Double or Nothing on the Islamic State

In Iraq and Syria, the president is taking the kinds of risks he usually avoids. If he can -- somehow -- get Iran on board, he could leave office with something to be proud of.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Photo credit: Pool
Photo credit: Pool
Photo credit: Pool

Just before taking office, Woodrow Wilson told a friend: "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." Fate, of course, so decreed. Barack Obama must feel similarly ill-starred to find himself enmeshed in a war against terrorism from which he had hoped to extricate the United States. More than that: With the drubbing the Democrats endured on Tuesday and paralysis likely to descend on Washington, it's a reasonable guess that his only opportunity to do something really important in his second term in office will be in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

My impression, after talking to officials in the administration and the military, diplomats and regional experts, is that Obama has a chance to make the Middle East a slightly less terrible place -- if he's lucky, which he generally hasn't been, and if he shows determination and fixity of purpose, which he all too often has failed to do.

Let's try to take these settings one by one.

Just before taking office, Woodrow Wilson told a friend: "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs." Fate, of course, so decreed. Barack Obama must feel similarly ill-starred to find himself enmeshed in a war against terrorism from which he had hoped to extricate the United States. More than that: With the drubbing the Democrats endured on Tuesday and paralysis likely to descend on Washington, it’s a reasonable guess that his only opportunity to do something really important in his second term in office will be in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

My impression, after talking to officials in the administration and the military, diplomats and regional experts, is that Obama has a chance to make the Middle East a slightly less terrible place — if he’s lucky, which he generally hasn’t been, and if he shows determination and fixity of purpose, which he all too often has failed to do.

Let’s try to take these settings one by one.

Iraq

The heart of the anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign is, oddly, the most straightforward and least controversial element. Iraq is an important regional ally whose territorial integrity is profoundly threatened by murderous fundamentalist jihadists. Obama rightly used the prospect of U.S. intervention as leverage to force out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in favor of the less sectarian Haider al-Abadi. The coalition Obama has assembled now has a functioning, if very fragmented, government to work with, and both the Kurdish and Iraqi army on the ground — though the latter has proved utterly feckless, and largely supplanted by Shiite militias. That coalition agrees on the basic objective, which is preventing IS from establishing itself in the heart of Iraq. One can think of innumerable reasons why the effort may fail, but there are indications it has already succeeded in checking IS’s advance.

Syria

In its policy towards Syria over the last three years, the Obama administration has proved to be every bit as indecisive and incoherent as its critics claim. The president has never seemed so utterly at the mercy of events as when last August he prepared to bomb Syria for crossing the "red line" on chemical weapons, thought better of it in the face of opposition, and allowed Vladimir Putin to rescue him from a cul-de-sac. The threat of IS has, of course, galvanized Obama into action. His Syria policy remains ambivalent, but at least is less bewildering than it appears to be.

Obama’s immediate commitments in Syria are, in fact, relatively modest and have very little to do with Syria itself. In the administration’s thinking, Iraq is the equivalent of Afghanistan and eastern Syria is the Pakistan border, where the bad guys lurk. As a senior administration official puts it, "At a minimum, we want to prevent [IS] from doing what al Qaeda did" by using Pakistan as a rear sanctuary. He argues that the effort has already been a modest success, with the destruction of oilfields reducing IS’ revenue and the standoff in the border city of Kobani stripping the group of its air of inexorable victory.

Of course, the Syrian regime, unlike the one in Islamabad, is delighted to have the United States bomb the terrorists on their soil. The campaign against IS frees Bashar al-Assad up to pursue his savage campaign against his own people. That’s hardly Obama’s goal, and he could seriously limit Assad’s capacity to do harm by disabling the Syrian Air Force. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said, "After Kobani, we must save Aleppo." There is, however, virtually no chance that Obama will agree to do so. This is an "Iraq-first" strategy. In any case, the rebels have been so decimated that it might not make any difference if Obama acted. In Aleppo and Idlib, in the north and west of Syria, the forces of the Free Syrian Army are being battered by the regime, by IS, and by the slightly lesser extremists of al-Nusra Front.

I asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was speaking earlier this week at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, about the military plan for Syria. "There is a rational and coherent strategy in the east. It’s far more complex in the north, where the forces are intermingled. We don’t have a defeat mechanism in place," he said. In the urbanized and densely populated north, American bombing would do far more harm to civilians, and far less to IS, than it does near the border with Iraq, where its forces are concentrated. Dempsey said that he hadn’t yet made a recommendation to the president on action in northern Syria.

To put it simply, the short-term Syria strategy is Iraq. The long-term strategy is to train 5,000 moderate rebels a year. But it’s not clear if that’s a strategy for Syria either, since the rebels are intended to challenge IS rather than the regime. The rebels, of course, yearn to overthrow Assad, while the Obama administration is resolutely opposed to regime change. In all likelihood, this effort will lead to yet more sectarian violence, as it did in Iraq.

This leads to a strange ambivalence. Gen. John Allen, who is coordinating the anti-IS coalition, said in a recent interview that while "there could be FSA elements that ultimately clash with the regime . . . as they seek to defend themselves," the goal is not to "liberate Damascus."

Administration officials say that they understand perfectly well that the rebels will use their weapons and training to try to defeat Assad as well as to confront IS, and that the only way to bring about a political settlement is to make the rebels a military threat to the regime. But Obama has spent the last three years dancing around the Syrian tar pit. You have to wonder if he’s really committed to the rebels’ cause — the rebels certainly must, as they see that he has done nothing to weaken or threaten Assad. The training program, by the way, will not even get underway for several months.

Iran

One of the reasons for Obama’s reluctance to back the rebels is that he does not want to jeopardize the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Assad’s most steadfast backer. Administration officials have long envisioned that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could lead to a broader rapprochement with Iran. In the past, this has dictated a zero-sum relationship between Iran and Syria. With the rise of IS, however, Iran has suddenly, and improbably, come to be seen as the key to unlock Syria.

The Wall Street Journal has revealed that last month President Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei suggesting that an agreement to end nuclear proliferation could lead to cooperation against IS. American diplomats have begun talking to their Iranian counterparts about Syria, though those talks are said to be "episodic" and not yet "substantive." Some officials note that Iran has already proposed a Syria peace plan involving a political transition, and believe that if and when a nuclear deal is concluded, the Iranians might accept a political deal in which Assad departs in favor of an Alawite regime which would preserve Iranian interests. They note that the Saudis, the most intransigent of Assad’s opponents, have begun to accept that this may be the best they can do. In the dream-realization scenario, a consensus forms behind such a transition and Obama hits the trifecta — Iran, Iraq, and Syria, too.

In the realm of probability, this falls far below the prospect of containing and degrading IS. First, nothing will happen absent a nuclear deal, which remains doubtful, and is almost certain not be reached by the current Nov. 24 deadline. Obama is going to have to show a lot of grit should negotiators reach an agreement, since any terms will be fiercely attacked in Congress and in Israel.

Second, an agreement might actually make Iran less cooperative; as Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution says, "Maybe the deal gets sold to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards by saying, `You get to go crazy in the region.’" Third, Iran is unlikely to tell Assad that his time is up unless the moderate rebels look far more formidable than they do today — which will require an immense, time-consuming effort of training and equipping. If, as Pollack says, the program looks half-hearted, the Iranians and Assad will know that they have nothing to fear.

It may be possible to spin this Rubik’s Cube so that all the colors line up. But it is at least as likely that Obama would call it a day after matching up one or two sides, securing the one achievement he has sought from the outset of his tenure — removing the menace of an Iran bomb — at the cost of selling out the Syrian people. This is what the rebels fear, and what America’s Gulf allies fear. After all, eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat, like eliminating IS, is a matter of the utmost national security. Getting rid of the mass killer who rules Syria is not; as we have learned in Iraq and Libya, that could lead to yet more violence and chaos. Obama will earn the gratitude of the American people if, improbably, he removes the threat from IS and Iran. But if, in addition, he ends the plague of the barrel bomb in Syria, he will secure his reputation with posterity.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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