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Is Obama’s strategy failing?

Is Obama’s strategy failing?

The collapse of the US-led coalition against Islamic State forces in Iraq could only be a matter of time, writes Salah Nasrawi

When US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, retired US general John Allen, visited the country last week, his discussions with government leaders were not short of moments of frankness.

Allen was told by the country’s Shia and Sunni leaders that the coalition needs to do more to help Iraq defeat the terror group that has seized large areas in the north and west of the country and in neighbouring Syria.

Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi told the American official that the US-led coalition should “increase the tempo of the effective air strikes on IS positions.” He also called for US-sponsored training of the Iraqi security forces to be expanded, according to his office.

Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Salim Al-Jabouri was even more vocal in his criticisms. “Until now our feeling has been that the international support is not convincing,” Al-Jabouri was quoted by Reuters as telling Allen.

The grievances listed by Iraqi leaders included ineffective air strikes against IS, poor coordination with the Iraqi military command, limited combat training of Iraqi soldiers, and a lack of intelligence and weapon supplies. But their main concern remains the political strategy of the US campaign against IS.

As expected, leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north have remained fully behind the international coalition, though they continue to complain about shortages of military supplies.

After the blitzkrieg carried out by IS in Iraq last June, Obama declared that US warplanes and an international coalition he had assembled would conduct a systematic campaign of air strikes against the militants while Iraqi ground forces went on the offensive.

Obama ruled out any direct combat involvement by US soldiers in Iraq, but promised a military package of aid that would include weapons deliveries, intelligence and training.

What began to be called the Obama Strategy for Iraq also entailed a political approach that called for national reconciliation among the country’s communities. The plans was to end Sunni exclusion by the Shia-led government and give the Sunnis an autonomy that included the policing of their own areas after taking them back from IS.

Obama made it clear that the US would take action against IS in Syria by training and arming the moderate opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad to enable it to fight IS militants and expel them from Syria.

Last week’s unexpected criticisms by the Baghdad government came as doubts started to emerge in the US media about the air strikes that the US and its allies have been conducting against IS targets in Iraq and Syria.

Critics of the air strikes point out that most of the territories the militants have captured since their major onslaught in mid-June, including major Sunni-populated cities, are still under IS control. In Syria, IS continues to gain ground and threatens key cities like Aleppo and Homs.

Though the US and its allies have continued pounding IS targets, the IS advance in Iraq has been largely contained by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias and the Iraqi security forces. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have also retaken territories that they claim belong to the Kurdish region.

Before leaving Baghdad last week, Allen attempted to respond to Iraqi concerns. He said the coalition has made “important progress” and reiterated Washington’s commitment to helping Iraq in the war against IS, including by carrying out air strikes, supplying weapons and training Iraqi troops.

Allen urged Iraqis to show “patience” and made it clear that “the pivotal battles” to defeat the terror group have not yet come. He reiterated Washington’s position that the defeat of IS does not depend solely on military success and urged Al-Abadi to deliver on his promise of “security reforms, advancing national reconciliation, and revitalising Iraq’s ties with its neighbours.”

The Obama Strategy is also irking some US Arab allies. The Arab media have been reporting a dispute between the United States and its Arab coalition partners over the anti-IS strategy in Iraq and Syria. On Saturday, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported from Amman that Arab US allies would now prefer an Arab-Islamic alliance to go after IS instead of the US-led coalition, which also includes Western powers.

The paper quoted Arab Gulf officials as saying that many Arab partners believe that Washington does not seem to be “serious in conducting radical operations to uproot IS, or at least weakening it on the ground.”

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, want to include Yemen in the coalition’s mission and engage it in the fight against the Shia Houthis, who have taken control of the capital Sanaa. Other reports suggested that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are concerned that a deal between Washington and Iran over its nuclear programme might affect Washington’s response to Tehran’s ambitions in Iraq.

Syrian opposition forces are also expressing increasing frustration with the Obama Strategy. Burhan Ghalyoun, a former leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), slammed Obama’s strategy in an interview with the Al-Arabiya TV network, saying that the plan to train moderate Syrian opposition forces is “a delaying tactic.”

The Obama approach is also coming under fire in Washington. Republican leaders have criticised Obama’s reluctance to engage militarily with IS. They have also questioned his “Iraq first” war, which they charge has enabled IS to make gains in Syria without weakening it in Iraq.

From the beginning, the Obama anti-IS strategy has come under fire for being weak and lacking in focus. Critics have pointed to its military flaws, such as the use of limited air to defeat a formidable terror group that controls large areas and enjoys local support.

To date, eight months into the seizure of most of Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle, IS militants have been able to stave off offensives intended to dislodge them from the safe havens they have established. They have also lured more foreign fighters into their ranks and sent terror threats to countries as far away as Europe and the United States.

The failure of the American military to achieve victory over IS, or even to degrade its combat capabilities, has indicated that critics were right to discount aerial bombardment as an effective strategy to defeat the group.

Obama’s political approach has also been challenged for being naïve in the way it looks at the geopolitical complexities of Iraq and the region. Its main flaw lies in its dealing with IS as merely a terrorism issue, while ignoring the deep ethnic and sectarian conflicts that divide the region.

A closer look at the war in Iraq reveals that the Shia-led government is not managing the fight against IS in the way that Washington had intended. Baghdad may still need US air power, advanced weapons and good intelligence capabilities, but it has been fighting the war in its own way.

It has depended largely on Shia Iran to repel IS advances. Tehran has sent military advisors to help train and equip troops and allied militias to drive the IS militants out of territories occupied in central Iraq.

As the conflict has demonstrated, Baghdad has made up for the need for dedicated army and security forces soldiers by mobilising well-trained and battle-tested Shia militias in the fight against IS. After routing IS militants in cities and towns in the Baghdad belt and the mixed Diyalah province, the government is now deploying Shia militias in Sunni-dominated areas in preparation for a counter-offensive.

Last week, Kurdish media outlets said that the government dispatched “several brigades of Shia militias” to the highly volatile and disputed Kirkuk province, reportedly to protect towns populated by Shia Turkmens.

On Saturday, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that Shia militias had arrived in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province and that they were expected to fight alongside Sunni tribes allied with the government against IS.

Significantly, Baghdad has been reluctant to allow the Sunni tribes to form national guard units to fight IS militants and police their own areas after retaking them from the group. Plans to launch national reconciliation that would fully integrate Sunnis into the government have also foundered.

Both the Sunni forces and the Sunni inclusion were prerequisites for the US-led mission and for sustainable US support for Baghdad, accepted by Al-Abadi when he was nominated to form his partnership government in August.

What all this means, at best, is that the US-led coalition will remain the décor for Obama’s wishy-washy partnership with Iraq. At worst, it means that Washington will try to find an exit strategy in order to suspend the coalition and leave Iraq once again to its fate.

This article appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on Jan. 22, 2015