Hussain Abdul-Hussain

How is it that ISIS is winning?

President Obama has forced the military into a fight with one arm tied behind its back

Smoke rises from shelling in the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, as a Turkish tank guard at the Turkish-Syrian border, in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on October 9, 2014

The Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) has not only survived the first blow from US airstrikes, it has made the strikes look irrelevant. As ISIS conquered new territory in Iraq’s western province of Anbar, including its capital, Ramadi, its fighters have been slowly advancing in Kobani.


Because of a fundamental flow in the philosophy of President Barack Obama, who makes politics a priority over military considerations, the “it’s not a war” on ISIS has so far been a failure.


Compare Obama’s strategy to that of his predecessor, President George Bush, who during his lame duck years took endless political and popular heat for betting on the troop surge plan that ended Iraq’s civil war in 2007.


In fighting terrorism in Iraq and in Syria, Obama uses an idea he has said worked in Yemen: coupling America’s airpower with amateur local fighters.  


While Obama’s plan is similar to a surge strategy, it misses one of the fundamental elements. The surge policy was to clear, hold and transfer; that is, the US military cleared Iraqi towns of terrorists, held the territory, and then transferred it to tribal fighters who were fighting alongside it.


But Obama’s plan substitutes air strikes for clearing. Even an amateur military tactician knows that the use of fighter jets, though it certainly curtails casualties of ground troops, is most effective during the early phase of war, in wiping out an enemy’s control-and-command center, weapons depots and fuel reservoirs.  


After the air campaign, the infantry sweeps in and engages the enemy, sometimes calling in airstrikes as assistance against targets that ground troops pinpoint and later attack. When the military command assesses that the enemy’s anti-aircraft power is diminished enough, attack helicopters – extremely effective in taking out enemy assets both big and small – join the battle.


In his “it’s not a war” on ISIS, Obama called in the fighter jets and cruise missiles against ISIS targets. But the Air Force soon enough ran out of worthy targets and has had to resort to hunting down worthless ones, like ISIS pickup trucks, at a whopping cost of $500,000 per strike.


Thanks to Obama’s prioritizing politics over military strategy, America’s campaign has amounted to little more than heartburn for ISIS. In fact, the ineffective campaign has already backfired. The longer ISIS is able to survive air strikes, the stronger it will become and the stronger its conviction that it can win will be.


Obama has also brought his failure to Turkey, pressuring Ankara – in the name of friendship and the NATO alliance – to send in its ground troops to save Kobani (and America’s face). For the Turks, who have been begging their US ally for three years to depose Assad, it is now time for payback. Ankara told Washington it would deal ISIS a fatal blow only if America deals a similar blow to Assad.


Always behind the curve, the Obama administration turned down Turkey’s offer because Washington thinks preserving the Assad regime is essential to its war on terrorism. The Obama team, endlessly overconfident, reasoned that Ankara would eventually concede to prevent Kobani from falling into terrorist hands. What the Obama team did not realize was that, to the Turks, Kobani was already in terrorist hands; Kurdish ones. Ankara has long been accustomed to violent militants ravaging its southern borders in a continuous and low-intensity war.


Obama now faces a conundrum. He is on a slippery slope toward all-out war in Iraq and Syria that will require the use of US ground troops. Should he refuse to put US boots on the ground, he will seriously damage the image of the US military. Should he beg allies for ground troops to beat ISIS, he will have to concede to Assad’s removal.


In 2006, when Iraq seemed out of control, Bush entrusted America’s finest institution, the US military, to take over. He did not intervene in General David Petraeus’s plans over which military branch could be used in battle, or the number of troops, restrictions that Obama has perfected, first in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq and Syria.


Obama has forced the military to fight with one hand. The goal he defined – to degrade ISIS’s capabilities – has proven to be as vague as his war plan. He is now stuck in a war he cannot win, with a political team  convinced it knows best  that is not willing to listen to advice on the necessity of giving up on Iran or toppling Assad, which would be a dramatic turn in a so-far lousy policy.


ISIS is winning and expanding. In the White House, steady-hand Bush has been succeeded by professor-reluctant Obama, who has surrounded himself with a team obsessed with “nuanced” policy, no matter how flawed.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain

The “it’s not a war” on ISIS has so far been a failure. (AFP Photo/Aris Messinis)

Thanks to Obama’s prioritizing politics over military strategy, America’s campaign has amounted to little more than heartburn for ISIS."

  • ZiadT

    Interesting read but a little too much wishful thinking. Obama and the Western world don't care about Syria or Iraq... To them these air strikes are target practice to train their fighter pilots. Why would they send in troops on the ground and risk the lives of young American men and women? So that Syria and Iraq have a democracy? Yeah, right! The only thing they are concerned with is oil and their strategic interests. If Obama is sending a few jets to hit ISIS, it's to silence Liberal idealists who think that US/Western foreign policy is actually about human rights or to silence his hawkish opponents in Washington who criticize him for being too soft on terrorism and to feed the US military complex's apatite for another war... The reality is that Obama does not want to be engaged in the Middle East but also does not want to look like he's doing nothing in front of the media. So he sends a couple of planes to target practice over Iraq and Syria and then blames the failure on Turkey, on the Iraqi army and on other factors on the ground... The current situation is in US interest as it will drag Iran into the conflict and will weaken Iranian influence in the region forcing them to cut a deal with the US on the nuclear issue and on its relationship with Hizbollah to secure Israel's northern border. As far as the US is concerned... ISIS, Assad, the Syrian rebels, the Iraqi government, Hisbollah and Lebanon can keep killing each other until no one is left what difference does it make? As the Lebanese saying goes "fakhar ykassir ba3do"

    October 13, 2014

  • muhami

    Great comments but must say it is too neat. Blaming failure on Turkey, the Iraqi army/govnmt and the joke aka as the Syrian opposition is entirely correct. Remember the story about the son of the Iraqi transportation minister who ordered and got his missed MEA flight to Baghdad to return to Beirut because they refused to wait for his highness. The minister remained and nothing happened except piss a lot of innocent people off. An Iraqi government like that is a joke just like Maliki. You are right it is fakhar ykassir baado but once in a while we get a "tartouche" and it hurts. It is ironic that now appears to be the time to invest in Israeli real estate and pharmaceutical business because they seem they will be enjoying real peace for a while.

    October 14, 2014