iraqi Parliament approved a new and inclusive government, one that has the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities.”
Whether this new government will succeed in quelling sectarian tensions that have persisted for decades is yet to be seen.
“The foundations of the political process are corrupt and sectarian divisions that have been created will only be resolved by a deeper change - one that reforms the root of the political system,” said Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi American and an Iraq policy expert at the American Friends Service Committee. “The difference between al-Maliki and al-Abadi is extremely small … they belong to the exact same political party and their statements have been controversial and sectarian.”
“A significant difference is that al-Abadi has the support of other factions in Iraqi politics,” which is something that al-Maliki lacked as a leader, said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. But he added that this is a “systemic problem” and it will take more than a leadership change to fix Iraq.
Will the U.S. have to fight a two-front war in Syria?
Destroying ISIS is in the interest of the United States but is also one that is shared by Syria’s al-Assad. As the U.S. gets more involved in Syria, a sticking point is finding a strategy to defeat ISIS without empowering al-Assad.
“Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters,” said Obama on Wednesday.
Oubai Shahbandar, adviser and spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, now known as the Free Syria Foreign Mission, told “State of the Union” that the Syrian opposition welcomes the Obama’s announcement.
“The President’s plan is a very important step to establishing a long-term partnership between the U.S. and the Syrian opposition to protect Syrians against both ISIS and Assad,” he said, adding that “this sends a loud signal” to them.
Retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks said that one the risks of ramping up U.S. support for the opposition in Syria is the prospect of fighting a two-front war - one against ISIS and one against the al-Assad regime.
“Were we to do anything on the ground in Syria we’d want partners who live in and know the neighborhood … Jordanians, Iraqis, the Gulf states, plus our European allies,” said Marks, adding, “This is a difficult mission” and the U.S. would be “foolish to go alone.”
Eaton said that for the United States to be successful, along with NATO and regional allies, working with the al-Assad government is a necessary evil and one that would require “sophisticated diplomacy.”
“There’s no guaranteed success, but there’s no reason to think that Assad will try to shoot down American planes. The last thing the Assad regime wants is to provoke a full-out confrontation with the U.S.” said Eaton. “It can be as simple as having Assad sit on his hands, do nothing, while he lets a coalition into Syria to contain ISIS.”
Hamid said that working with al-Assad should not be an option and that without “a real plan to boost mainstream Syrian rebels,” the political environment will continue to be conducive for the growth and survival of terror groups.
“It was predicted in early 2012 that if we [didn’t] do more on Syria, radicals and extremists were going to gain momentum and benefit from the power vacuum. Assad’s policies are one of the roots of the rise of ISIS.
Working with Assad is an example of allying with the root of the problem to address the symptom,” said Hamid.
According to Marks, supporting the Syrian opposition comes with a risk as well - having U.S. assistance fall into the wrong hands.
“Right now Syria is such a mess - it’s very difficult to discern good from bad or more importantly who we can trust regardless of affiliation,” said Marks.
State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said last month that the U.S. goes to “great lengths to vet people we give any assistance to.”
Shahbandar hopes that the Department of Defense’s “Train and Equip” program “is enacted immediately and that the funds are appropriated to enhance the Syrian opposition’s capacity to fight ISIS.”
The Syrian opposition has suffered significant losses while battling a war on three fronts- against the al-Assad regime, against ISIS and against the Nusra Front, a militant group.
Whether Congress will approve the “Train and Equip” program and whether legislators will approve it before congressional recess, which is set to begin in less than two weeks, is yet to be seen.