From Estonia Without Love for the Islamic State

September 6, 2014

President Obama, at Wednesday’s joint press conference with President Ilves in Estonia, addressed the brutal executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He promised that “those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”

While some ponder what ISIL’s underlying motives are for these gruesome executions, the million dollar question is: How will the U.S. respond?

At the press conference, President Obama gave some indication. He restated that the U.S. response in Iraq, thus far, has been to protect Americans in Iraq, to work with Iraqis to form an inclusive government that can go on the offensive, and to conduct airstrikes that support and protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Sinjar Mountain and Amerli while also “providing space” to allow a new Iraqi government to form.

While Obama said these measures have been effective thus far, he cautioned that this effort was going to take time and that it “is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition.”  It will take time to roll back the “battle-hardened elements of ISIS that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq during the course of the Iraq war” and to form the regional coalition necessary to be able to reach out to the Sunni tribes in ISIL-occupied territory so that “we have allies on the ground in combination with the airstrikes that we’ve already conducted.” He stated, “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.” Obama also noted that “the possibility of the military strategy inside of Syria that might require congressional approval.”

When pressed further to state whether the strategy was to destroy or contain ISIL, he reiterated that:

Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.  And we can accomplish that. It’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some effort. As we’ve seen with al Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities.  You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.

Obama later continued:

…if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.  And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it.  This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before.  And it continues to metastasize in different ways.

He argued that this will be imperative in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

This all seems perfectly reasonable and level-headed. But at some point it could also become a foot race. ISIL is currently being pushed back in some parts of the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, but will that last? You cannot count on the Kurds to press far into the Arab regions of Iraq and Syria. More importantly, as the President clearly stated, ISIL is a threat to the broader region. It is all good and fine for countries in the region to develop cartoons and other things to counter the messages of ISIL’s extremism, but at the end of the day it becomes a contest of legitimacy between the governments in the region (who want to remain in power) and the appeal of ISIL. If ISIL can remain on the offensive and expand in other areas, such as Jordan, then the cancer may spread. In addition, keeping a fractious regional coalition together may well be very difficult. (For instance, the fissures between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf states are large and possibly getting larger if one accepts that UAE and Egyptian aircraft attacked Qatari backed forces in Libya.)

None of this is to mean these problems are insoluble or insurmountable, but they are difficult and the President is wise to caution that this will take time. The mood of the American public seems to be shifting towards thinking that the U.S. is not doing enough about ISIL. But such polling data may not adequately capture how far the electorate is willing to go. If ISIL continues to provide graphic displays of barbarity then perhaps the public opinion meter will continue to push towards doing more, but what will we do? Large numbers of American boots on the ground are unlikely and most likely unmerited unless some massive attack directly linked to ISIL occurs on the U.S. homeland. While that is theoretically possible, it seems unlikely at this time.

That leaves three main levers: (1) continued airstrikes, possibly going into Syria, which, if sustained, will require an authorization of use of military force; (2) continued military assistance to Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government coupled with assessment and advisory assistance; and (3) continued diplomatic maneuvering and intelligence-related activities to place pressure on ISIL and perhaps expanded assistance to elements deemed moderate, however defined, in Syria. Of perhaps lesser likelihood (although some reports suggest otherwise) is the use of surgical strike- and special warfare-oriented special operations forces (SOF) in territory occupied by ISIL to carry out reconnaissance, raids, and resistance activities (i.e., unconventional warfare). While the President has been willing to make tough calls about the use of SOF, as illustrated by the decision to launch the raid for Osama bin Laden deep within Pakistan or the freeing of Captain Phillips from the Maersk Alabama, those were quick, if daring, operations. Perhaps he will be willing to endorse longer time horizon activities as he has stated that the ISIL problem offers no quick fixes. Such an expansion would not offer a silver bullet and would be fraught with the potential for American casualties or captives, but it might also more effectively assist those who would more actively resist ISIL given the opportunity and some modicum of support.


Michael P. Noonan, a WOTR contributor, is Director of Research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.