US & Canada

Viewpoint: IS won't be destroyed without Syria change

US President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, DC 10 September 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Obama's goal is to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State, but will his strategy meet that goal?

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama outlined the elements of a strategy to confront Islamic State (IS) that he hopes to build on the fly in the coming months.

While it's better than not having a strategy at all, what Mr Obama described is not likely to achieve the objective he identified, even if everything works as he hopes.

Mr Obama detailed a "comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" for a broad regional and international coalition to "degrade and ultimately destroy" IS.

The caveat "ultimately" suggests degrading IS in Iraq first - a process that has already started - and Syria later.

Mr Obama said he would not hesitate to take military action in Syria, but did not indicate this was imminent. He encouraged congressional support for his approach, but believes he has the authorities he needs.

The destruction of IS, or more accurately its demise, requires a combination of actions. Mr Obama outlined several of them, including restricting IS' finances over time, countering its ideology, restricting the flow of combatants to and from the conflict, as well as stronger and more inclusive regional governments.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ten Arab countries have agreed to help the US in its fight against the jihadist group, Islamic State (IS)

The formation of a new Iraqi government this week is a necessary step, but it's unclear if the new government can unify the country.

But the president admitted there is not yet a viable political solution to Syria.

He again committed to greater support for the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, but interestingly characterised them as a "counterweight" to IS, not a force that can defeat Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Obama spoke on the eve of 9/11. Several aspects of his strategy speak to the evolution of American thinking since 2001.

He recognised he needed time to stitch the strategy together and seemed to feel he had it.

Mr Obama characterised IS as a brutal successor to al-Qaeda, but still within the boundaries of the existing understanding of a terrorism threat. IS, he said, is "a terrorist organisation, pure and simple".

In a sense, he was pushing back on some within his own national security team who have characterised IS as more virulent and more dangerous than its predecessors.

While it threatens Americans and other Western citizens and personnel serving in the region, he suggested IS was not yet a direct threat to America.

It is primarily a danger to the Middle East, and that is where Mr Obama insists the primary solution must come.

"American power can make a decisive difference," he said.

"But we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Iraqi national forces, Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been combating IS inside Iraq

In other words, the boots on the front lines will be Iraqi and Syrian, not American.

While the United States builds a broad coalition, it will not take primary ownership of the problem. This is a change in the conception of American leadership, serving to "rally other nations" to do what needs to be done, rather than leading the charge.

The American cavalry is not coming.

After lengthy campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an understanding that the presence of large numbers of American soldiers both dispatches adversaries and generates them. And the costs are unsustainable, both economically and politically.

Mr Obama avoided characterising his proposed actions as "war".

In fact, he went to great lengths to assure the American people this strategy for Iraq was fundamentally different. He no longer sees military action by itself as the primary instrument in combating terrorism.

There is little doubt that American air power, working in support of Iraqi and potentially Syrian opposition forces, and greater international counter-terrorism co-operation will degrade IS over time.

But defeating them requires effective boots on the ground and better governance.

It is far from certain key regional players are up to the task.

Over the past year, the Syrian opposition has lost ground to both the Assad regime and IS.

Iraqi security forces, due primarily to weak leadership, have punched well below their weight. Mr Obama is committed to help with better training, but this will not happen quickly.

Just as Mr Obama recognised that success requires a more inclusive and effective government in Baghdad, the same is the case in Damascus.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption It is unclear if Iraq's new government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, can unify the country

He will chair a special session of the UN later this month and may try to see if a new political path can be constructed from the ashes of the failed Geneva II process.

But that requires co-operation from Iran and Russia, both of whom still see Mr Assad as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

This is the US president's dilemma - until he has a political solution to Syria, he does not have a strategy to destroy IS.

PJ Crowley is a former Assistant Secretary of State and now a distinguished fellow with the George Washington University Institute of Public Diplomacy & Global Communication.

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