Paul Salem, MEI's vice president for policy and research, examines President Obama's decision to step up US intervention against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq, and what it implies for broader US policy in the region, in this Expert Q&A.
How do you read the import and impact of President Obama’s recent announcements of airstrikes and humanitarian intervention in Iraq?
President Obama’s decision to authorize targeted airstrikes in Iraq was a necessary decision in the light of horrific advances by ISIS against helpless civilians and established regional allies. The decision represents a serious reengagement of the Obama administration after years of steady disengagement. The decision changes the political and security dynamics of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and might have repercussions further afield in Syria as well.
In his announcement, Obama effectively hinted at two red lines and a precedent: he said the United States would ‘take action’ if ISIS’s terrorist forces “threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.” While couching the statement in terms of protecting Americans, what it translates into is two red lines, in that Obama authorizes US forces to take action—largely in terms of air action—if either of the two major capitals comes under threat. This is a very significant level of reengagement and means that, for now at least, both the Peshmerga and the Iraqi national army have an air force against ISIS.
The precedent that Obama stated is that in some but not all cases—and despite his best attempts, the drawing of those case limits is not entirely clear—the United States cannot ‘turn a blind eye’ to humanitarian catastrophe. The conditions he laid out include: when the United States has a ‘mandate’, in this case a request from the host country; and when it has ‘unique capabilities’ to avert a catastrophe. These conditions existed in this case—an Iraqi request and a particular situation on an accessible mountaintop—but comparable conditions are likely to emerge in other parts of Iraq or even elsewhere. How might the United States respond to other Iraqi requests for humanitarian intervention? How does the White House define a ‘mandate’? What if the Arab League calls for US humanitarian intervention in northern Syria? Would Obama argue that he will only respond if President Assad asks for his help?
What are the conditions that led to this decision?
Obama’s statement came days after Peshmerga forces, previously believed capable of holding their own against ISIS, lost a string of battles to the terrorist group. The United States has long and strong relations with Erbil and the KRG, and Obama’s statement places the US firmly in alliance with Erbil against this new threat.
Of course the decision was also spurred by the horrific plight of the Yezidi refugees in the mountains of Sinjar, and the fact that the United States could actually take action to save them.
Does Obama’s statement give equal importance to both Erbil and Baghdad?
Well, vis a vis Baghdad, Obama was more nuanced. He provided legal cover for the intervention by stating that it comes upon the request of the Iraqi government, but also said that Iraq needs to form a new inclusive government before the United States would consider further steps in support of the central government’s fight against ISIS.
What do you think are the operational implications of the announcement?
On the operational side, airstrikes are likely to be effective against ISIS only in the defensive sense of taking out convoys that are moving forward over fairly open terrain. This could be quite effective in preventing their advance up the Sinjar mountains, or ISIS battle convoy movements toward Erbil or Baghdad. So given the defined objectives, airstrikes might serve their current purpose. But airstrikes are not effective on their own in dislodging ISIS from towns or cities they already hold; nor did Obama define that as a current goal. It is important to keep in mind, however, that airstrikes could be important in a supportive role if the Peshmerga or a revived Iraqi army under new political leadership takes a ground war back to ISIS-held territory.
Does any of this have implications for Syria?
Well the need for the United States to intervene directly in this way in Iraq indicates that earlier expectations that other local armed groups or tribes would slow or stop ISIS’s advance have failed, and the United States has had to go to its least favorite option of putting direct action back on the table.
This might have consequences. If there is no real progress on national reconciliation and a new government in Baghdad and the Iraqi national army cannot be brought back in as a national force to liberate Sunni areas, it might mean that the United States and other allies might have to think of arming other groups in Sunni areas. And this is what brings us to Syria.
In Syria, ISIS has strong competitors among the largely Sunni opposition and it only controls about one third of Sunni-majority rebel territory. Part of the other territory is held by another radical Al-Qa'ida-linked group, Jubhat al Nusra; but significant tranches of other territory in the northwest, center and south are held by non-jihadi, more moderate rebel militia groupings, which are already slated to receive more support from the United States. So in Syria ISIS is indeed being contained by other armed groups, and hence the US should double down on its support for non-Jihadi groups. They have proven able to hold ground in various parts of Syria and they are a necessary bulwark against ISIS expansion in Syria.
How do you see these new US actions might be received in Arab and Muslim public opinion?
Well it’s too early to say, and I think the action is likely to create some divided opinion in the region. It will be quietly welcomed by many in the Arab and Muslim world who rightly see the Islamic State as a horrifying abomination; and it begs the question as to what other states in the Arab and Islamic world should do as well. The Arab League has yet to take serious action on the matter, and influential states in the region are still lagging far behind the United States on this matter.
Among others, they might complain that the United States has intervened against a Sunni group, while abominations by the Alawite regime against civilians in Syria have gone unanswered. They would have a point; and indeed, Obama’s line in the sand in Iraq begs the question: Are there any red lines (other than the use of chemical weapons) in Syria? Can Assad or ISIS kill as many as they want in Syria without a US response?
Of course, among radicalized jihadi sympathizers in the region—and indeed around the world—US action against ISIS is likely to draw attention back to the United States as a primary enemy and target. In confronting ISIS in Iraq, Obama is trying to contain a group that is a clear threat to US security; but in confronting them directly, he might also draw more of their attention—and the attention of their sympathizers—away from local enemies (Shiites, Christians, Yezidis, other Sunnis) and back toward the United States.
Overall do you think the actions will meet their declared objectives?
The operation is likely to meet its short term objectives in terms of saving the stranded civilians and preempting any ISIS advance toward Erbil. What the next steps will be is not yet clear. It would be significant if both the Peshmerga and Iraqi national army could take advantage of the US air commitment in order to begin rolling back at least some of ISIS’s latest advances. Recapturing the Mosul dam, for example, by the national army, or the Peshmerga recapturing the Christian and Yezidi towns recently overrun by ISIS would be very important medium term goals. For that, the United States could also bring into play the roughly 800 US Special Operations soldiers that are already in Iraq, and could play a very important supportive role to Kurdish and Iraqi army actions against ISIS.