Tonight, Barack Obama will explain to the American people his plans to “degrade and destroy” the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The problem is, America’s incomprehensible and contradictory policy toward ISIS makes that goal impossible.
Thus far, U.S. hopes against ISIS have been pinned on the group’s most palatable enemies: The Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and more moderate Syrian rebels. While those groups have not been defeated, their position today is weaker than ever. As such, some cooperation with America’s ostensible enemies in the Iranian military will likely be necessary to any plan to defeat the Islamic State.
Obama’s non-Iranian options look particularly bleak after yesterday’s shocking assassination of one of Syria’s top anti-ISIS rebel commanders and dozens of his lieutenants. The commander, Hassan Abboud, was killed in an explosion during an underground meeting. So many members of his group, Ahrar al-Sham, were killed in the explosion that it’s now unclear whether it will continue to exist and provide a key counterweight to ISIS. Ahrar al-Sham was one of the best organized Syrian opposition factions aside from ISIS.
The loss of Abboud and his lieutenants only underlines the need for a reset of U.S. policy in the region. While American politicians have cast ISIS as a mortal threat to their country, the group’s primary conflict today is not with the United States — even if ISIS’s horrific beheadings of U.S. citizens served the group’s propaganda goals, and even if America’s catastrophic military adventurism facilitated its creation and ascendance.
No, ISIS’s real focus today is on expanding its territory by combating regional governments — Iraq and Syria at the moment — and by fending off rival militias. And it turns out this has done wonders for relations within the Middle East. For the first time in three years, the interests of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Qatar and Iraq are all aligned towards stifling the existential threat posed by the radical insurgency of ISIS. Even the Iranian and Saudi governments — normally bitter rivals — are seeking to set aside their differences to confront this rising danger.
Within this new political alignment lies Obama’s best hope for the military defeat of ISIS. The future of Abboud’s group is in doubt, the much-vaunted Kurdish Peshmerga has never mounted a successful offensive operation in its history, and the U.S-trained Iraqi Army has demonstrated its combat effectiveness by literally running at the sight of ISIS advances in Mosul. But there’s one party that has demonstrated both a willingness and ability to combat ISIS: Iran.
Iran’s effectiveness against the group was put on dramatic display when forces it funded and guided broke an ISIS siege of the Iraqi town of Amerli. Following that incident the U.S. even said it was open to “engaging Iranians” against ISIS.
Obama would face formidable political hurdles in pushing through such an alliance, both at home and in Iraq, where even limited coordination with Iran could easily be seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict. But working with Iran would allow the White House to both avoid putting U.S. ground forces in play, a step it has called unnecessary, and to have some hope of actually winning the battle.
Then there’s Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to deal with. The White House has said “we’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime,” but that’s exactly what defeating ISIS, Assad’s most effective military adversary, would do. Arguments to the contrary, like the idea that destroying ISIS would somehow harm Assad’s government, are delusional.
Assad’s foes may have found a solution. The Syrian political opposition is believed to have engaged in talks with Iran focused on getting Assad to acquiesce to a gradual, staged transition from power. Such an outcome wouldn’t bring Assad to justice for war crimes committed by his government, nor would it satisfy the American demand for his immediate ouster. But it would allow all major parties in the region to rally around the shared objective of fighting the Islamic State. The interests of mainstream Sunnis and Shias would be aligned against a radical group that rejects them both, potentially reducing the sectarian polarization that has been wreaking havoc throughout the region.
By pressing for such a resolution, Obama can unravel some of the contradictions in American policy that make meaningfully combating ISIS impossible. Refusing even limited cooperation with Assad or Iran on principle while maintaining close relations with murderous governments in Egypt, Israel and Iraq, is both contradictory and inimical to the objective of defeating ISIS.
Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to “do something” in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region. Obama’s speech tonight offers a prime opportunity to articulate a pragmatic, effective strategy. If ISIS is really the apocalyptic threat that U.S. politicians have made it out to be, such pragmatism is absolutely necessary. American policy on this issue has so far been both incomprehensible and counterproductive. But by bringing all major parties to one side against ISIS, something positive may be salvaged from it yet.
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