Expert Reactions to President Obama’s Speech on ISIS

President Barack Obama has faced tremendous pressure to respond to the stunning growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State). The group’s videos, showing the beheading of two American journalists, brought the conflict to bear directly on the United States in a way that captured domestic attention as never before. Particular attention focused on Obama’s candid admission of the lack of a strategy to deal with ISIS—an unfortunate choice of words. In the wake of a NATO Summit pledge, however, to form an international coalition to address the threat to the United States, its allies, and the international order, the president delivered a fourteen-minute speech to convey his long-awaited plan.

Atlantic Council experts have followed closely events in Iraq and Syria, carefully producing analysis and recommendations on how best to understand and combat threats to peace and stability in the Middle East. These experts that included former US government officials, US military officers, and longtime observers of Iraq and Syria from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security have reviewed the president’s stated mission. A collection of their reactions below:

Rafik Hariri Center Middle East Experts

Frederic C. Hof, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

The president, as he often does, spoke well. He described the challenge accurately. He created a subtle but vital link between the need for US leadership of a broad coalition and the requirement for regional actors—those most directly threatened by the Islamic State—to do the heavy political and military lifting, albeit with American orchestration and support. It was a solid performance.

The challenge for the president, however, is not the what and the why; it is the how and by whom. He made his intent clear: ISIS is to be degraded and ultimately destroyed. He likewise spelled out a general formula for mission accomplishment: US leadership and support for heavy lifting done by locals. But who will make this happen? For a White House accustomed to micromanagement and the managing of messages, this is unfamiliar terrain. The coalition will need constant tending: it contains oarsmen not accustomed to pulling in the same direction. The coalition will require the day-to-day leadership of a chief and a staff experienced in running large, complex operations replete with military and diplomatic facets. The building, leading, and employing of a coalition will mandate White House oversight featuring broad mission guidance and maximum discretion for those actually running the operation. Micromanagement from the Oval Office or through Deputies Committee meetings simply cannot work: it has not yet.

Surely, the president’s words are worth parsing: for example, his dismissal of cooperation with the Assad regime was definite, but perhaps not as strong as it might have been. Assad has not only lost all legitimacy. His presence and his tactics are gifts to ISIS that keep on giving; his removal is more important to the cause of beating ISIS than was the removal of Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki. But the speech is not the point: what comes next is. Look for the president to designate a prominent US military-diplomat—someone on the order of retired Marine General John Allen—to head this effort. If it or something like it happens and if the person in charge gets the authorities and resources he or she needs, this is serious. If not, it is a speech: a good one, but not much else.

Faysal Itani, Resident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

It was difficult to tell from President Obama’s speech how (or whether) US policy toward ISIS in Syria has changed. With the exception of possible US counterterrorism operations against ISIS in Syria, all the Syria policies announced are presumably already in place.

For example, according to the speech, Bashar Assad is not a US partner against ISIS—something the White House had repeatedly made clear already. In addition, the United States has ‘ramped up’ assistance to the Syrian opposition, but President Obama has said this before with limited result or effect.

The president called on Congress to approve additional support for the rebels. It may be well do so in the wake of ISIS’ atrocities—but this is not a new policy or request. It is still unclear whether this assistance would exceed the (woefully inadequate) $500 million requested months ago, and how this would create a capable Syrian opposition rival to ISIS and the regime.

The president did introduce one new element: the likelihood of US counterterrorism operations—most likely air strikes—on ISIS in Syria, most probably with allied support. But this begs the question: how the United States can do this without benefiting either the Assad regime or elements of the opposition. If the former, that would contradict and undermine his stance on Assad. If the latter: whom, where, to what end, and what of the impact on working with Iranian backed forces and the government regime in Iraq?

Danya Greenfield, Deputy Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Highlighting the US approach in Yemen and Somalia as a successful model is deeply troubling—in the case of Yemen, despite more than a decade of US assistance, the country is still deeply unstable, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to find safe haven. The current approach of overreliance on drone strikes and the lack of a long-term strategy to build the capacity of Yemeni forces has created a situation where AQAP is beaten back temporarily, regroups from new terrain, and then poses a renewed threat. This short-term, whack-a-mole approach is not a substitute for a long-term strategy to deal with the underlying causes of extremism—absence of an effective security infrastructure, weak governance, lack of rule of law, little economic opportunity, and social injustice. More importantly, the narrow, tactical approach of relying on targeted assassinations that often kill unintended targets and innocent civilians risks alienating broad swathes of the population that we need as allies in the fight against violent terrorists in their midst.

Ramzy Mardini, Nonresident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

President Obama has adopted an approach to combat the Islamic State that is strategically short-sighted, operationally susceptible to mission creep, and unappreciative of the risks and potential consequences of a sustained US military involvement in the Middle East. Despite a strategy, the White House is operating under many blind spots going forward that could entangle and pull it deeper into the crisis. Not only does it wrongly treat ISIS as the disease—rather than a symptom of the civil wars that plague Iraq and Syria—but the risks of armed intervention in Syria are far greater than in Iraq.

Matthew Hall, Assistant Director for Syria, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

In his national address, President Obama presented the broad outlines of a strategy to “roll back” ISIS, but key details by which we might evaluate the likelihood of its success were notably absent.

Of course, we should not expect President Obama to unfurl battlefield maps during a fifteen-minute television appearance, and among his principle objectives, the president surely meant to reassure a weary and wary American public of what his strategy was not (the deployment of US combat troops into another Middle East ground war). But after long years of empty talk Syria watchers were left wanting for certain concrete details. The speech was not, in the parlance of pundits, an “empty-burger”—rather, it was more like a vague description of yonder delicious burger joint, absent directions of how we might get there.

We have learned, for example, that Saudi Arabia is willing to host the training of opposition fighters, and we heard last night that President Obama asked Congress for funding to support this venture. We do not have sufficient specifics, however, to judge if this project is serious or will be merely a token effort. We do not know how much money is involved, to train how many fighters, on what timeline, with what weapons, to fight whom and where.

In Syria’s hyper-localized conflict, understanding geographies is key. Does President Obama intend to limit himself to striking ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor where they are a nuisance to the regime (thus pushing the group westward into more populated areas)? Or will he venture into the more politically fraught terrain of Aleppo and Idlib, where ISIS works in parallel with the regime to exterminate the last of the revolutionaries? If and when we learn such critical elements of the plan, then we might be in a position to evaluate the strategy introduced in last night’s speech.

Brent Scowcroft Center Security Experts

Barry Pavel, Vice President and Director, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

The strategy that President Obama laid out appears geared more toward disrupting and containing ISIS than to “ultimately defeating” it, as the president said. Using US air strikes in combination with building up the capabilities of Iraqi forces and moderate Syrian rebels are necessary steps, but actually destroying ISIS would take much more. Ultimately, it would require resolving the fundamental conditions in Syria that have contributed greatly to ISIS’ recent rise. After roughly three and a half years of war and 200,000 dead at the hands of the brutal Assad regime, the conditions in Syrian society are ripe for continuing to churn out extremists. If Assad is not dealt with, the next version of ISIS is likely to be even more radical, brutal, and dangerous for the United States and its allies and friends.

Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow for Middle East Security with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Other than execution, the most important element missing in Obama’s strategy is a timeline. He repeatedly said that implementation would take time, but time is on the enemy’s side. Time allows the enemy to adapt and acquire new and far more threatening capabilities. His analogy of “successful” US counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda also leaves one feeling uneasy, given that ISIS is a more formidable challenge than al-Qaeda. Furthermore, my confidence in the Iraqi and Syrian partners he mentions is much weaker than his. You may call it counterterrorism, but at the heart of it, this is state-building—except this time without the US ground troops. While it is reassuring to hear the president’s readiness to hit ISIS in Syria, one may feel perplexed regarding a self-imposed restriction to airstrikes. Perhaps he misspoke and there will not be an exclusive reliance on US warplanes. If he hopes to deal a decisive blow, there certainly should not be.

Michael Tyson, US Marine Corps Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

The president’s strategy requires other actors to do their part in facing this challenge. But how that happens continues to elude the United States. Diplomatic efforts continue to be ineffective in drumming up more support from regional actors.

What is clear, however, is that the ability to degrade and destroy ISIS will require well-organized, trained, and equipped ground forces committed to the effort, along with the requisite air power provided by the United States, its allies, and partners. US aviation assets will continue delivering precision strikes to the degree it is asked. But the defeat of any adversary must ultimately be done on the ground. The ground forces facing ISIS will find themselves operating in urban centers against a well-funded and equipped enemy; not an easy task. Their success is contingent on detailed coordination and timely and accurate execution. I am not convinced the ground forces currently assembled are sufficient to face the threat posed by ISIS. So long as ISIS poses a threat to US interests, the US military should prepare to increase its efforts in accomplishing the president’s strategic objectives. The degradation and defeat of ISIS, along with the greater goal of regional stability, cannot happen soon enough.

Mark Seip, US Navy Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

The president’s speech on ISIS, as expected, emphasized the application of air power, expansion of target sets into Syria, and the commitment of actions from partners. These steps, plus refocusing efforts on bolstering the Free Syrian Army and providing humanitarian aid, are about the best he was going to do given the domestic political realities. The general US population wants to see action, as evidenced by recent polls, but equally does not want to see too much action (i.e. ground troops).

However, air strikes, even into Syria, can only do so much. Eventually to “eradicate this cancer,” as the president put it, requires a competent land power that is committed to the mission. The addition of more trainers, bringing the total number to roughly 1,500, is a step in the right direction. But in the end, if the destruction of ISIS is to occur, it will occur at the hands of the Iraqi and perhaps Free Syrian Army forces. Unfortunately, the former is fractured and gutted of its most talented leaders and the latter is already tied up in its own conflict for survival. This strategy laid out last night will require sustained attention by the White House and relevant US government agencies as well as deft handling of the various parties involved in the region over the long term for success to be possible. As the president rightly stated to the nation, “our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.” It will take time to see whether we have the focus and perseverance to bear that burden against ISIS.

Related Experts: Faysal Itani, Frederic C. Hof, Mark Seip, Michael Tyson, and Ramzy Mardini

Image: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)