What is the Obama Administration’s ISIS strategy?

June 15, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Part II of a two part series

“Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” President Obama firmly orated to the nation in September announcing that the U.S., as the leader of a global coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group [also known as ISIS or ISIL], would begin military strikes in Syria.

Part I focused on the Obama administration’s recent decision to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq to serve as trainers for Iraqi Security Forces as well as the opening of a fifth U.S. facility.  Given many statements in the press and government to the effect that there is currently no U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria to combat IS – something the president has even admitted, though his comments were largely taken out of context – there is a U.S. strategy.  The proper course of examination is whether or not it is effective based on events on the ground.

Part II of this series will examine what the administration’s policy and strategy is, what it has achieved, and where it could be going along with what prominent experts believe needs to be done within its parameters.

President Obama outlined a four point plan for how his administration would attempt to topple the IS group during the aforementioned speech, after about a month of kinetic operations in Iraq to protect besieged civilians marooned on a mountain by IS, critical Iraqi infrastructure, and U.S. personnel stationed in Iraq.  The first point was to conduct a “systematic campaign of airstrikes…beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.”  Second, “increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground…Now that…Iraq has formed a government – we will send an additional 475 servicemembers [sic] to Iraq.  As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.  But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment…Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition…we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”  Third, “we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities” to curb IS financing efforts and improve intelligence collection of the group.  Last, the president stated the U.S. “will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.”

There is both a military and a broader political solution to the strife in the Middle East currently.  Presently, IS poses a direct military threat to the region and a military solution is needed to oust them from the territory they’ve gained.  However, the stated goals above have not achieved the successes policy makers have desired in the last year or so as IS has increased its territory in both countries amid coalition airstrikes and ground operations by Iraqi forces and militias.  Some have called for a broadening of the air campaign as IS has proven adept at camouflaging in civilian populations, though, IS’s said ability has posed some problems for coalition pilots in the way of burdensome and overly bureaucratic rules of engagement.  “There were times I had groups of ISIS fighters in my sights, but couldn’t get clearance to engage,” a Navy pilot explained to Fox News due to the rules of engagement.  “Today, we are supporting a fight against terrorists who blend into the civilian population,” a senior defense official also told Fox News. “Our threshold for civilian casualties and collateral damage is low. We don’t want to own this fight. We have reliable partners on the ground.” 

The plan to train and equip Iraqis (both members of the Armed forces and members of tribes) serves as a hybrid military/political dimension as many policy makers and experts assess that those in the region must fight for their interests, while shoring up schisms between constituencies and government groups like IS have exploited.  However, many are skeptical that it is too little too late.  “[C]reeping incrementalism is rarely a way of correcting a failed or inadequate strategy, and this approach certainly is not a new strategy or a way of addressing the problems that the existing strategy does not address,” wrote Anthony Cordesman of the strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies regarding the additional deployment of 450 U.S. advisers.  “The recent announcement to send 450 more military advisers to Iraq does nothing to address several key strategic issues in which the existing ‘strategy’ – if there is one – clearly fails to address. It does not address the steadily deteriorating situation in Syria.”

To that end, the U.S. has also attempted a training and equipping mission in Syria but has faced several problems, one of which is that U.S. training must only be used against IS, not Assad – a key point of contention for many aggrieved Syrians.

The third point of the president’s plan has achieved recent successes in the U.S. Special Forces raid that killed IS’s so-called chief financial officer and captured his wife who is currently being interrogated.  This daring action deep into IS-held territory has yielded substantial intelligence according to some U.S. officials.  However, without human intelligence on the ground, it is difficult to gain additional insight into the group’s operations as the U.S. must rely on partners, networks, and signals intelligence.

The U.S. has continued to remain the world’s largest humanitarian donor for the Syrian conflict as it relates to the fourth point of the president’s strategy.  Despite this, Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, indicates that the U.S. is able to provide so much in financial aid to the humanitarian crisis due to the size of the economy, the world’s largest.  “Measured against its GDP, the United States quickly slips to three-fifths of its fair share, according to Oxfam calculations. That’s far below the level held by most Gulf states and not significantly better than the EU average,” wrote Lund.  Lund also pointed out that the U.S. has faltered on its commitments to received refugees.  Some Democratic senators have called on a greater effort of the U.S. to accept refugees while some on the political right have reservations regarding security concerns of admitting large numbers of Syrian refugees to the continental U.S.

Many are also concerned that the president’s plan announced in September and recent efforts are too parochial, only focused on Iraq and Syria.  “More broadly, this approach does not address the rise of ISIL, Al Qaeda, and violent Islamic extremists in other areas like Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. There is no overall strategy to deal with a broader problem, reassure our allies in the region, or clearly show them we not only have a strong and coherent series of inter-related efforts, but also are not taking steps that could aid Iran,” wrote Cordesman.  “Countering ISIS is a multiyear enterprise. Nearly 14 years after the 9/11 attacks, we haven’t defeated al Qaeda or its derivatives. And ISIS isn’t merely a terror organization; it has the makings of a quasi state,” warned Aaron David Miller, scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former State Department employee.  “The Obama administration and its critics in Congress should stop using language like ‘defeat.’ This isn’t World War II. Eliminating ISIS requires fixing Syria and Iraq, creating well-governed, functional states. And not even the hawks in Congress are prepared to expend the resources required for that.”

Additionally, Jessica Lewis McFate, Research Director at the Institute for the Study of War recommends “that it is possible and necessary to think of U.S. policies in the Middle East right now in terms of staving off regional sectarian war… A regional strategy is something that I think we need in lieu of a surgical anti-ISIS strategy in order to defeat ISIS strategically,” which boils down to what happens inside Iraq and Syria – the fault lines of such a sectarian struggle.

This regional strategy, many also warn, must encompass the ability to face Iran’s growing influence since Iranian proxies have taken the lead in Syria and Iraq to defend against the IS group and bring about greater stability in the region to Iran’s favor – not to mention apparent support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

While IS is only considered by many to be a symptom of a much greater problem – Assad’s rule – the Assad question regarding his future remains unanswered.

There are no good answers to this problem as acknowledged by experts and by Congress in which a vote to authorize force against the IS group is politically toxic and a vote to permit U.S. soldiers to war is even less likely.   While some advocate for more troops in the region, many members of the military are skeptical that a large U.S. deployment will ameliorate the situation.  In the short term, “If ISIL begins to threaten our persons, our facilities, our national interests — if they begin conducting external planning, plots against the (U.S.) homeland, for example — we’ve got (military) capabilities in the neighborhood we can bring to bear. … But at this point I just don’t think we should be giving up on the government of Iraq and its ability to conduct this campaign, with our help, without (the U.S.) taking it over,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey stated.  “So this campaign is built on the premise that it has to be won by our coalition partners and by the Iraqis themselves. That’s a baseline assumption. If that assumption changes I’ll go to work on Plan B.”  For the foreseeable future, it appears as though the U.S. will continue course on the same trajectory – no matter how flawed it might be – enabling partners and keeping a watchful eye on direct threats to the homeland.