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An analysis of Obama's controversial policy on ISIS

Alessandra Kocman, 2010

Photography: Flickr / Alessandra Kocman

Addressing the nation on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Obama laid out official plans to destroy the Islamic State. In a move that has caused a fair amount of controversy – denounced as too little too late by some, a violent provocation by others - the president has chosen to expand airstrikes from Iraq to Syria. But how effective will this strategy be? There are many reasons to question how this strategy will play out, but Obama is not necessarily taking a step in the wrong direction.

The response of the international community seems fairly telling of the resistance America may meet. Syria has denounced any US action that does not co-ordinate with its government. This comes as no surprise – nor does the reaction of other states. The US president announced that he will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to rally other countries around his plans, yet Russia has already warned the US that extending its campaign of air strikes from Iraq into Syria would violate of international law if it takes places without approval from the UN Security Council. Similar reservations have been expressed by China. Obama may well act even without the full support of Russia and China, but many will prefer a UN-led coalition to put diplomatic pressure on the Middle East to mobilise against IS, encourage genuine change in the region and gain the trust of local populations. Those in the anti-war camp will feel angry about the continued use of airstrikes, and call for an end to the flow weapons in the region altogether.

And what about the reality of the situation outside of political discourse? In his speech the president compared the current campaign to those waged against al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Shabaab in Somalia. But these missions have failed to achieve any real stability – it’s a mistake to take them as models for eradicating Isis. Even greater uncertainty comes from the fact that although the US intends to work with regional powers to fight ISIS and the political situation surrounding these regional powers is always messy. Iraq has experienced many shortcomings in its fight against the Islamic State, which will take time to set straight. Though its new government, headed by Haider al-Abadi, is championed as a sign of religious inclusiveness and unity, whether it will be truly accommodating of the Sunnis and Kurds is still very much up for debate. This is an uncertainty which cannot be ignored – would Sunni nations remain committed to supporting the US plan for the region if they perceived it as being allied with a hostile Shia regime? Tensions between Shia-led Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are a potential threat to efforts against Isis, particularly in light of accusations earlier this year that Saudi Arabia was backing the IS in a war against the Shias. Further, is it naïve to expect the formation of a well and truly moderate fighting force under the influence of Saudi Arabia? The list of things that could go spectacularly wrong seems truly endless.

And let’s not forget the importance of finding stability in Syria. In his address, Obama made US reluctance to work with the Assad regime quite clear, instead preferring to strengthen Syria’s ‘moderate’ opposition forces. Yet it’s unclear whether the removal of Bashir al-Assad is exactly what the region needs right now. Whether the US could even ensure an alternative to Assad’s regime that is moderate enough for religious minorities in Syria to accept is equally up for speculation. Ensuring that the US navigates the Syrian crisis in a way that assures further conflict does not break out will need to be a priority.

So, clearly the success of US plans is not in any way secure. This is a war which could plausibly stretch out beyond Obama’s presidency – the only thing we can guarantee is that much will be lost. But war will always be a morally dubious and chaotic affair. I sympathise with critics of the US who bemoan its apparently never-ending hero narrative. However, in the complex set of circumstances surrounding the growth of IS, it is hard to see how it can be beaten without some level of military intervention.

The unfortunate truth is that this kind of foreign policy is often the response to a crisis symptomatic of bigger underlying issues. Crushing the enemy with military force works fine until in a dramatic turn of events the opposition gets hold of weapons we originally intended for use by our allies and strikes back. Allowing violence to determine who gets power is not a sustainable model for real change in the Middle East, no matter how much humanitarian work you put in afterwards. Obama is right to approach IS as a primarily Middle Eastern threat – as much as some US politicians would prefer to argue otherwise, that is ultimately what it is, or at least, what it seems to be for now. The ultimate counter-weight to threats such as IS will be social and political reforms originating from the Middle East. I support a short term military response to IS, but like many others I hope that over the years we see more international foreign and domestic policy aimed at drawing out these changes and encouraging permanent political stability amongst Islamic nations.

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