President Barack Obama announced on September 7 that he will make public a plan for fighting the Islamic State (IS) militants on September 10. “I’m preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL,” he said. (“ISIL” – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is the old and by now obsolete acronym for the IS. The Administration still insists on using it, however, for political reasons.)
In an interview that aired on last Sunday’s “Meet the Press” Obama tried to sound confident: “Keep in mind that this is something that we know how to do. We’ve been dealing with terrorist threats for quite some time.” The claim is unsettling. As it happens, “they” don’t know how to do it. “They” have been dealing with terrorist threats, hesitantly and with disastrous results. The rise of the IS in itself provides conclusive evidence of “their” overall ineptitude, and in particular “their” inability to collect reliable intelligence, anticipate events, and develop coherent strategies to protect American security interests in a volatile region.
“I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we’re going to defeat ‘em,” Obama went on. There will be no American troops on the ground, but “because of American leadership, we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.”
Obama was alluding to a “coalition” that is strictly regional: his attempts at the recent NATO summit in Wales to obtain backing for a more “internationally based” coalition were an abject failure. Even Britain proved squeamish. He is now left with a would-be “coalition” of Sunni Muslim countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – which have been aiding and abetting ISIS for years, and which have neither the will nor the resources to fight it. Obama will announce on Wednesday that he will rely on those countries to work together – with American air support and ill-defined overall “leadership” – in fighting the IS.
Those countries’ military forces are unable to confront an enemy which consists of highly motivated light infantry, knows the terrain, enjoys considerable popular support, and operates in small motorized formations. On the basis of its poor showing in Yemen it is clear that the Saudis in particular are no better than the Iraqi army which performed so miserably last June. Even when united in their overall strategic objectives, Arab armies are notoriously unable to develop integrated command and control systems – as was manifested in 1947-48, in the Seven-Day War of 1967, and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Their junior officers are discouraged from making independent tactical decisions by their inept superiors who hate delegating authority. Both are, inevitably, products of a culture steeped in strictly hierarchical modes of thought and action. Furthermore, their expensive hardware integrated into hard to maneuver brigade-sized units is likely to be useless against an elusive enemy who will avoid pitched battles.
The Shia-dominated Iraqi army is not to be counted upon, as attested by its flight from Mosul, and it will be loath to cooperate with the armed forces of the overtly anti-Shia regimes. The Kurdish pershmerga will be equally reluctant to treat Saudis or Qataris as brothers-in-arms. Its fighters are interested in an independent Kurdistan, not in defeating the IS – and by implication helping put Iraq together again. Even if they were capable of major operations, both of them would be perceived by the Sunni Arab majority in northwestern Iraq as an occupying force with the predictable result that the “caliphate” could count on thousands of fresh volunteers.
Obama’s “regional allies,” whom he expects to form an Arab “coalition of the willing,” could end up helping their Sunni coreligionists fight the Shia “apostates.” Many royal kleptocrats in Riyadh and around the Gulf still regard the IS in western Iraq and northeastern Syria as a welcome buffer against the putative Shia crescent extending from Iran to the Lebanese coast. In any event, as Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent notes in his book on the rise of ISIS, the “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia which fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.
Obama has no “coalition.” He still counts on the non-existent “moderate rebels” in Syria to come on board. He still refuses to talk to Bashar al-Assad, whose army is the only viable force capable of confronting the IS now and for many years to come. He has no plan to systematically degrade the IS capabilities, no means to shrink the territory that they control, and certainly no strategy to defeat them.