ISISObama’s new strategy still misses Islamic State’s weakest link

By Denis Dragovic

Published 12 September 2014

President Barack Obama was right to say in his speech on Wednesday that “ISIL is certainly not a state.” While IS does not have standing as a state among the community of nations, its strategy is focused on establishing an Islamic State. That’s why any response by the United States should be focused on preventing it from doing so. Unlike terrorist groups that seek to disrupt society, IS is focused on the establishment of a new society. Doing so requires IS to build the three pillars critical to a functioning state: Creating legitimacy; providing public security; and catering to the basic needs of the population, such as water, food, health, and shelter. Seeing Islamic State as an overextended rogue state, rather than a terrorist network, and working to weaken the civil pillars of the state it is trying to establish, offers the best chance of stopping IS.

U.S. president Barack Obama has announced a more aggressive strategy against Islamic State, including air strikes against its fighters “wherever they are”, even inside Syria — which he had previously ruled out.

The long-awaited strategy boils down to a four-point proxy war, involving:

  • an increased “systematic campaign of airstrikes”
  • providing extra training, intelligence and equipment for Iraqi and Syrian groups already fighting IS (which Obama refers to as ISIL), including sending an extra 475 service members to Iraq — although only in support roles, not as ground troops
  • counter-terrorism efforts to prevent IS attacks, “counter their warped ideology” and stem the flow of funding and foreign fighters joining their ranks
  • continuing humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians,” including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and others.

As recently as a month ago, Obama had rejected the option of strikes in Syria.

Obama is right to push back against calls within the U.S. for the deployment of combat troops. He is wrong, though, to rely so heavily upon a military solution.

What the address to the nation didn’t address
Politically, Obama’s televised address to the nation had to showcase a strong response to allay the concerns of Americans. Regrettably, there was little to suggest that much effort was put towards developing some of the more important, geo-politically challenging non-military options for fighting IS.

Expanding military action has its limitations. Continued airstrikes run the risk of forcing IS forces to withdraw into urban areas where aerial bombardment would lead to considerable collateral damage — a response that would play into the hands of the very effective IS propaganda machine.

Encouraging Iraqi fighters opposed to IS to engage in urban combat raises the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, and an early retreat if too many civilians are killed. Even if effectively implemented, military might cannot defeat an ideology.

The shift in thinking that is required, at least behind closed doors, is to move away from seeing IS as a terrorist organization.