Over the recent months, the threat of the Islamic State has thrived. This has led many governments, mostly western, to come together and discuss on how to respond to it. No tangible results have so far come out of these meetings but the recent beheading of an American journalist, Steven Sotloff appears to have been the proverbial final straw. A plan led by the American government appears to be under way.
On 10th of September, a day before the commemoration of the most blatant terrorist attack on American soil, President Obama presented his plan on defeating the Islamic State.The plan had four points: air strikes, non combat support to Iraqi Government and Syrian opposition forces on the ground, counter-terrorism strategies and humanitarian assistance. In essence, Obama’s plan is to have people of Iraq and Syria fight I.S. forces themselves as the Americans provide sustained air power.
This plan is in line with Obama’s overall foreign policy on American troops fighting on foreign soil. This is the corner stone of his pledges in 2008 and 2012 along with the spectacular claim that he would close Guantanamo Bay base within 100 days. The US has already began the draw back from Iraq and it is highly unlikely that they would risk the lives of more American troops in protracted combat situations such as the one currently going on in Syria.
Obama’s plan, however, may work in Iraq but meet limited success in Syria. This is because of the current conflict between forces loyal to the Government of Bashar al Assad and those loyal to the various opposition factions. Obama’s plan is to arm the opposition fighters to equip them to meet the objective of eliminating the I.S. threat in Syria and perhaps in the long term meet the opposition’s objective of dethroning Assad. However a critical assessment must be drawn up on the capability of these opposition forces to fight on two fronts.
It is a well known fact that political and military objectives can work cross purposely and the Syrian situation is a good example. Whereas it is politically understandable for Obama to snub the Assad regime, is it militarily sound? The opposition forces fighting Assad’s Government, in my opinion, appear not to have the strength to fight a war on two fronts. In the past three years they have been unable to dislodge Assad’s regime. How feasible is it for them to now be equipped to fight both I.S. and Assad’s regime?
Secondly with direct military engagement being ruled out, Obama has to rely on opposition forces. However there is the issue of command and control over the opposition forces. Americans need to be certain that they are not walking into another Libyan situation in the Middle East. The Syrian opposition does not appear to be as united to inspire confidence that arms provided to them would not end up in the hands of the I.S. fighters. We should all remember that fighters are being recruited by I.S. and it not unimaginable that some opposition fighters disgruntled by the divisions apparent in the Syrian opposition may defect to I.S. with the weapons provided by the American Government.
With this in mind, the American Government ought to be cautious on how to approach I.S. in Syria. The dilemma for Obama is how to ensure that the objectives of destroying I.S. do not lead to the strengthening of I.S. He also needs to think about whether limited association with Assad for the purposes of defeating I.S. may be militarily prudent over the political objective of having him removed. All in all, it would be difficult for Obama to implement his plan in Syria without the support of the Syrian Government.