WASHINGTON – America’s war against the Islamic State is quickly turning into a quagmire.
A few signs of progress have sprung up in recent days. U.S. airstrikes have slowed down the Islamist group’s onslaught against the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria. A much-cheered caravan of Kurdish peshmerga fighters is making its way from Iraq to join the battle.
But even if the Kurds push ISIS out of Kobani, what does that signify in the larger struggle? What happens next? And what is the Obama administration’s desired endgame and its path for getting there? These questions have no clear answers, and that speaks volume.
When President Barack Obama delivered his televised address on Sept. 10, announcing that he would now pursue ISIS throughout Iraq (not just where they threatened U.S. diplomats) and even into Syria, he clarified that the focus would remain on Iraq. To the extent he launched airstrikes in Syria, they would be clustered along the border, to keep the jihadists from moving back and forth between the two countries or seeking safe haven. And at first, the bombs dropped on Syria did fall along the ISIS cross-border paths.
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But by early October, Obama was dropping more bombs on Syria than on Iraq. What happened? Kobani. ISIS launched an assault against this town on the Turkish border. Intelligence indicated the town would soon fall. Local Kurds were running out of ammunition. Turkish President Recep Erdogan lined up tanks, but refused to roll them forward; he also blocked Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to help their Syrian brethren. So, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, Obama sent in the drones and the fighter planes.
For a short while, the bombing forced ISIS militias to lay low and fall back. But then, like most resourceful armies (and it turns out ISIS is resourceful), they adapted to the patterns of airstrikes and kept fighting. To bolster their ranks, thousands of jihadists flocked to Kobani from all over, to help the holy cause and to fight the American devils, even if it meant dying in the process. (In fact, for some, martyrdom was part of the appeal.)
Suddenly, the fight for this little-known town took on vast symbolic significance. And if ISIS was telling the world that Kobani was a decisive battle along the path to the Islamic State’s victory, then Obama – who’d put American resources and credibility on the line-had little choice but to treat it as a decisive battle as well. If ISIS won, the propaganda windfall would be immense.
So, Obama upped the stakes, dropping not only bombs on ISIS but also weapons and supplies to the Kurds. (One of the 28 airdrops drifted off course and wound up in the hands of ISIS, but all the others reportedly landed on target.) This is probably what energized the Iraqi peshmerga to come join the fight: Their contribution might not be futile, because the United States was now locked in.
A senior administration official pointed to one more alluring factor: The dense concentration of ISIS forces in Kobani made for a very high-value target; a few bombs, well placed, could kill a lot of jihadists.
But body counts, as we learned a long time ago, aren’t a good measure for which side is winning a war. The argument might carry more weight if ISIS were on its last lap. But the opposite is true. A couple hundred peshmerga may be streaming into northern Syria, but so are thousands of jihadists. A U.N. Security Council report, obtained by Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian, finds that 15,000 foreign jihadists have come to join the battle from more than 80 countries, including many “that have not previously faced challenges relating to al-Qaida,” among them such unlikely places as the Maldives, Chile, and Norway.
In fact, according to the report, the numbers of foreign jihadists flowing into the area since 2010 “are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010 – and are growing.”
ISIS cash flows are growing, too. The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that the group earns $1 million a day from oil sales and, so far this year, has amassed $20 million in ransom payments.
In short, American airstrikes and a few hundred Kurds on the ground aren’t going to be enough. Even if ISIS is pushed back from Kobani, so what? On Oct. 8, when the town seemed about to fall, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a public forum, “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective. … Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command and control centers, the infrastructure.”
Clearly, Kerry hadn’t received the administration’s talking-points memo for the day, but his comment – though crude and deeply alienating to the Kurds – wasn’t off the mark by the strict measures of geopolitics.
ISIS is not 10 feet tall, but it looks like a giant because its opponents – which include every nation in the region – are unable to act in unity, either because of dysfunction or their own overwhelming conflicts of interest.
The most promising allies in a fight against the Sunni jihadists of ISIS would be the Shiite regimes of Iran and Syria. But Obama can’t join forces with them, at least not openly: First, he’s called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with good reason, and allying with Iran’s mullahs wouldn’t go over well politically; second, if he did ally with them, the region’s anti-ISIS Sunni governments would back away. And Sunnis are vital to this coalition, in order to discredit the notion that ISIS is a legitimate Muslim power. As for those Sunni governments, Turkey – which could be the most potent force against ISIS – doesn’t want to help the Kurds, lest they push their long-standing desire to secede; the Saudis are providing a base to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, and the United Arab Emirates is providing some air power, but otherwise, they don’t have much to give.
And then there is Iraq. The corrupt sectarianism of the previous Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is responsible for much of what’s gone wrong. After U.S. troops left Iraq, he backpedaled on his commitments to bring Sunnis into the government and replaced senior army officers with incompetent cronies. So when ISIS rose up, the leaderless army deserted, and the Sunni tribes either collaborated or stayed passive, preferring to be ruled, however harshly, by fellow Sunnis than by oppressive Shiites.
The Obama administration pressured Maliki to leave office. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, is a seemingly more inclusive Shiite. But so far his actions haven’t matched his words, so Sunnis still see no reason to pledge allegiance to the new Iraqi government. This was the key premise of America’s renewed involvement in Iraq – that the central government would visibly work for the interests of all Iraqis and thus wean moderate Sunnis away from ISIS – but it hasn’t happened. As a result, the U.S. intervention, however well-intentioned and circumscribed, rests on shaky ground, at best.
Even on a tactical level, it’s hard to see where the Obama administration is going with its anti-ISIS venture. Figures released by U.S. Central Command show that the airstrikes over Syria and Iraq, combined, rarely exceed 25 per day. That’s not nothing, but it’s close. A joke recently circulating among Kurds was that they couldn’t tell whether the Americans were not fighting while pretending to fight – or fighting while pretending not to fight. (That was a couple weeks ago; the perception has changed since, but it still colors their historically skeptical outlook of the United States.)
American military power has played an important role elsewhere. Strafings by Apache helicopters have kept ISIS from taking over the airport on the outskirts of Baghdad. And American advisers on the ground in Iraq have set up logistics, intelligence, and command-and-control networks, which have gone a long way toward stopping ISIS in its tracks. The Iraqi army is still in woeful straits, but Shiite militias – some of them dressed in army uniform – have recaptured a few towns.
If the fight were restricted to Iraq, as Obama had initially hoped and planned for, this might be good enough. But, as he has learned, there is no defeating – or even degrading – ISIS without lurching into Syria as well. President Erdogan has told Obama that he won’t send Turkish troops to fight ISIS unless Obama does more to topple Syrian President Assad. In one sense, Erdogan has a point; ISIS probably couldn’t have risen without the power vacuums created by Assad’s deadly suppression of the Sunni uprising within his own borders. But his demand is probably more an excuse for inaction: Obama clearly doesn’t want to intervene in the civil war in Syria, and Erdogan surely knows this.
In his Sept. 10 speech, Obama said that the United States would train moderate Syrian rebels to overthrow Assad. But this part of his plan seemed halfhearted. First, he acknowledged that it would take roughly a year. Second, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged that the forces running the training program haven’t yet vetted which Syrians will take part. Third, while Obama has focused on bombing ISIS in northeastern Syria, Assad has stepped up his own airstrikes on other types of Sunni rebels (some moderate, some not) in northwestern Syria – 200 airstrikes against them on Oct. 20 alone.
So here we are, back in the Middle East again, shoring up a dysfunctional regime, caught in the middle of a sectarian conflict, saddled with allies who aren’t doing much and whose interests conflict with ours, roped off from potential allies who could do much more but whose interests conflict with ours more deeply, and facing a bunch of millennarian savages whose appeal grows as our involvement deepens.
Obama knew this would happen. He understood the region’s dynamics. It was why he resisted intervening in these conflicts from the outset. But he took one step in, trying to help, carefully limiting his actions, to pre-empt the proverbial slippery slope; yet here he is, scrambling to climb back up the hill.
Kaplan is the author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War” and “1959: The Year Everything Changed.”