Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a foreign policy analyst and military historian who advised U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Boot briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on October 6, 2014.
President Obama has not offered a cohesive strategy for fighting ISIS. Since 2010, his determination to disengage from Iraq and Syria was evident in his refusal to assist the Free Syrian Army and keep U.S. forces in Iraq beyond 2011. He has partially reversed his stance following the August 2014 beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, but this is too little too late.
The U.S.-led air strikes have not shaken ISIS's stranglehold on Syria and Iraq as it closes on Kobani and Baghdad. Obama's lack of resolve was evident from the start when he ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to tackle ISIS.
To increase the effectiveness of air strikes requires, at minimum, U.S. Special Operations to work alongside those Iraqi security forces that have not been infiltrated by Iranian militia, to instill discipline and leadership. Similar steps are needed to galvanize the ground forces of the Peshmerga units, Sunni tribes in the Anbar province of Iraq, and the Free Syrian Army.
Instead, by seeking a larger rapprochement with Tehran beyond even the nuclear talks, Washington appears to be tacitly working with the Syrian regime and empowering its Iranian sponsors, further alienating the Sunni tribes in Iraq that helped so much in the 2007 surge. The Iranians and their proxies being the greatest drivers of the conflict, aligning with them will exacerbate problems. Further, Iran's tactical short-term objectives have not softened its nuclear ambitions or status as the number-one state sponsor of terrorism.
Considerable evidence exists of Syrian and Iranian complicity with al-Qaeda and ISIS. A rampaging ISIS strengthens Assad by making his case that the alternative to his rule is that of ISIS. A close look shows that ISIS has gained control primarily of Sunni areas in Syria, and not by fighting Assad.
The U.S. government should back a third way, by encouraging moderates to target ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra while avoiding cooperation with the regime. A more active anti-Assad position would encourage Turkey to use its troops to set up enclaves in Syria where the FSA and government opposition forces could operate – notwithstanding Erdoğan's nasty rhetoric and troubling behavior.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum.