The Islamic State: First the Strategy, Then What?

Not long ago President Barack Obama took some heat for committing truth: for saying that a strategy was not yet in place to counter the pseudo-Islamic, terrorist-criminal phenomenon calling itself the “Islamic State:” a murderous organization dominating pieces of Iraq and Syria, adding up in size to New England. It probably would have been better had the president said that the relevant departments and agencies of government were preparing options for his consideration. The “no strategy” formulation merely reminded many that the conduct of foreign policy on the basis of an objectives-based strategy has not been a habit of this administration. Yet on September 10, the president will share with the American people his sense of how the United States can best contribute to the degrading of the Islamic State’s capabilities, the shrinkage of the territory it controls, and its ultimate defeat. How this administration organizes itself to make it happen will be far more important than any well-articulated grand strategy.

“Contribute” is a key word. Here, again, the president will have to deal with critics; to climb out of a hole he has dug for himself with injudicious rhetoric about leading from behind, avoiding the doing of stupid stuff, hitting singles and doubles, and so forth. He has to make the point that although US leadership in this endeavor is essential if the moving parts of a broad coalition are to be effectively synchronized, others—particularly local actors—must step up to the plate.

The beheading of two US citizens was inadmissible, repulsive, and purely evil. Yet it was not the Levantine equivalent of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still, the omnipresence of the United States in the political-military struggle to take down the Islamic State is essential. Few, if any, of Washington’s actual or prospective coalition partners will go beyond their respective comfort zones in terms of effort and risk unless they are utterly convinced that the United States is orchestrating the overall effort and will do so for the duration. Yet state failure in Syria and Iraq has potentially grave consequences primarily for the states bordering those two, and secondarily for others in the neighborhood—consequences far more serious than those presented in the near-term to the United States. In the absence, however, of sustained, coalition-binding leadership and military muscle from the United States, the default position of Syria’s neighbors will be one of reactive risk-aversion. No “made-in-Washington” strategy can be long sustained without key regional states being all-in.

Turkey is, perhaps, the best example. The Turkish Army, with combat air support from the United States and potential others, could provide in the near-term that which is missing in Syria: an effective ground force that can achieve decisive results by splitting the elements of the Islamic State into manageable pieces and systematically eliminating them. Clearly, it is in the national interests of Turkey to erase the Syrian side of the Islamic State, giving the Syrian nationalist opposition an opportunity to build on local opposition committees and create a governmental alternative to the Assad regime in liberated areas. Ankara has the motive and the means to strike hard. Indeed, crushing the Islamic State might not inspire the levels of domestic political opposition with which President Erdogan has had to deal in other Syrian contexts.

Obviously, the presence of some forty-nine Turkish hostages in Mosul will weigh heavily on whatever courses of action Ankara considers. Will the hostage situation dictate Turkish policy? Short of ground operations in Syria, will it cause Turkey to deny the use of Turkish airbases to US fighters and bombers engaging targets in Syria? Might it even compromise Turkish efforts to prevent the passage through Turkey of foreign fighter reinforcements for the Islamic State? Here, Ankara’s perception of Washington’s leadership role and the reliability of the bilateral relationship may prove decisive. If the doubts that have prevailed in Ankara over the past three years are permitted to continue, the United States will be in the unsustainable position of trying to neutralize a deadly threat to all of Syria’s neighbors—including a NATO ally—while Turkey hedges its bets and tries to deal with the problem in ways that might prove inappropriate and self-defeating.

Whatever President Obama says about strategy on September 10 will be important. What his administration does in the wake of the speech will be vital. It will not be enough to articulate the objective with clarity and precision. It will not suffice to spell out how and with whom the objective is to be achieved. Unless the United States is able to harness and employ the contributions of regional powers—manpower, money, facilities, information—the speech will go onto the shelf containing the dusty transcripts of bygone rhetorical exercises. Washington will harness and employ nothing of consequence in the absence of relationships built on trust and confidence sustained by genuine consultation and constant contact. This is not something to be managed from within the White House through the alchemy of strategic communication. It is not something to be achieved through quick visits by cabinet officers. It requires empowering and enfranchising ambassadors and other senior officials to do their jobs based on broad mission guidance. When the temporary ambassador in Ankara—the very capable Ross Wilson—speaks with the Turkish president, prime minister, and foreign minister, they should understand that he speaks for President Obama.

There is no attempt here to add to the speculation about how exactly the president will articulate the anti-Islamic State strategy, or to offer him rudder direction. No doubt, US diplomatic pressure helped to bring about a new government in Iraq: a potentially excellent development. The president’s recent Meet the Press remarks provided plenty of obvious clues as to what may come on the Syrian side of the equation: no collaboration with Assad (whose value to the Islamic State as a recruitment tool is a hundred-fold greater than that of Iraq’s Nouri al Maliki), increased support for the nationalist opposition, and no US boots on the ground (which the president may define narrowly in terms of conventional combat units, as opposed to special operations forces).

The key, however, is not what the president says—important as it will be. Fixing the problem of failed statehood in Syria and Iraq and addressing the security and terror problems arising from those failures will require US leadership, sacrifice, and skin in the game. But leadership and the results it produces will require heavy lifting by local actors. Inspiring those lifts will require levels of delegation, enfranchisement, and empowerment with which this White House is neither comfortable nor familiar. The most important element of the president’s strategy will be that not shared with the public: who, and with what authorities, will work constantly with allies, partners, and friends to make it all come together.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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