Obama's IS plan looks good on paper. But in practice?

If US statements are taken at face value, Obama has set the country a mammoth task in the Middle East with a very low probability of success.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter walks past a house destroyed by American air strikes at Barznki village two days ago in Zummar, controlled by Islamic State (IS), near Mosul September 15, 2014.

President Barack Obama's plan to confront the self-styled Islamic State is, on paper, simple. Put Sunni Arabs in the lead so that jihadis won't claim that they're being unfairly targeted by infidel "crusaders;" mount a robust air campaign against IS in support of Iraqi government forces; build a non-jihadi Syrian army that can defeat the regime of Bashar al-Assad; use public messaging to stem the utopian Islamist appeal of the jihadis. 

Start thinking about how all this could be done, however, and it begins to look outlandishly difficult, if not impossible. Some of Obama's plans are at cross purposes, while others assume abilities neither the US government nor any of its partners have ever shown they possess.

Over the past month, the US has dropped hundreds of bombs on Iraq in support of a highly sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad that is relying on Shiite militias to fight IS in central Iraq. The White House heralded the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as "inclusive." So far, that's an aspiration. It's worth noting that both the Obama and the Bush administrations made frequent reference to the "inclusive" Iraqi government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, references that bore little relation to reality.

For example, Obama said of Maliki that he "leads Iraq’s most inclusive government yet" in December 2011, despite the fact that Maliki, a highly sectarian operator, was already planning to eviscerate Sunni Arab participation in the government. 

So for now, Obama's main military ally in Iraq remains one reviled by large numbers of the country's Sunni Arabs. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of an Iraqi government airstrike on a school being used to shelter displaced Sunni Arabs in Tikrit, which the group says killed 31 civilians, 24 of them children. The group also alleges at least 75 civilians were killed in government airstrikes in Sunni Arab areas in July, some killed by barrel-bombs, a weapon that Assad's forces in Syria have used indiscriminately against rebels and civilians.

Prime Minister Abadi ordered an end to airstrikes in civilian areas last week, "even in those towns controlled by IS." But IS fighters are now distributed among civilian populations, meaning something will have to give. In the meantime, civilians in large numbers will be inevitably killed by America's allies in Iraq, and the US will take some of the blame – something that suits the narrative of the Islamic State. 

Wanted: moderate fighters

Dennis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff, said on CNN yesterday that "ultimately, to destroy [ISIS], we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed, ideally Sunni forces." McDonough spoke of the  "proposal that the President has sent to Congress to authorize us to train and equip the Syrian opposition that’s on the ground fighting [ISIS] today.” 

That plan is to train a Syrian rebel army in Saudi Arabia. Recall that the presence of US troops in the kingdom during and after the first Gulf War became a source of rage for Sunni clerics and a recruiting bonanza for a then tiny outfit called Al Qaeda. 

Osama bin Laden didn't like the armed infidels in the home of Mecca, and neither did many Saudi clerics, who used public outrage to leverage more influence with the House of Saud. To mollify the religious establishment, and perhaps to bring it to heel, the kingdom established the Islamic Affairs Ministry in 1993, and put thousands of missionaries on the payroll in order to export Saudi Arabia's austere brand of Islam. The ministry also got a foothold in most major Saudi embassies, with the same goal.

Wahabbism and the beliefs of IS and Al Qaeda are ideological bedfellows. All reject pluralism, view Shiites as enemies of the faith rather than a branch of it, and generally look fondly on jihads to establish Islamic rule across the globe. In the 1990s, billions of petrodollars promoted this creed, and large sums continue to flow from the Gulf monarchy. So the idea of standing up a moderate Sunni force in Saudi Arabia is an odd one. 

Army in action

On top of ideological complications, there are practical problems. The US spent several years and billions of dollars training a new Iraqi Army that collapsed in the face of its first big challenge when IS fighters swept into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Now there's a proposal to create a brand new army, to be trained far away from where it is intended to fight, that somehow will prove successful over a much shorter time frame.

This is unlikely to prove the Sunni anvil the White House craves. For jihadis like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, a Sunni army fighting under a cover of US airpower and logistical support will be easy to paint as puppets of the hated "far enemy."

A perennial concern is that weapons and trained fighters provided by the US and the Saudis may end up fighting with and for IS. And it appears that many of the "moderate" Syrian rebels don't share America's reservations about the Islamic State. Last week, Agence France-Presse reported that a group of rebels, some described as "moderates," had reached a non-aggression pact with IS so that all sides would focus their efforts on fighting Assad.

Allies and NATO

What are the other options? Turkey, which can field one of the most capable armies in the region, appears ambivalent about a head-on fight. The country remains a way station for foreign fighters linking up with IS and other jihadi groups, and Turkey's Islamist government has not given permission to the US and other NATO allies to use its air bases. Neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians have armies with much in the way of expeditionary capabilities, and at any rate, neither has expressed an interest in sending many troops.

While both countries have an interest in preventing jihadi terrorism on home soil, a foreign adventure arm-and-arm with the US could easily boost local support for terrorism.

Finally, there is the grand ambition of US (and British) rhetoric. Over a decade ago, the US led a vast NATO coalition into a war in Afghanistan which was supposed to wipe out the Taliban and its ideology. That effort failed, and it's hard to see why a far more limited one will be more successful in pursuing similar goals. Though the US is spending money on Twitter accounts that attack IS, part of a longstanding public relations push to counter extremism, the impact remains modest. 

Part of the reason for that failure is in fact a piece of good news. The vast majority of the world's Muslims aren't interested in living in the barbaric utopia IS envisions. That was true a decade ago, and it's true today. But there is always a minority roused by calls to jihad, a world of black-and-white certainties and endless wars between "good" and "evi.l" Their ideology is wrong. But the US telling them so is taken as confirmation they must be on the right track. 

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