Fight against Islamic State: Is Obama's 'lead from behind' working?

Critics say the Obama administration is doing too little to fight the Islamic State, but others say America's modest military goals are forcing regional powers, such as Egypt and Jordan, to step up their role, which could be a positive sign.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Vice President Joe Biden listens as President Barack Obama speaks about the Islamic State group, Feb. 11, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.

When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi took to the airwaves Sunday to propose creation of a pan-Arab military force to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other forms of extremist militancy in the region, some of the reaction was confusion.

Isn’t there already a United States-led coalition of regional and other military powers working “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, some wondered?

With Jordan launching airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria after the terrorist group publicly executed a captured Jordanian pilot in particularly gruesome fashion, followed by Egypt doing the same in Libya in response to the videotaped beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, is the anti-IS fight just every country for itself?

President Sisi’s proposal and the go-it-alone revenge airstrikes are just two elements in growing questioning of US leadership of the anti-IS battle – and whether once again President Obama is opting to “lead from behind” in a crucial battle in the Middle East.

For some critics, particularly congressional hawks, the reluctant warrior in the White House is being so sluggish and cautious about taking on the Islamic State that it is prompting exasperated regional partners to act alone, sometimes to the limits of their capabilities.

But for some regional experts, the US is doing as much as it should in a war that it cannot be seen to be leading any more than it already is. In their view, the battle with the Islamic State is a kind of civil war within Islam in which the governments and moderate forces arrayed against the Islamic State cannot afford to be labeled as doing America’s bidding. This war has to be theirs, they say.

“The region has to lead on this, the US cannot take the lead or be the ideological front and they do not want to be,” says Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies on the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Without the ability to have a serious [lead effort] by the region itself, I think ISIS is going to take a very long time to defeat.”

That means the US needs to stand back from the front lines, he says, even as it remains the most powerful military force involved in the fight.

At most it should appear to be helping its regional partners to wage the war with the Islamic State on a variety of fronts – through training of new forces to take on the militants, by guiding the international community in cutting off the group’s funding sources, and through political efforts to narrow the sectarian rifts that gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place.

“People in the region still remember Iraq with 500,000 US troops on the ground,” Mr. Muasher says. Many people, particularly Sunni Arabs (and especially in Iraq, where the US deposed a Sunni regime that was replaced with a Shiite government) “already see the war against ISIS as an American war,” he says. “They say, ‘If the Americans are fighting ISIS, then maybe ISIS is not that bad.' ”

In practice, that means the US is likely to stick largely to the air war it is now carrying out against IS positions in Iraq and Syria. The US is of course deeply involved in the training and planning for the anticipated ground offensive to take back the northern Iraqi city of Mosul sometime this spring.

The US may yet decide it needs to place some specialized forces with the Iraqi military to call in air strikes during the offensive, some military experts speculate. But Mr. Obama will almost certainly not commit US ground troops to the fighting – either for Mosul or any other ground offensive against Islamic State – a development that many experts say is exactly what the apocalyptic Islamic State is craving.

Nothing would serve the group's propaganda and recruitment purposes more than having the army of the “infidels” invade the newly declared caliphate, they say.

Secretary of State John Kerry was adamant in congressional testimony this week that the US strategy for defeating the Islamic State will continue to be a combination of military and diplomatic efforts – but that under no circumstances will the US deploy large numbers of ground troops.

“I believe [defeating IS] will require some kind of forces on the ground. Not ours, but some type,” Mr. Kerry said. “There are a number of ways to come at it, some of which mix kinetic with diplomatic.”

But if those ground forces can’t be American for very good reasons, they probably can’t be from “some type” of pan-Arab force either, some regional experts say.

“Having a regional state undertaking airstrikes against it plays right into the interests of ISIS,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program and an expert in Libya and the Islamic State's growing presence there.

During a recent visit to the region, Mr. Wehrey says he saw how outside intervention in Libya – and “not by just any foreign government,” but by the strongman Sisi, who removed Egypt’s previous Islamist government – became “a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.”

For example, he says that some Libyan Islamist groups that before were opposed to the Islamic State and affiliated with Al Qaeda have now switched allegiances to the Islamic State.

Wehrey says his conclusion is that, far from a US-directed military strategy, or even one led by regional governments, the battle with IS will have to come from local initiatives – as long and as difficult as that is going to be.

The key change in the region that would dry up support for the likes of the Islamic State is genuine reform of brittle Arab states that rule from the center through elites and to the exclusion of large segments of the population, Muasher says.

“Right now we see governments doing what they know best, which is military strikes,” Muasher says. But his concern, he adds, is that “even if ISIS might be defeated by military means in 3-5 years, the ideology will survive and ... might become even more violent and extreme.”

Defeating not just the Islamic State but its extremist ideology will depend on deep change and steps taken in the region, Muasher says. In Iraq, for example, he says it won’t be simply a matter of Sunnis participating in elections, but genuinely involving them in “the country’s decision-making, something that is not happening today.”

Those are changes the US can help with and push for, but no amount of American leadership can make it happen. “This is not a war the US can lead,” Muasher says. “Something has to be done about inclusion, and that will have to come from within.”

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