Does President Barack Obama have a plan to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq? If he does, he has yet to tip his hand.
In recent statements on the world’s most recently declared country, an Islamic caliphate that Obama’s own advisers said was never going to happen, the president has acknowledged that IS is a threat, but has repeatedly and forcefully declared that no matter what, no American troops will be sent back into combat in Iraq to fight against the IS or anyone else.
But the US is already engaged in Iraq. US air forces have conducted air strikes and humanitarian air drops to relieve the siege of the Yazidis, who have been encircled at Mt. Sinjar in Iraq. According to the Pentagon, those missions have been successful, and the crisis on Sinjar was not as severe as initially reported.
While the siege at Mount Sinjar may have been lifted, the crisis in Syria and Iraq has not abated at all. The United Nations on Wednesday declared that the Islamic State is creating a “level 3” humanitarian crisis in Iraq — the UN’s most severe rating.
This Vice News documentary on the rise and spread of the Islamic State explains just how much of a threat, now and in the long term, the IS may turn out to be. IS is proudly brutal and is already recruiting the region’s Muslim children into its ranks. IS is killing and dispersing the region’s Christian and other minorities at the same time. If this continues, IS will be unchallenged in its territory. The 2014 caliphate is better armed than al Qaeda ever was in Afghanistan. Its existence threatens Iraq, Syria and every other state in the region.
Warning: Graphic images.
IS is enforcing sharia, publicly crucifying people, beheading people, murdering children, staging pogroms against religious minorities, all while carving its territory out of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has declared its intention to attack non-Muslims around the world.
From the same documentary, this is probably the best map produced to date that shows the reach and limits of the Islamic State’s territorial gains.
The Kurdish Peshmerga, even armed with American and now French weapons and even Iranian assistance, are not likely to be strong enough to defeat IS on their own. In the unlikely event that the Kurds do defeat IS, what is to stop them from carving their own state out of the husk of Iraq?
That’s a worry for another time at the moment, and given the Kurds’ pro-American outlook, might not be all that much of a worry, at least for the West. It will be a greater worry for Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population and has become more Islamist over the past few years.
The immediate worry is the Islamic State caliphate. Baghdad is in no position to defeat it. The Kurds probably cannot do it on their own. The Syrians still have their civil war, of which IS is a part.
IS is attracting fighters to its cause from all over the Middle East, indeed all over the world. Many — no one knows for sure how many — of IS’ fighters have western passports. They are fighting in Iraq/Syria now, but if they can consolidate their territory, IS can export those fighters to conduct attacks globally. IS has already declared its intention of doing that. IS sympathizers have already turned up in Malaysia, London, and the United States.
IS is so well armed because the Iraqi army, trained and armed to fight Islamist insurgents by the United States, melted away in the face of IS’ less well armed attacks earlier this year. What’s left of the Iraqi army is currently a pawn in the political struggle between factions in the Iraqi government.
President Obama clearly does not want to put American forces back into Iraq. He has already inserted hundreds of troops there in the past few days and weeks, but they are not serving in combat roles. Yet he is on a slippery slope toward combat in Iraq.
Earlier in the Syrian civil war, Obama declared that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to leave power. That was in August 2011. Even then it was far from clear who would replace Assad. Many of the rebels fighting him were Islamists and are now the Islamic State’s leaders and fighters. But fast forward to now, and while Assad is without question a brutal dictator, is he worse than IS? Does Assad present the same level of threat that IS poses?
Obama is dealing with two very serious international crises at the moment, Putin’s proxy war in Ukraine and the Islamic State. Obama clearly wants to do as little as possible about both and would prefer to conduct fundraisers and snipe at Republicans, but the Islamic State may force his hand.
Don’t be shocked if, in the near future, US troops join the fight on the side of both the Iraqi government, the Iranians and the Syrian regime — the very regime that Obama declared non grata three years ago.