Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thoughts on Obama's four-point strategy

Somehow the United States was able to tear itself away from the Ray Rice/Roger Goodell debacle long enough to hear President Obama's speech last night.

In a four-point plan that he laid out, the Commander-in-Chief announced coming airstrikes in both countries, additional support for Iraqi army units, counter-terrorism activities to hamstring ISIS, and renewed humanitarian aid for victims of ISIS militants.  (Daily Mail)

Obama, reeling politically from the beheadings of two American journalists, had to come out with a more intense plan than he originally wanted.  His airstrikes in Iraq have not produced results that he can use to righten his sinking presidency.  He now has to go after targets in Syria as well (which begs the first most obvious question, why didn't he do that when Asad used chemical weapons? We get to to that in a moment).

Obama's timidness in not wanting to take a more aggressive stance has set him up to fail into this quagmire.  Had he supported Syrian rebels early on, he may very well have avoided the crisis in Iraq.  Had he reacted more quickly to the threat in Iraq, instead of dismissing them as a "junior varsity team", he could have prevented ISIS from occupying territory.  Now by promising to destroy ISIS, he opens himself up to mission creep.  Yes, he has promised no boots on the ground, but that is the truth as we know it today.  Should his four-point plan fail to produce tangible results, there will be pressure to do more.

Obama's approach is fraught with peril for both his presidency as well as that of the next US president.  Quote, "That means I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”  (The Hill)

Attacking in ISIS presented no political peril as the Iraqi government and Washington shared the same views.  However, attacking ISIS in Syria crosses over into a much different political reality.  The US and Syrian government have been at odds for several years yet ISIS is our enemy even though they were formed out of the rebels opposing Asad.  In short, who exactly do we strike in Syria…Asad or ISIS or both?

The US is able to work with Iraqi army, Kurdish Army (Peshmerga), as well as even the Iranians to help deal with ISIS in Iraq.  This type of synergy does not exist in Syria.  The US, and the UN at Washington's insistence, have called for President Asad to step down.  Although ISIS stands in opposition to Asad, I don't see where the Washington and Damascus share any common goals.  The US wants to strike ISIS in Syria because of actions they have taken in Iraq.  Asad has no interest in matters in Iraq.

Obama has formulated a plan that relies on the formation of partnerships to wage counter-terrorism against ISIS.  In a sense, he is trying to create a brand to compete with the ISIS brand. Therein lies the problem, ISIS is about forming an Islamic state.  A successful competing brand would have to be the creation of some state that is opposed to an Islamic state.  Given that this is to be accomplished with the help of Islamic nations, it would appear the Obama brand is doomed not to succeed.

Earlier I posed a question about why Obama did not strike when Asad used chemical weapons against Syrians.  The reasons may be varied but one of the biggest was assuredly the presence of a ten Russian warships in the port of Tartus.  Those ships included cruisers armed with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that could have threatened US fighters.  Russian Marines were on the ground in Syria and Washington couldn't risk hitting a Russian troop by accident.

There are no current reports of how many Russian navy ships are docked in Tartus but since it is a Russia facility, we can assume there are some.  Unlike the situation in Iraq, attacking targets in Syria is surely to draw the criticisms of Moscow.  Also unlike Iraq, Russian forces are based in Syria.

US Department of Homeland security and other agencies are quite concerned that ISIS will attack targets here in the US. But the fixation is on ISIS operatives trying to come over here (at least in the press).  What is missed in these assessments is that ISIS is NOT made up of just Sunnis from Syria and Iraq.  ISIS has managed to recruit rebels from Saudi Arabia, Europe and even the US.  ISIS does need to try to infiltrate an operative, they seem to be able to recruit them from abroad quite easily.

Even by Obama's own admission, his strategy is a long-term process.  The campaign against ISIS could turn into a Vietnam type situation where slowly more and more ground troops are poured into the region.  If special operations troops are already operating in Iraq, it stands to reason given last night's speech that there will special operations conducted against targets in Syria.  Russia is unlikely to support such escapades are may other increase actives in the Ukraine or increase their presence in Syria.  

Either way, Obama has set a course for an untenable future.

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