Assessing Obama’s ISIS strategy

In a shift in policy, President Obama announced on 10 September 2014 cross-border operations to challenge the jihadists of ISIS. The strategy’s success rests on the cooperation of neighbouring countries and the ability to sustain the campaign for the long-term.

President Barack Obama’s speech of 10 September was perhaps one of the most telegraphed declarations of war in recent history, coming after 153 US airstrikes against the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), a public process of coalition-building, and strong indications of a major shift in the US’ long-frozen Syria policy.


The key factors that persuaded Obama to shift from the highly circumscribed airstrikes thus far to a broader and more intensive mission were threefold: firstly the formation of a new and supposedly ‘inclusive’ Iraqi government, secondly the recruitment of a ‘broad coalition’ of allies, including Sunni-majority states, to blunt the appearance of a US-dominated war against ISIS’ caliphate, and thirdly the prominent beheading of two Americans, and the ensuing impact on US domestic political opinion.


What are the key elements of this strategy? Four broad elements can be identified:

1. Airpower
A ‘systematic campaign of airstrikes’ to target ISIS, concurrently exploited by disparate local “partner forces” on the ground. Obama did not specify targets, but it is reasonable to suppose that these will include ISIS’ military, command, leadership, and possibly strategic targets such as oil fields. Nor did Obama specify the contributions of different coalition members, and in particular whether any countries other than the US – and specifically any Muslim country – would employ airpower or other types of force. 

2. Local ground forces
Obama emphasised efforts to directly support and build up those partner forces. Obama did not mention Kurds, who have played a key role in exploiting US airstrikes in northern Iraq thus far, but three other local partners were highlighted:

Iraqi security forces
In addition to the already large US presence in Baghdad and Erbil, Obama announced that he would send an additional 475 service members to Iraq as ‘advisers’ to Iraq security forces. However, the enduring weakness of these forces means that it will take months before they can take advantage of US airstrikes, particularly in urban areas currently held by ISIS. A further question arises as to how the US will deal with the problem of Iran-backed Shia militias who have worked closely with Iraqi security forces in recent battles (likely with Iranian coordination), including those where US airpower has played a role. 

Iraqi Sunnis
Obama alluded to political and military outreach to Iraqi Sunni groups from whom ISIS has drawn support. He referred to ‘National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL control’, an implicit attempt to replicate the conditions of the Sunni ‘Awakening’ of 2006-8 during which ISIS’ forerunner, Al Qa’ida in Iraq, was defeated by Sunni tribes.

Syrian rebels
Obama asked Congress ‘to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters’, alluding to an earlier request for $500 million to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels. Given the time-lag involved in securing these funds, employing them, and producing trained forces, it is difficult to see how this timeline would fit with that of strikes in the coming weeks and months. Over this period, pressure on ISIS on the ground could therefore be significantly less in Syria than in Iraq.

Additionally, in an August interview, Obama had scorned the idea of turning what he called ‘former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth’ into an effective fighting force. In March, he argued that ‘the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit US military forces, changed the equation on the ground there [in Syria] was never true’. Either Obama’s assessment of Syrian rebels was incorrect then, or it is incorrect now.  

3. Scope
Obama committed to a cross-border campaign, thereby denying ISIS sanctuary. However, this generates a number of problems: some US allies would require a UN Resolution before participating in operations in Syria, but Russia is unlikely to permit any such authorisation. Moreover, the Syrian regime retains some air defence systems. It may choose not to challenge US incursions into its airspace, but US military officials are unlikely to wish to take this risk, and are therefore likely to demand a preliminary campaign of suppressing air defences.

4. Time-horizon
A persistent, sustained campaign (‘steady, relentless effort’) designed to operate at a lower-tempo for the long-term rather than a high-tempo for the short-terms. This has consequence for US military posture in the region, and the US’ ability to engage in crises elsewhere.

Campaign Models

The use of airpower to support disparate local ground forces, assisted by US Special Forces, is a model whose elements were visible in Kosovo in 1999, came to maturity in Afghanistan in 2001, and was developed further in Libya in 2011.

One evident problem will be in finding local partners of adequate quality. In Libya, a high degree of Special Forces involvement and training programmes could address this, but only with considerable lag. In Iraq, re-building Iraqi security forces as well as arming and supporting Sunni tribes and Syrian rebels will be a long-term project stretching well into next year. Even if US airstrikes begin tomorrow, local forces’ ability to take advantage will be highly uneven.

President Obama himself explicitly compared the campaign to that pursued against Al Qa’ida affiliates in Yemen and Somalia in recent years, but this is misleading: those were smaller and weaker groups, controlling less territory, and faced a smaller US air, ground, and intelligence footprint. If US policy in Syria genuinely resembles that in those two countries, then the ensuing campaign is likely to be much more modest, limited, and cautious than might be suggested by the prominence of Obama’s speech and the diplomatic attention. In practice, it is likelier that these analogies were chosen to give the appearance of continuity, and secure domestic support. In any case, they are not especially propitious precedents, given the resilience of Yemeni and Somali groups.  

UK Policy

This US commitment to a sustained, long-term campaign presents three serious difficulties for the UK. First, the strategy’s reliance on presently weak local forces means that airstrikes may not see their greatest impact on the ground for months – but this will bring us closer to the date of a general election. Second, the long-term nature of the campaign is inherently open-ended, meaning that the UK might find it difficult to cap its participation; but without doing so, political support will be fraught. Third, the commitment to action in Syria will make it harder for David Cameron to secure parliamentary support for UK participation, which may force him to contain any British role to Iraq.

More details are needed before an informed British debate is possible, but it would seem that the area where the UK could make the most significant difference, though far from the most eye-catching, is an intensification of its support – in the forms of arms, equipment, training, intelligence, and coordination – for those local partners that will form the lynchpin of this US-led campaign.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.


Shashank Joshi

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