On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced his strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State and to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight against the Assad regime. As Americans head to the polls today, this strategy is on the brink of collapse.
The Islamic State has continued to make gains on the ground and commit atrocities since the president announced his strategy. Over the weekend, the Islamic State executed 322 members of the pro-U.S. Albu Nimr Iraqi tribe in Anbar province, including dozens of women and children whose bodies were dumped in a well. Pleas by the Sunni tribe for weapons to defend itself were ignored by the Bagdad government.
After enduring political isolation and persecution by the Maliki government, Iraq’s Sunnis are deeply distrustful of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Last weekend’s atrocity will make it more difficult for Iraqi officials and U.S. advisers to convince Iraqi Sunnis to support the government and fight against the Islamic State. New Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is struggling to bring Iraqi Sunnis back into the political process but has made little progress. Iraq’s Sunnis were further alienated by a recent report that Abadi intends to name an Iranian-backed Shiite militia leader as interior minister.
Obama policy on the crisis in Syria suffered a major setback yesterday when the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front routed moderate Syrian rebels armed and trained by the United States in the suburbs of the city of Idlib. Al-Nusra fighters confiscated U.S.-provided weapons, reportedly including TOW missiles.
This development may confirm reports of a truce and possible collaboration between the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Previously, the al-Nusra Front had cooperated with moderate Syrian rebels to fight against the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Al-Nusra leaders reportedly entered into talks on collaborating with the Islamic State because it was incensed at U.S. airstrikes in northern Syria.
Further complicating this situation, the Islamic State made major gains on the ground in Syria this week by seizing two gas fields and pressing a major assault on an air force base close to the city of Homs.
Although the president’s Iraq/Syria strategy achieved some small successes, it has been widely criticized as far too timid and having no chance of “degrading and defeating” the Islamic State because it lacks a credible force on the ground.
The evidence is mounting that the president’s strategy is an utter failure and is undermining American credibility. It is crucial after the election that President Obama approve a much tougher approach to defeat the Islamic State, bring Iraqi Sunnis into the government, and prevent non-Islamist rebels in Syria from being wiped out. The urgent need for a better Iraq/Syria strategy is a compelling reason why Mr Obama must shake up his National Security Council staff after the election to bring in more competent advisors who will present him with insightful, hard-hitting policy options that are divorced from U.S. domestic politics.