The Obama version of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ strategy

13 September 2014

Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, examines the chances of success for US President Barack Obama's strategy to fight extremists in Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama has finally enunciated his strategy for degrading and eventually eliminating the extremist Sunni ‘Islamic State’ (IS) on Iraqi and Syrian territories. The main elements of his strategy are: intensified and wider airstrikes against IS bases in Iraq and also Syria; arming anti-IS forces on the ground, cutting off the financial support for IS and like minded groups, assisting moderate opposition forces against Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, providing humanitarian aid, and building support for a regional and international coalition to assist the US in its mission.

Although he has stressed that there will be no direct US combat involvement, he will send more combat support military and intelligence personnel into Iraq and possibly Syria. He has sounded confident that he will have the support of all of Iraq’s neighbouring states, most importantly America’s main Sunni-dominated Arab allies. He has made no mention of the predominantly Shia Islamic Republic of Iran, but the assumption is that Tehran will be happy to see the US and its Western allies eliminating the IS as an anti-Shia force.

In effect, President Obama has gone back to what his predecessor, George W. Bush, started in the form of ‘war on terror’ thirteen years ago, with the evolving principal aim of destroying Al Qaeda, bringing stability, security and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, and freeing the region from Islamic extremism. However, the problem is that that strategy did not work. It became as elusive as its targets. Whilst Al Qaeda survived as a deadly force and expanded its networks not only in the Middle East but also Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq remained mired in violence and insecurity, seriously challenging their very existence as a coherent and functioning states today.

The objectives set out in Obama’s revamped ‘war on terror’ strategy may prove to be as unattainable as those of Bush, given the complexities of the situation in Iraq and the region. The new Iraqi leader, Haider al-Abadi, comes from the same Shia group, Da’wa, as his predecessor, Nur al-Maliki, whose marginalisation of Iraq’s substantial Sunni minority played a central role in the disastrous predicament in which Iraq is now placed.  Da’wa has had close relations with Tehran and Damascus. Al-Abadi cannot be expected to be in a position to be seen to make too much concession to Iraq’s Sunni minority, for he needs to maintain the support of Iraq’s Shia majority and Iran, as well as the Iraqi Kurds, who have set up virtually an independent state of their own in the north of Iraq.

Western supply of arms and logistic support to Iraq’s Shia-dominated forces and Kurdish Peshmerga militia is bound to be seen by Iraqi Sunnis as the US and its allies siding with their opponents. At the same time, a re-enforcement of Peshmergah cannot be a welcome development for all the non-Kurdish Iraqi groups as well as Turkey and Iran, which have their own substantial Kurdish minorities and do not want to see the Iraqi Kurds becoming too strong as potential source of support and inspiration for their Kurdish populations in the medium to long run.

The regional Sunni-dominated Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have publically pledged to assist the US in its mission, but their support may well have little more than symbolic value. They are most unlikely to contribute combat forces, as Washington has wished them and the Iraqis to take the lead in fighting on the ground. They would be very concerned about any US-led action that could possibly shift the regional balance of power further in favour of their sectarian and geopolitical rival, Iran, and its regional allies, the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. The Secretary-General of the GCC, Abdul Latif al-Zayani, has already warned against any outside or regional power’s interference in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the US will not find it easy to target IS bases in Syria and at the same time arm the moderate opposition forces to the Assad regime in causing the regime’s demise. The Assad government is strongly supported by Iran as its most valuable and only Arab strategic partner, linking it to its protégé force, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and protected by Russia and China. Any attempt by the US to get rid of the Assad regime, along with IS, will be opposed by Tehran and, for that matter, Moscow and Beijing. Moscow has already made its position known. In some ways, the strategy announced by President Obama has now internationalised what has so far been a regional conflict. He may not find it easy to have all the powers on board when he chairs a meeting of the UN Security in two weeks time, as he has indicated.

President Obama is right to assert that the conflict with IS is going to be multi-dimensional and drawn-out. Yet, there is no certainty as to what might emerge at the end in what is now a disintegrated Iraq and Syria in a very complex region. Ultimately, the US and its Western allies will have to shoulder most of the heavy lifting against the IS, and this means involvement in another prolonged and costly conflict in the Middle East – something that President Obama had always wanted to avoid.

A Fairfax interview with Professor Saikal can be viewed HERE.