Less than three weeks ago, President Obama confirmed air strikes on Islamic State (IS) positions near the Kurdish town of Irbil in northern Iraq. Whether the strikes were truly meant to curb further IS expansion, or merely to protect US personnel on the ground (or both), matters little at this point. Obama further confirmed that the United States would launch additional, targeted air strikes against IS positions. In fact, the US President stopped just short of saying he would put boots on the ground. Such a move would be widely unpopular in the eyes of the American public given Obama’s adamant, anti-war campaign back in 2008, whereby he promised to disengage the country from the mess left by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These airstrikes triggered a video response from the Islamic State, entitled ‘A Message to America’. The short video demonstrates the group’s superiority in marketing their cause, as well as their ability to turn foreign media into a global platform. In the video, an IS fighter with a noticeable southern English accent proclaims that the Islamic State will no longer tolerate any US strikes. America, he states, has made a grave error, and will pay for its meddling in the Caliphate’s inevitable establishment.
Stooped next to the IS fighter is James Foley, an American journalist who had gone missing in Syria in 2013. What follows next is graphic, gruesome, and need not be repeated. IS’ depicted actions were as clear of a message to the United States as they were a cruel reminder to the world of their propensity for evil. The only question left is how Obama and the United States will retaliate.
Additional airstrikes would have a limited impact and would not put a large enough dent in the group’s expansion. As it stands, the Islamic State controls approximately 40% of Iraq and nearly 20% of Syria. It boasts just over 65,000 heavily armed fighters in its ranks, with hundreds more flooding in everyday. The group is already positioned at Jordan’s border and is slowly crafting its way into Lebanon. IS’ rapid expansion in size and geographical location, as well as their growing online presence, makes it an entity like no other.
All of the above puts Obama in a particularly precarious position. The US can either continue to play a support role to the Iraqi Army, assisting it with limited airstrikes on IS positions, or face the Islamic State head on. In a twist of irony, either scenario requires that the United States accept Syria, and by extension Iran and perhaps even Russia, into the equation.
Should the US refuse to deal with the Syrian government, it would be left supporting a fragile Iraqi military while trying to aid the formulation of a post-Maliki, unity government. This option would further entail the continued military support of the Kurdish Peshmerga. In exchange, the most the US could hope for would be the eradication of the Islamic State from Iraq as it isolates itself in Eastern Syria.
Scenario number two would place the United States in a position thought, merely a few months ago, to be utterly unthinkable. The United States would have to sit at the negotiating table with none other than Bashar al-Assad, accompanied by his Iranian and Russian sponsors. This idea has already gained traction with both the Assad regime and Russia. In a recent press conference in Damascus, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem stated that the Assad regime would be willing to work with the international community to combat the Islamic State. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, also went on air to urge Western and Arab leaders to put aside their dislike for Assad so as to coordinate an urgently needed response to the Islamic State.
Obama’s dilemma can therefore be resumed to: how hardline of a position does the US want to take against the Islamic State? On a personal level, the final decision would heavily determine how the president’s foreign policy is viewed in the future. On a strategic level, a resulting thaw in US-Russia relations could allow for actions to be taken in Ukraine or against Iran’s nuclear program. However, working alongside the Assad regime would dangerously alienate the more moderate rebel factions inside Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army. The airstrikes have already opened the door to rebel criticism of Obama’s ‘double standard’ when it comes to Iraq and Syria. Could this potentially pave the way for a post-war Syria that includes Assad?
Whatever Obama decides to do, the Russian Foreign Minister already put it very succinctly: those opposed to Assad, he said, “will soon have to choose what is more important: a regime change to satisfy personal antipathies, risking deterioration of the situation beyond any control, or finding pragmatic ways to unite efforts against the common threat.”