Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.
After weeks of back and forth, on Wednesday night President Barack Obama outlined his strategy for “degrading” and “destroying” the Islamic State, and on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Americans were able to finally wake up in a country that had a strategy for the most recent Islamist threat.
The problem is that the strategy — to provide logistical support for Iraqi forces, limited air strikes, and a strong Free Syrian Army — is a foolish strategy that is unlikely to succeed.
The president’s strategy calls for U.S. air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria in support of Iraqi army forces and the Free Syrian Army rebels who are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Obama made it clear that the U.S. military commitment will be limited to air strikes, as he will not order U.S. ground forces into either Iraq or Syria.
Instead of ground forces, however, the president said that the United States will increase training and logistical support for those armies on the ground, but herein lies a critical flaw: The Iraqis have not proven to be a reliable partner in the war on terrorism. And this, despite ten years of U.S. military training and equipment provided by the United States.
In Iraq, the Islamic State has swept Iraqi forces in a number of recent engagements, with many Iraqi units simply abandoning their posts and refusing to fight. This problem is not one that can be solved through additional training. Even with the added power and confidence-boost of air strikes, a root issue is sectarianism. On a number of occasions, the Iraqi army failed to fight the Islamic State not simply because of bad officers and cowardice: Sunni units simply did not want to fight fellow Sunnis, even if they were extremists.
In Syria, our other alleged ally, the Free Syrian Army, is fighting not only the Islamic State, but the Syrian army. And here’s a problem with arming them: It is strictly against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s interest to allow the Free Syrian Army to become strong enough even to challenge the Islamic State, because that would also increase the risk to his regime.
Given the ruthlessness of his previous moves, it is likely that Assad will continue to order military attacks against the Free Syrian Army rebels at the same time that the United States is trying to build up the capacity of the Free Syrian Army to serve as the ground force component of the Syrian campaign of Obama’s new strategy. And under those conditions, it will be very difficult for the Free Syrian Army to succeed. This obstacle could require the United States to further expand its mission to include attacking the Syrian army in order to allow the Free Syrian Army to combat the Islamic State.
The president’s end state in Syria remains contingent upon a political solution to the Syrian civil war. This is not likely to happen, and is probably the most serious flaw in the strategy. If there is a political solution, and Assad steps aside, then the theory is that the Syrian army would no longer fight the Free Syrian Army, leaving both armies free to engage the Islamic State.
But Assad has no reason to step down at the moment. He has used chemical weapons against his own people and ordered military operations in civilian areas that have caused over 160,000 civilian deaths. If he were to step down, he would face charges in the international criminal court for these crimes. He has demonstrated a vicious commitment to remain in power, and will surely fight to the end, with the Free Syrian Army in his scopes the entire time.
In both Iraq and Syria, the United States lacks a reliable, legitimate ground force that it can support with air strikes in order to defeat the Islamic State. Building the capacity of the ground forces through an advise, assist, and training mission will take a significant amount of time. During this period, the Islamic State will continue to plot and train for terrorist attacks, and Syria will continue down the path of becoming a failed state where Islamic terrorists rule.
Just like Afghanistan, Sept. 10, 2001.