The march of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has forced the United States to refocus on a region from which it has been trying to disengage. For the past few years, US strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia was based mainly on selective strikes against terrorist organizations and the steady withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan, as was achieved in Iraq in 2011. President Barack Obama’s announcement on Wednesday, in which he laid out his plan for crushing the unilaterally declared “Islamic State,” or ISIS, signaled a dynamic return to the region with a strategy that holds both hope for success and the danger of further chaos.
On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Obama had to make the case to his compatriots that the Islamic State constitutes a threat to their country’s safety and interests, and he had to assure them that he would not lead them into a new war. He made clear that the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent occupation would not be repeated. He stressed that Washington was forging a broad coalition with Arab, Muslim and European states; whereas the United States would provide air power and military advisers, ground troops would come from the Iraqi army, Kurdish troops and other enemies of ISIS.
The plan is to enclose the Islamic State between countries sharing borders with Iraq and Syria, while reinforcing the national and religious groups which are threatened by ISIS within Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia will host training facilities for members of Syrian groups who are opposed both to the Assad regime and the Islamic State. The savagery of ISIS has driven many of its former supporters to join forces with rivals so as to eradicate a threat that is bigger than others that they have faced. The US is now working with Iran, and the Iraqi army with Kurds, while, for the first time, Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves on the same side. The strategy of collective action may work in Iraq, perhaps wiping out some of the shame of America’s previous entanglement there. This will depend on the country’s Sunni minority – which has tolerated if not supported the ISIS extremists – believing that the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad truly wants to include them. Success against a common enemy may open paths of communication among the region’s players. However, there is always the danger that one group may come out stronger than the others, leading to further instability.
In Syria, Washington intends to strengthen anti-regime forces which also oppose ISIS. If they overrun the government, however, we might see a repeat of Iraq after 2003, when the destruction of state and security institutions unleashed the chaos that persists. We do not know whether it is part of America’s new strategy that the danger presented by the Islamic State could lead to a compromise in Syria and to a political transition without the country being torn apart.