ISIS Speech: a modest strategy with much to be modest about

President Obama Addresses The Nation To Outline Strategy On ISISLast night, Obama laid out what he purported to be a strategy for dealing with ISIS. It is really nothing but an amalgam of policies that not only cannot work but have been proven to not work every time they are tried. In Obama’s speech he laid out a four point strategy.

  • First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.  Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.  Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.  That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.  This is a core principle of my presidency:  If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.
  • Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.  In June, I deployed several hundred American servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces.  Now that those teams have completed their work –- and Iraq has formed a government –- we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq.  As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.  But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.  We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control. Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition.  Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.  In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.  Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.
  • Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.  Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.  And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.
  • Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.  This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities.  We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.

Let’s examine each of these in turn.


Video from airstrikes on trucks, etc., livens up a White House press briefing and gives the illusion of doing something. The fact remains is that air strikes divorced from control of real estate and populations can make you feel good and provide some catharsis but it can’t win. War, as Clausewitz said:

We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means.

Defeating ISIS is a political problem, airstrikes can reduce ISIS effectiveness but it will a) do nothing to defeat ISIS and b) allows ISIS to simply wait us out.

 Advisors and Arming the Syrian Opposition

It is difficult to overstate how meaningless this part of the strategy is. To be effective, advisors must be attached to units during combat operations. There is no other way to increase combat proficiency or participate in useful intelligence gathering activities. It is difficult to see the net good 475 Americans who are barred from combat will accomplish.

Arming the Syrian opposition is a long time pipedream of the administration and remains as bad an idea today as when the idea first surfaced. The problem is that there is no “moderate” Syrian opposition outside five-star hotel suites in Turkey. Our options to either collaborate with Assad (and therefore with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia) or we can arm and equip al-Qaeda, which is as close to moderate as exists among the Syrian Opposition. There is no mythical third component here. The only other option is to only arm and equip the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga. This could have positive effect in Iraq but will do nothing to address the problem in Syria.

 Prevent Attacks By ISIS and Defeat its Ideology

This is one of those things that looks great on paper. The fact is that ISIS doesn’t require any extraordinary efforts to prevent it from conducting attacks outside the immediate area of operations. If the situation isn’t markedly changed then that danger goes up exponentially as ISIS begins to change focus from combat operations to strategic ones: like building chemical weapons and carrying out terror attacks in other areas of the Middle East, in Europe, and in America. The problem of defeating its ideology goes back to the realization that war is a political act. Who is going to carry out this campaign against ISIS ideology? The Iraqi and Syrian governments which caused ISIS to develop its ideology? Jen Psaki and her hashtags?

Humanitarian Relief and Protection of Religious Minorities

We can only conduct humanitarian missions to the extent that we have competent partners on the ground. As we saw with the surrouned Yazidis, we can provide food and water but the crisis doesn’t end until ground troops raise the siege. Protecting religious minorities is laudable but it is hardly a useful component of a strategy to defeat ISIS, it is, at best, a result of that defeat.

In a staff college, this attempt at a strategy would not even rate a “Gentleman’s C.”

The Elephants in the Room

First, the coalition that Obama has formed is weak and lacking in relative capabilities. This coalition would have done very well in 2003 but against ISIS it is the Coalition of the Useless. Shortly after posting that story I was the target of some amateurish trolling on Twitter by a couple of clowns pointing to this story about the Arab League. Thus far, the Arab League is contributing nothing other than the usual heated Arab rhetoric. And they, like the rest of the world, are unsettled by Obama’s leadership:

Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said the resolution shows Arab countries remain uncertain about the U.S. policy regarding ISIS. He said they also worry about the U.S. taking a selective approach to handling the issue by choosing to single out Iraq for action but not addressing the turmoil in Syria.

If at some point an Arab League military force participates in combat operations against ISIS, I’ll reconsider my evaluation of the Obama coalition.

Second, the coalition Obama has assembled is corrupt. It includes Turkey. Turkey is a major supplier and near ally of ISIS. We’ve seen story after story on this. ABC reports that ISIS makes $3 million per day selling oil. How do they do that as ISIS territories are landlocked?

Syria Deeply: How much does ISIS make from oil?

Karasik: Officials from the Iraqi oil industry have said that ISIS reaps $1 million per day in Iraq in oil profits and that if they get the Syrian fields in [areas where they’re advancing], the total would be $100 million per month for both Iraq and Syria combined. They sell it for $30 a barrel because it’s a black market. It’s not pegged to international standards for oil prices, which are over $100 a barrel. The oil is bought through Turkey from Syria, and it’s sold to black market traders who function throughout the Levant.

How much do you think Turkish middlemen and Turkish politicians make from this?

Daniel Pipes has cataloged Turkish assistance to ISIS, including providing hospital care for ISIS commanders wounded in action.

Ankara may deny helping ISIS, but the evidence for this is overwhelming. “As we have the longest border with Syria,” writes Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Turkish newspaper columnist, “Turkey’s support was vital for the jihadists in getting in and out of the country.” Indeed, the ISIS strongholds not coincidentally cluster close to Turkey’s frontiers.

Kurds, academic experts and the Syrian opposition agree that Syrians, Turks (estimated to number3,000), and foreign fighters (especially Saudis but also a fair number of Westerners) have crossed the Turkish-Syrian border at will, often to join ISIS. What Turkish journalist Kadri Gursel calls a “two-way jihadist highway,” has no bothersome border checks and sometimes involves the active assistance of Turkish intelligence services. CNN even broadcast a video on “The secret jihadi smuggling route through Turkey.”

Actually, the Turks offered far more than an easy border crossing: they provided the bulk of ISIS’ funds, logistics, training and arms. Turkish residents near the Syrian border tell of Turkish ambulances going to Kurdish-ISIS battle zones and then evacuating ISIS casualties to Turkish hospitals. Indeed, a sensational photograph has surfaced showing ISIS commander Abu Muhammad in a hospital bed receiving treatment for battle wounds in Hatay State Hospital in April 2014.

Third, apparently we are now regarding Somalia and Yemen as the standard by which success will be measured. I’ll be the first to admit that setting impossibly low standards for gauging your own success has a lot to commend it. But you can go too far:

This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Matthew Cooper, writing in Newsweek, says:

Somalia and Yemen are successes? Good lord. At least when Bill Clinton famously pointed to Bangladesh as an economic model for micro businesses, he had a point, albeit one that seemed jaw-dropping at the time. It’s not that anyone expects Somalia and Yemen to be Swiss-like after hearing from our drones and special forces. But Somalia is utterly chaotic and Yemen is still terrorist rich. We haven’t destroyed any groups there, only clipped them at times which barely counts as degrading their organizations.

Two days ago I wrote a post titled Obama and GOP agree to do nothing about ISIS. My initial feeling was that I was correct but on further reflection I think Obama would have been ahead if he had decided to do nothing.

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