The Obama Administration’s New Strategy to Combat the Islamic State: Addressing the Assad Regime

November 13, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

CNN reported yesterday that President Obama has ordered his national security team to reevaluate their strategy and approach to fighting the Islamic State (IS). Up to this point, the mission, as defined by the president, was to degrade and ultimately destroy IS. While the first objective of this mission is feasible, the second has garnered significant criticism as being unrealistic. The administration has overly touted their tactical gains against al-Qaeda, which include the killing of Osama bin Laden. However, the group, while degraded, has not been eliminated or destroyed.

Similarly, as Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic points out, the Bush administration successfully eliminated core leadership members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, yet the group evolved into what is now the most powerful terrorist organization in the world: the Islamic State.

Putting aside these facts, the administration’s stated goal did not reflect the tactics taken militarily on the ground, namely addressing the Assad regime. As Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated recently, “[IS] is not the problem; [IS] is the symptom of the problem. The problem is the civil war in Syria.”  If the ongoing conflict of regime versus opposition is not addressed, the IS problem will never be solved. If IS is destroyed without addressing the overarching civil war and the vacuum caused by it, what is to stop another terrorist entity from taking their place?

Pollack also outlined unattractive, but in his mind, necessary endeavors to address the Syrian crisis – regime change, which then will roll into nation building. The idea of regime change and nation building is not popular in the US because after 13 years of failed efforts, the nation is tired. The US made several mistakes throughout their nation building endeavors, which Pollack indicates can be rectified. He outlined a formidable strategy for the US to undertake in rebuilding the Syrian nation.   “If we do it right in Syria, there is every reason to believe the U.N. can provide the leadership, the NGOs can provide most of the muscle work, and we’ll probably provide, at least, a big chunk of the security, and the Gulf States will provide most of the money,” Pollack stated adding that in order to be successful and efficient, this process must begin immediately.

While an unattractive option, it may be necessary. However, many disagree. One being Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). Kaine, who has become a champion of reining-in war powers and calling on his  congressional colleagues to vote on an authorization in Syria stated this week at the Wilson Center, “I don’t think we’ll deal with [the Assad regime]…I don’t think official policy of the US any longer will be regime change in a sovereign nation…I don’t think we should be in the business of saying ‘Assad must go’…we don’t set the time table for change in regime in other nations, we’ve been bad at it when we’ve tried and I think we should step back from the hubris in thinking we should set it.”  His views seem to clash with the administration’s as reported by CNN and some of his colleagues such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who has called for assistance against the bombing campaign of the Assad regime against Syrian civilians and rebels.

Recently, I argued that the US leaders must reevaluate their counterterrorism framework and modernize their approach the current threats. The reports by CNN indicate the administration might be doing just that – reacting to realities rather than to a romanticized policy objective.