IS threat: Still time to build a strategy
American presidents are usually heavily scripted in public and blunt in private.
So, when US President Barack Obama stated flatly “We don’t have a strategy yet for Isis,” it raised eyebrows and more than a few hackles.
Whether or not it was wise to be so candid, his intent was to tamp down the conjecture that the United States was poised to expand military action against Islamic State (IS), often still known by its former name Isis, beyond Iraq into Syria as well.
While the horrific beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have helped clarify what is at stake in Syria, President Obama is right not to rush after Isis into Syria.
For one thing, that may be just what IS wants him to do.
In the Sotloff tape, the narrator again calls on Obama to “back off and leave our people alone.”
However, as they work to supplant al-Qaeda as the driving force behind the creation of a new caliphate (they are not likely to be any more successful than their rivals were), they seem to relish the re-ignition of the perceived war between Islam and the West.
An American incursion into Syria without clear regional support would be a potential recruiting bonanza just as the US invasion of Iraq was in 2003.
The United States has gradually intensified the pressure on IS in Iraq.
With the help of US air strikes, Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga have regained some lost territory, including the Mosul dam, a development IS specifically highlighted in the Sotloff recording.
IS still displays significant staying power, and its ability to hold and govern large sections of Iraq and Syria is why US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested the group “is beyond just a terrorist group.”
While military action has been effective in Iraq, the next crucial step is political, whether the new government (which is still being formed) can reverse the mistakes of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki or not, govern more effectively and inclusively, as well as unite the country in opposition to IS.
There are ways to achieve this — the devolution of meaningful responsibility to Iraq’s provinces will certainly help — but this is for the Iraqis themselves to resolve.
Creating regional consensus
The Syrian dimension is far more complex.
In saying there is not yet a strategy for IS, President Obama was actually admitting he lacks a viable and sustainable strategy for Syria, something that has been apparent for three years.
To be sure, the president has had his share of mistakes and miscalculations.
He was right to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, but underestimated his survival skills and the lengths to which other countries would go, especially Russia, to protect him.
He was right to side with the moderate opposition, but did not provide them enough support when it really mattered.
A year ago, he was right to call for decisive military action in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but his failure to pull the trigger enabled President Assad to regain the upper hand and undermined the credibility of US policy and power in the region.
IS in Iraq and Syria
The emergence of IS is a serious problem, but hardly the only one and not necessarily the most consequential.
It is important to continue to view Syria through a wider lens.
It is true there is no solution to IS without meaningful action not just in Iraq, but also in Syria.
It is also true that a solution to IS requires a solution for Syria, which means addressing the malign roles played by Assad, as well as those played by Iran and Russia.
Assad is a central factor in the rise of IS. He is part of the problem, not of any solution.
Russia and Iran are problems, but also see IS as one. Ideally, they could be part of a solution.
The United States also needs to deal with the conflicting agendas of other players in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It will take time to create a regional consensus on Syria. Without it, no strategy made in Washington is likely to succeed.
Stomach for action
The Sotloff tape does not change our understanding of the group. If anything, it should reinforce it.
IS poses a threat to the West, particularly its ability to attract Westerners to the conflict.
There is no reason to believe at this point that it has the ability or the interest to attack the United States or European countries directly.
That may change over time, but while there is an urgency to all of this, there is still time to develop an appropriate strategy and gain allies to help carry it out.
President Obama may get some welcome support from Congress as well.
In the next few weeks, it may provide specific authorisation for the United States to undertake military operations inside Syria, something it was unwilling to do a year ago.
Air strikes in Syria may well be part of the answer.
Ultimately, taking that step is not a question of stomach, but of strategy.