The Obama administration is coming under increasing criticism for what critics say is a “half-hearted,” “Goldilocks” approach toward defeating the extremist group ISIS in Syria.
The US military has begun the process of vetting moderate factions of rebels in Syria.
But President Barack Obama has been reluctant to commit the US military to help those nationalist Syrian forces in their fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, as he is wary of getting US forces too involved in Syria’s civil war.
Experts and even some in the administration have started to hint at serious flaws in Obama’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State. For instance, the administration plans to only train the rebels to defend territory — not go on the offensive — something that could provide an unintentional boost to Assad regime forces.
Gen. John Allen, the president’s special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, also said this weekend that the US doesn’t believe the rebels it trains will go on to fight forces backing Assad. Instead, he said the administration hopes to build up the moderate rebels enough that they will “become the credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognise.”
The policy has befuddled Middle East analysts and experts, many of whom have blamed Assad for intentionally fueling ISIS’ rise to create a jihadist vacuum.
“The only course of action that makes sense to me is to try to build a Syrian force capable of defeating any combination of enemies in the course of stabilizing Syria,” Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former special advisor for transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State, told Business Insider.
“If the creation and deploying of this force persuades or compels the Assad regime to engage in genuine political negotiations, fine. A Goldilocks approach of trying to recruit and build a force just good enough to beat ISIL but not quite good enough to the beat the regime simply won’t work.”
The key limitation of the coalition’s strategy has long been a general unwillingness to become more involved in Syria’s still-deepening, three-plus-year long civil war.
The administration’s policy has frustrated the forces with which it is planning to partner in Syria. Because as the US has stepped up its campaign to rescue the beleaguered town of Kobani from the hands of ISIS, Assad has continued his barrel-bombing campaign in other, rebel-held areas of Syria.
Assad has used the breathing room allotted by the focus on ISIS to intensify his bombing campaign against Free Syrian Army-held territory, including a campaign of “200 air force strikes“‘ in 36 hours in recent days. One of the unknowns of the strategy could be potentially disastrous — by the time Syrian rebels are vetted and trained by late 2015 at the earliest, they may not have much territory to defend.
“Designing such a force would be problematical and frankly I do not know of any Syrian nationalist opponents of the regime and ISIL who would be attracted to the lop-sided proposition as described,” Hof told Business Insider. “Syrians have, after all, suffered much more from Assad than they have from ISIL to date. As we try to square the circle of a purely American policy debate we’ll have to keep in mind that Syrians will have a vote.”
The Washington Post editorial board criticised Obama’s “half-hearted” strategy against ISIS, citing “major weaknesses” including a “de facto neutral stance” that has allowed Assad to step up his campaign against the FSA forces on whom the US is counting to be the ground force that helps defeat ISIS.
The editorial board also pointed to the consequences of inaction with allies — Turkey, an important partner because of its border, has been reluctant to engage militarily without a commitment from the US to oust Assad. Iraq’s new government recently appointed a Shiite Iranian-affiliated interior minister. And some Sunni tribes — whose support is key against the Sunni militants of ISIS — are striking deals with the extremist group rather than join the US coalition.
“The United States will have to broaden its aims and increase its military commitment if the terrorists are to be defeated,” the editorial board wrote. “At the least, Syrian rebel forces must be protected from attacks by the Assad regime and both Syrian and Iraqi units provided with U.S. advisers and air controllers. The longer Mr. Obama delays such steps, the greater the risk to vital U.S. interests.”
But given domestic political constraints of sending US troops to fight in Iraq and Syria and varying allied support, other analysts believe the Obama administration’s policy — Goldilocks as it may be — might be the best option.
“Support for US boots on the ground is limited and would quickly grow into opposition over time and given casualties,” Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, recently told Business Insider. “And if you’re not planning on an actual substantial ground force, you’re left with a strategy that’s part pushback (where you have workable ground forces — for now, the Kurds in Iraq), part containment (west Iraq and Syria).
“So if you’re asking is [the] present Obama strategy going to defeat ISIS — the answer is no. If you’re asking is there realistically a better, more workable strategy out there — the answer is also no.”
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