Slowly but surely, Barack Obama is edging the United States deeper into a war against the Islamic State group that looks set to dominate the last year of his presidency.
After a year of airstrikes that have stifled but not stopped I.S. jihadists, Obama’s administration this week announced a series of measures that signal the fight will be central to his remaining time in office. After repeatedly ruling out the use of “boots on the ground,” Obama agreed to send as many as 200 Special Forces to Iraq, with a mandate to carry out raids inside Syria.
Less noticed was the appointment of trusted national security aide Rob Malley to coordinate the administration’s policy against the Islamic State group.
Malley has advised Obama since his 2008 presidential election campaign, and played a pivotal role in shepherding the nuclear deal with Iran—Obama’s top foreign policy priority. Malley’s appointment is part bureaucratic housekeeping—an effort to tie together disparate diplomatic, military, intelligence, humanitarian and financial efforts. But it is also a signal that the Islamic State group will now take up as much political bandwidth as previous priorities like the Iran deal.
“It has been clear for some time that this is an issue that is so critical to the future of the region and to the future of our relations with the region,” a senior administration official told AFP. “What happens in Syria, in Iraq and what happens to ISIL, also threats to the homeland—all of that has to be a core priority for the administration.”
“The volume has just increased,” the source said. “It has become even more intense.”
Obama has long been torn between a political pressure to act in Syria, the need to tackle the Islamic State group and a belief that most military options would only fuel radicalization. For a president who was elected on an anti-war platform, the prospect of sending tens of thousands of troops into Iraq and Syria was a political non-starter. That calculus may not have fundamentally changed, but with the Islamic State group metastasizing into a regional and global problem, staying the course no longer appeared tenable.
“In the first year of the anti-ISIS campaign, the White House had as its top priority achieving an Iran nuclear deal,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress. “As it heads into its final year in office, the Obama administration is taking steps to elevate the anti-ISIS campaign.”
The deadly attacks in Paris have only heightened arguments inside the administration that there is a security imperative to act. The group has shifted its focus on the “far enemy” beyond Mesopotamia, inspiring attacks from north Africa to the Sinai, showing its reach rivals that of Al Qaeda.
“That is not a surprise,” said the official, who said the administration had also expected the two jihadist groups to compete “to see who could be most effective as a terrorist organization.”
“Whenever this was first debated, the president reached the conclusion that even if at the beginning [I.S.] were going to focus on gaining territory and consolidating their control, that they were doing it also with the purpose of expansion and of taking action against anyone they consider the enemy.”
“It was in the DNA of an organization like ISIL.”
Adding to the impetus to act, refugees from Syria have strained Europe’s politics to the breaking point and fueled right wing groups that threaten the continent’s stability. A military conflagration between Turkey and Russia has raised the specter of all-out war between regional powers.
Over the horizon there are concerns about the sustainability of the current Iraqi government led by ally Haider al-Abadi, about looming Shia-Kurdish tensions and the Islamic State’s ability to acquire chemical weapons.
Against this backdrop, the United States, along with Australia, Britain, France and Germany, have stepped up the military campaign. But the White House acknowledges it will take more than air power to defeat I.S. fighters.
“We can do an awful lot from the air, but ultimately this battle will only be won on the ground and it will be won by local forces.” Here, the Obama administration believes the military and diplomatic campaigns are deeply interwoven.
A key step will be negotiating a ceasefire between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels who have fought a brutal five-year war, and by securing Assad’s removal from power. “As long as that fight continues it’s going to be very hard for anyone to turn their full attention to ISIL. The opposition won’t want to do it, for fear of being outmaneuvered by the regime or its Russian and Iranian allies and vice-versa,” said the administration official. “But to get a ceasefire that is going to be doable, you are going to have to have a political transition so that those who have been fighting now for years against the regime don’t feel like they are simply putting down their weapons or turning them against ISIL, not having achieved any of the aspirations for which they initially took up arms.”