The US Minimalist Counter
The White House embarked on a limited political as well as military counterstrategy to the ISIS offensive. Politically, American officials pushed for peaceful regime change in Baghdad against Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose sectarian policies alienated the Sunni minority. Obama’s new view represented a reversal on Maliki. After the inconclusive Iraqi elections in 2010, the US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher R. Hill, threw America’s political weight behind Maliki and pooh-pooed Sunni complaints—and those US military advisors who backed them—about the Shiite-biased Maliki regime. Experienced mainly in Asian affairs and backed by Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, Hill paid little attention to the advice from long-term Iraqi hands.90 By persecuting Sunnis,
Maliki’s policies forfeited the pluralistic gains won by the US occupation and its high price in lives and money. Without a political change at the top, military operations alone would not prevail. Obama officials, therefore, helped force out al-Maliki for Haider al-Abadi who they considered a moderate Shiite politician.
Washington made other political adjustments to the new reality in the Middle East. John Kerry signaled that the United States was ready to mend relations with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who led the 2013 military ouster of the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Now, the United States abandoned Morsi’s cause and backed al-Sisi. The White House needed Mideast partners to confront the marauding ISIS bands. The secretary of state traveled to Cairo to reaffirm America’s “historic partnership” and to pledge restoration of the military aid package.91
In addition, the Pentagon warily sent a small training contingent back into the Iraqi theater in mid-2014. Numbering “up to 300” Special Forces advisers, the tiny force was supposed to reverse the ISIS gains and stop the insurgents from taking Baghdad. Before long, concerns about ISIS prompted the Pentagon to deploy more troops. Each time the president upped the size of the small US footprint in Iraq, he reassured the American people that he would not recommit American “combat forces” to the fractured nation. The danger posed to Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish capital, by the onrushing ISIS offensive forced President Obama’s hand, compelling him to authorize airstrikes on the swift-moving militants in August 2014. In approving limited aerial attacks, the American leader insisted that they did not amount to a re-invasion into the Persian Gulf nation: “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”92
This reluctant reversal of his withdrawal policy revealed Obama’s preference for disengagement, which ISIS upset. His political opponents seized on Obama’s minimization of the threat posed by the Islamic State when he characterized it as “a jayvee team” in an Oval Office interview six months earlier.93 Congress went along with the president’s military decisions; no groundswell of opposition erupted as happened a year before when the White House broached the striking of Syria over its use of chemical weapons. In fact, the president’s Republican opposition called for a more vigorous counteraction. John McCain contented that air attacks too narrowly focused on protecting Americans working in Iraq from the Islamic State rather than wiping out the terrorist network. The Republican senator from Arizona perceived the Islamic State as “a threat to America” and thus warranting a bigger US counterstrike.94
Despite the very limited intervention, the Pentagon grandly dubbed it “Operation Inherent Resolve.” In September, the president announced a further deployment of 450 troops. In an address at the White House, he pledged: “We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” He reassured his audience “how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” because “it will not involve American combat troops.” Rather, his new effort will center on US airpower along with SOF and CIA operatives assisting local “partner forces on the ground.” The American president compared his counterterrorism strategy to Yemen and Somalia “as one that we have successfully pursued...for years.”95 Reality in Iraq quickly outstripped the hesitant US countermeasures, however. The Islamic State replenished its ranks with hundreds of recruits from abroad arriving each month to take up arms. Nor did events in Yemen lend comfort to the presidential battle plan, for that nation tumbled into a multisided civil war, which necessitated the temporary evacuation of US security personnel six months after the White House speech on Iraq.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the US ground force grew to more than 3500 personnel after several months, but their initial guidelines prohibited them from accompanying their partners into battle. In the final months of his presidency, President Obama upped the official number to nearly 5000, excluding special forces and rotational personnel. Small in number though they might be, the US armed forces required a SOFA to cover the US military personnel in a foreign country over issues of domestic law and service members’ behavior. This time the Obama administration accepted a similar type of legal immunity agreement for US troops that it turned down in 2011. Iraq’s government provided assurances in a diplomatic note, without its parliament’s approval, which exempted US personnel from Iraqi laws. Three years earlier, Washington had demanded parliamentary ratification of immunity, effectively killing any hope for a SOFA. Even with al- Maliki’s assurances, the Obama White House still pulled out all American forces in 2011. This time the legal niceties were bypassed so as to retrieve US interests in a disintegrating Iraq.96
From air bases in the region, American and allied aircraft pummeled ISIS columns and fortifications. These counterattacks broke the ISIS advance on Baghdad. Midway through August, the Pentagon provided air support to the Kurd’s ground assault of Mosul Dam. Then it ordered aerial strikes to other Kurdish counteroffenses in the months ahead. The
Iraqi Kurds earned the reputation as Washington’s best local forces against the Islamic State peril. But the Kurds’ aspirations for sovereignty complicated the Obama administration’s relations with Turkey and Iraq, which resisted moves to accommodate Kurdish statehood.
After three-and-a-half years of US opposition to overt and direct military action in Syria’s civil war, President Obama finally did order airstrikes against ISIS militants as means to check their offensive deep into Iraq. Initially, he kept a tight rein on the Syrian airstrikes and restricted bombing in Iraq. In Syria, Obama demanded that the Pentagon get White House’s sign-off for aerial strikes. By these controls, the president ensured that the US armed forces conformed to his guidelines to degrade the Islamic State without falling into a wider war or another occupation of Iraq. He also reined in the scope of bombing to avert any resemblance to a “shock and awe” campaign, which might lead to another ground invasion.97
On the ground, the Obama administration sought to replicate Bush junior’s victory by rallying Sunni sheiks against the terrorist al Qaeda in Iraq network (discussed in Chap. 7). But this time, Baghdad’s Shiite-run government complicated matters. The Sunnis hated Baghdad’s reliance on the feared and loathed Popular Mobilization Forces, since these Shiite militias were often armed and trained by Iran’s secretive Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This close Baghdad-Tehran collaboration disconcerted American plans for a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad. In reality, the presence of the Islamic State militants and the Shiite militias furthered the balkanization of Iraq into three de facto sub- nations—Shiastan, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan.
Other anomalies materialized. By both attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the United States and Iran wound up as nearly de facto allies. More to the point, the president’s anti-ISIS campaign seemed calibrated to the administration’s pursuit of a nuclear arms control agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Domestic opponents of Obama and some Iraq’s Sunnis contended that the president would sell out Iraq to conclude a nuclear deal with Tehran.98 After the conclusion of the agreement in 2015, the Washington did step up its military campaigns in Iraq and Syria but adhered to its pre-deal focus on Islamic State rather than Damascus’s
For much of 2015, the United States minimized its involvement in Iraq by relying on Kurdish forces, airpower, Shiite militias, and a handful of Iraqi regular soldiers. Despite Washington’s banking on the Kurds, it hesitated in transferring weapons directly to Kurdistan’s pesh merga fighters out of concern that it signaled a willingness to encourage Kurdish independence from Baghdad. The Kurdish leadership favored direct delivery for that very reason—America’s recognition of their separateness from Baghdad.100
President Obama kept regular “boots on the ground” out of the fight against the Islamic State so as to avoid retreating on his 2008 campaign pledges to end America’s wars. Instead, he turned to SOF, whose secretive silhouette obscured their combat missions in Iraq and Syria. As a pair of journalists wrote, US officials often resorted to “linguistic contortions to mask the forces’ combat role.”101 America’s commander-in-chief viewed the elite troops and clandestine operations as an alternative to the large occupation wars he inherited from George W. Bush.
This “fierce minimalist” course of action, as expounded by one commentator, held that Obama “only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill Americans.”102 But the president did not really unsheathe the nation’s sword against terrorist networks expanding in Iraq and Syria. From mid-2014 onward, the self-proclaimed Islamic State made wide gains in Iraq and Syria, while beheading Western hostages and exporting terrorism abroad. In Iraq, the fall of Ramadi, a northern city, in May 2015 to ISIS, raised further questions about the administration’s incremental strategy for containing the radical Islamists.103 Even after the retaking Ramadi by Iraqi security forces later in the same year, the pace of the anti-ISIS campaign stayed plodding against Mosul and Fallujah. Obama wanted no part of a “shock and awe” assault so celebrated by his immediate predecessor.
Diplomatically, the United States did pull together a sizeable international coalition against the Islamic State. Numbering more than 60 nations, the US-led Global Coalition to Degrade and Defeat ISIL included participants with varying levels of engagement.104 Most participated in name only, whereas a dozen furnished warplanes for airstrikes, supplied arms to the Kurds, or opened their territory (Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) for training programs calling for moderate Syrian fighters. At his sixth address to the UN General Assembly in 2014, President Obama implored world leaders to join the anti-Islamic State front “to dismantle this network of death.”105 These policies were at a piece with Washington’s goal of avoiding direct combat involvement in the Syrian cauldron.
At home, Obama’s poll numbers temporarily nosedived over his international inaction and non-interventionist leadership amid growing fears of terrorist attacks. The Islamic State’s territorial advances and Internetbroadcasted beheadings rattled the general public. In one New York Times/CBS News poll, 58 percent of Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of foreign affairs in 2014.106 But the poll responders were conflicted in their opinions. They held no appetite for a large US intrusion into the boiling crises in Ukraine, Iraq, or Syria. On specifics, the public’s mood matched the White House’s restrained policy. These conflicting perceptions frustrated presidential aides, who believed that Obama deserved higher numbers for carrying out the people’s wishes.107
President Obama’s tentative strategy in Syria and Iraq was upended by Vladimir Putin’s unexpected military intrusion into Syria in September 2015. The Russian Federation’s president deployed ground-attack warplanes, troops, armored tanks, and air defense systems to bases near Latakia and Tartus. Russia’s armed forces now bolstered Moscow’s pro-Assad stance, as the strongman’s army was flagging at that moment. Russian planes mostly struck non-Islamic State insurgents whose ground conquests threatened the Damascus regime’s Alawite community in northwestern Syria. To administration critics, the Russian deployments provided proof that the White House’s inaction in Syria had ceded the initiative in the Levantine country to the Kremlin.108