9-12-14 – September 11th Shadows Haunt Obama in ISIS Struggle

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS—Speaking in the somber shadow of the September 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America in 2001, President Barack Obama sought to stake out an ambitious military and political strategy to degrade and defeat the new surge of Middle Eastern terrorism now sweeping Iraq and Syria.  

Yet in a major policy address to outline specific measures to militarily destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) as much as to reassure war weary Americans that there is actually a strategy coming from his Administration, Obama vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy,” and conceded that  “eradicating a cancer” such as ISIS was a long-term challenge.  

In the United Nations Security Council on 25 September he will hone the details.

Global terrorism is a hydra-headed monster; as in the ancient Greek myth cutting one head of the multi-headed sea serpent only produces another. 
So even after U.S. Navy Seals tracked down and killed terrorist kingpin Osama Bin Laden, hiding under the noses of our Pakistani allies, other militant groups popped up.  The Al-Qaida network  has global links and is strongest in the Middle East and Africa.    

Despite Obama’s almost cavalier pronouncements that we have substantially degraded the Al Qaida terrorists, that’s sadly not the case.  Regarding ISIL’s  growing threat earlier in the year, Obama described the terrorist organization as “junior varsity” in other words not a serious player.  Months later the mysterious militant group launched a multipronged military offensive and seized large chunks of northern Iraq.   Two months after seeing the swath of terror ISIS wracked across Iraq’s  Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi communities, the Administration launched limited American airstrikes on the militants. 

In late August,  both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that ISIS presented a clear and present danger to the U.S.  “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end of days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” stated Gen. Dempsey. 
Secretary of State John Kerry correctly called ISIS  “a manifestation of evil.” 

But when questioned about his Administration having a bigger strategy or plan in dealing with this growing threat to Mid Eastern stability, Obama conceded “he had no strategy.”  

Now in face of jarring reality the template has changed yet again.  The brutal beheading of two American journalists by ISIS killers prompted action.

The President outlined a plan to first use targeted U.S. airstrikes both in Iraq and neighboring Syria to hit the ISIS terrorist formations; good idea but this should have been done in June when massed columns of ISIS militants were out in the open and not entrenched as they are now.  Furthermore the plan stretches the Air Force, not so much the aircraft, but costly specialized precision munitions.  

Second, he pledged not to send  American troops into a combat role to Iraq,  (though he is dispatching  475 additional advisors ramping-up our Iraqi contingent to 1,600). The focus of the speech should have been what is the President going to do, rather than what he is not prepared to do; namely American boots in the Iraqi sand.  Americans are war weary, but don’t humor us. 

Third;  Obama promised additional aid for the “moderate” Syrian opposition fighting the Assad dictatorship. Easier said than done.  At the start of the struggle against Assad the lines were clearer, today most of the opposition including ISIS are a murky gaggle of hardline fundamentalists and terrorists such as the Al Nusra front.  

Fourth;  giving wider humanitarian assistance for refugees and displaced persons throughout the region.  Already the UN has declared Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency,” a designation aimed at fast tracking additional assistance to embattled Christian, Yazidi, and Kurdish minorities.  

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) , across Iraq an
estimated 1.8 million people have been displaced since January. 

The speech showed strong rhetoric but scant details about what is likely to be a very open-ended mission.  

America’s overdue onslaught on the ISIS terrorists may blunt their momentum but not necessarily reverse the already entrenched gains of this  radical jihadi group whose aim is to establish a hardline Islamic Caliphate throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Alarmingly ISIS maps show their intended realm encompassing the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and Portugal,  Turkey into the Balkans , and up to Hungary!

While the mission is clearly necessary, one wonders if the Administration will have the political stamina and focus to see it through.  In the best of plans, reality intrudes in the Middle East. 

****************
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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