President Barack Obama surprised many observers Wednesday with his brevity and anger when hespoke about the brutal murder of American photojournalist James Foleyat the hands of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).
It was Obama as “you’ve never seen him before,” as The Huffington Post put it on the site’s banner. Some observers on Twitter said he sounded almost “Bush-ian,” a reference to President George W. Bush. And some analysts think it could mean the start of a long, extended campaign against the group, which Obama compared to a “cancer” and said “doesn’t belong in the 21st century.”
Some analysts think it is likely that Obama will significantly change the mission against ISIS to, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “crush” the group. For a war-tired American public, the mission will be rebranded as a battle in the “war on terror,” rather than in terms of the Iraqi war that the vast majority of Americans, in retrospect, consider a disaster.
“It’s a clear escalation of rhetoric — and will lead to an escalation in policy,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider in an email. “This moves the United States from stopping ISIS gains on the ground (at least against the Kurds and the Yazidis) to active efforts to destroy ISIS. The U.S. has moved from limited military aims and deterrence towards a broader anti-ISIS military campaign.
“ISIS taking the fight ‘directly to America’ with their statements in the past days and the videotaped beheading of an American journalist was a serious strategic misstep on their part.”
Bremmer tweeted Thursday that the U.S. has “moved from constraining ISIS to combating them,” which could expand the war across the Syrian border. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to Obama, told NPR on Thursday that the U.S. “would not restrict ourselves … to geographical boundaries” against ISIS.
The U.S.’ current campaign in Iraq began as a humanitarian intervention, providing critical supplies to tens of thousands of religious minorities trapped on a mountain while blunting ISIS advances near areas with a U.S. personnel presence.
Less than two weeks ago, Obama authorised the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes in Iraq to aid Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS. The Pentagon says the military has conducted 84 such strikes so far, helping the Kurds retake the important strategic mark of the Mosul Dam. The strikes have targeted ISIS security checkpoints, vehicles, weapons caches, and more.
ISIS said its execution of Foley, who had been originally kidnapped in Syria in 2012, came in retaliation for Obama authorizing those airstrikes. ISIS also threatened to kill another journalist it’s allegedly holding captive — Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2013 — if Obama doesn’t draw back U.S. involvement.
Obama made it clear on Wednesday he was not going to do that. Michael Cohen, a fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, tweeted immediately after Obama’s speech that the implicit takeaway was that the U.S. was “at war with ISIS.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Obama make a statement like that,” Cohen told Business Insider in a subsequent interview.
“It was unusually tough, but to the point I made below when you describe ISIS as a cancer and evil and a nihilistic actor you’re kind of locking yourself into a policy of full versus half-measures. It will be very hard, now, for Obama to finish this mission with anything less than the defeat of ISIS, which is not something that is going to happen overnight.”
Bremmer said he expected Obama to remain cautious in how he escalates U.S. military involvement. More “military advisers” and forces to provide “security” to Americans in Iraq could head to the country for Obama to keep his promise of not allowing any U.S. “boots on the ground” in Iraq.
But the airstrikes will continue, and they will most likely ramp up significantly with support from allies. Already, in the aftermath of the ISIS video’s release, the U.S. conducted at least a dozen airstrikes against ISIS targets.
The brutal murder of Foley also allows Obama an easier sell for a hard line against ISIS to a war-weary American public. It allows him to reframe the intervention to focus on the “war on terror,” where he has had some of his biggest foreign-policy successes, and away from memories of Iraq.
“The days of 9/11 and the war on terror remain an all too visceral part of the American national consciousness,” Bremmer said. “It also puts the fight in the context of Obama’s successful record against al Qaeda and the killing of Osama bin Laden, rather than the failed war in Iraq. All of which will embolden the president to take a much tougher line.”
But defeating, crushing, and destroying ISIS is easier said than done. Many analysts think to completely eliminate the group would require a full-scale war. One former U.S. official told Business Insider a mission to severely blunt ISIS would likely require much more than 10,000 troops — not to mention many billions of dollars.
It would also likely require a military campaign of some sort in Syria, where ISIS has developed strongholds in a fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Confronting ISIS in Syria would put the U.S. on the same side, ostensibly, as Assad, who it has said must be removed from office. In potentially working with moderate Syrian rebels, the U.S. wouldn’t have the support of a sovereign government and a capable military like it does in Iraq.
“The last thing the president wants is to widen the scope of overt American operations into Syria and get involved in the war there,” Garrett Khoury, the director of research at The Eastern Project, told Business Insider in an email.
Khoury disagreed with the notion that Obama would dramatically alter the campaign against ISIS, because it would take a “massive American military escalation” to even push them back. The situation in Syria, which is much more unsettled than in Iraq, is a prime factor in his reasoning.
“The situation on the ground there is even more confused and dangerous than it is in Iraq, especially considering that both the Assad government and the rebels are fighting ISIS,” Khoury said.
In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf wouldn’t rule out a U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria. And Kerry said in his statement that the U.S. would “confront ISIL wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.”
The situation in Syria, as it always has, again presents a fundamental problem for the Obama administration. How do you “crush” ISIS if you don’t go in?
“That’s a great question, and somebody should probably ask the president that,” Cohen said. “… It’s hard to use the language he used to talk about ISIS and support anything other than wiping these guys out.”
But he added: “I’d be surprised to see a move into Syria.”
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