Has the import of President Obama’s speech a week ago set in yet? That we are now undertaking a lengthy campaign to “degrade and destroy” what the administration calls ISIL (and the press calls ISIS)?”
That this is not exactly a war in that we are not sending in combat troops as we did in Iraq, but it’s more than a counter insurgency effort like in Yemen because the ISIL threat is much bigger.
Amazingly, in what seems a matter of months, ISIL has gathered a large, well trained, well financed army of fanatics whose intention is to create a new Arab empire, and they are off to a good start.
No matter what our past failures in the area, this is a danger that cannot be allowed to go unchecked, so while the Obama plan to degrade and destroy ISIL seems chancy, I cannot conceive of a better alternative.
Whatever flaws the Obama plan has, the key thing in its favor is ISIL’s capacity for making enemies out of just about everyone. They have been too viciously sectarian, even for Al Qaeda, which champions a more inclusive pan Muslim extremism. As unspecified as the many national commitments to help fight ISIL are (at least publicly), including those from the 10 Arab countries whose representatives met in Saudi Arabia last week, each promising “to do its share”, the weight of these combined efforts once coordinated (an admittedly mind-boggling task which is why this work will take many months) would seem likely to degrade ISIL to the point of containment in Syria.
How to destroy them totally is impossible to predict as long as they can maintain their ground in Syria, where any future is impossible to predict given the shattered nature of that nation and the numerous armed factions battling each other with the aid of external backers.
A particularly dicey part of the Obama strategy is the plan to equip and train 5,000 “moderate” Syrians (under the general rubric of the Free Syrian Army) for a year in Saudi Arabia then return them to fight ISIL in Syria, this at a price tag of $500,000,000. This amounts to a cost of $100,000 per trainee. Will there even be a spot in Syria for them to return to in a year and where will their true loyalties lie?
As Republican Senator John McCain told General Dempsey, head of the joint chiefs of staff at a recent hearing, what is to keep these trainees from directing their attack on the Assad regime, their main enemy, rather than ISIL? Dempsey’s response boiled down to his having confidence they won’t, not all that convincing.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin shares McCain’s doubts that this element of the plan will work and perhaps even worse, will draw us deeply into the Syrian chaos, so today he will vote against the plan when brought up in the Senate. It has already passed the House, by a big bi-partisan margin, albeit not an enthusiastic one. The primary concern of the politicians up for reelection seems to be to get back to their districts and campaign. So sure, give the President what he asks for so they can go home while not appearing unpatriotic.
While I thought General Dempsey’s response to the criticism of this training plan weak, I liked his overall performance in that he did not beat around the bush in answering questions, in contrast to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who sat next to him at the hearing.
When asked to spell out the goal of this campaign he said it was to “destroy ISIL in Iraq and to disrupt them in Syria.” DISRUPT THEM IN SYRIA! Not destroy them in Syria. This seems to me the most accurate statement of what we are about and can hope for. Syria figures to remain chaotic for years to come, and if ISIL retreats there who will know what to do with them at that point? Certainly not send in American troops to wipe them out and leave us with another nation to rebuild.
By the way, Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense under both Bush II. and Obama I. voiced his opinion on a talk show last Sunday that we will not be successful in crushing ISIL without some of our combat troops playing a role. Dempsey left open the door for a request for some combat troops if needed, and that door seems still ajar despite the president’s stated refusal to do so.
Resisting putting many of our combat troops into this effort is a good idea, for the more we do the less the nations in that area will feel the need to do and they are the ones most threatened. At least seemingly so.
Do note though that much changed in the American attitude towards this conflict after two Americans were beheaded, flipping resistance to bombing to support of it. We must all be aware that ISIL and Al Qaeda must be hungering to attack us at home or more Americans abroad. Al Qaeda might be more dangerous as they have lost ground internationally to their terrorist rival and would undoubtedly love to show them up.
God forbid either successfully strikes us in a dramatic fashion, but if so public opinion supporting the return of American combat troops to the Mid-East struggle might shift dramatically as well. And with that, the president’s stance.
(If you have gotten this far you may be filled with enough of this struggle for now, but I do recommend later checking out this piece on General Dempsey at the Senate hearings, as he seems the most straight forward voice in the administration on our ISIL policy)