An impressive accomplishment in the Middle East
President Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind,” evident for several weeks in connection with a response to the threat from the Islamic State movement (IS, ISIS or ISIL), has borne fruit in an impressive coalition of Western and Middle Eastern nations. We’ll see in the next few weeks and months if it’s powerful enough to roll back ISIL.
But just the fact that a group of Sunni Arab countries is providing military power against a Sunni Muslim jihadist group is a game-changer for the Middle East.
ISIL admittedly caught the United States by surprise in northern Iraq.
ISIL, a recent iteration of the Al-Qaida in Iraq group, has been around for a few years, but as President Obama said in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, most Westerners underestimated its ability, and overestimated the strength and dependability of the Iraq military.
ISIL, operating from its controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria, overran Iraqi positions across northern Iraq. Many Iraqi soldiers abandoned their weapons and military positions and fled.
Only the semiautonomous Kurdish peshmerga military was able to slow it down, but the Kurds were operating under the disadvantages of relatively fewer heavy weapons and little help from other Iraqi forces.
President Obama’s response was calculatingly deliberate.
He has said from the beginning that America would not provide troops on the ground against ISIL. But after it became clear that the Kurds would have a tough time without some kind of support, the U.S. started to hit ISIL positions and equipment in Iraq with American air attacks.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry worked nonstop to build a military alliance against ISIL, of not only the usual Western allies but also Middle Eastern nations that stood to lose the most in the short run from ISIL victories.
The deepest single division in the Middle East (other than Arabs vs. Israelis) is that of Sunni Muslims vs. Shiite Muslims.
Therefore, to bring Sunni Arab nations under the anti-ISIL tent would have huge significance for the region, and provide an enormous propaganda counterweight to ISIL and other radical jihadists.
It has been customary for ostensibly “friendly” Arab nations to let the United States do their fighting for them, despite the billions of dollars in military aid we have provided them for decades.
But Obama’s insistence that this time it is different — this time we would not send American troops to battle ISIL on the ground, at least for now — apparently convinced Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar that they would be wise to join the air strikes against the ISIL advance.
Jordan joined the alliance as well, providing valuable intelligence help. Egypt and Lebanon are also part of the overall effort, with Turkey on board to some extent as well.
Western participants besides the U.S. now include Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Canada, Australia and others.
It’s a complex arrangement.
The U.S., shocked by the Internet beheadings of captured Westerners by ISIL, has now expanded the air attack against ISIL into Syria, something Obama initially said he was resisting. Some of our Western allies, like France, refuse to attack ISIL in Syria, although they are helping in Iraq. Turkey’s help has been mostly passive.
But Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates pilots flew coordinated attack sorties with American planes, not once but several times. Those appear likely to continue.
It remains to be seen if the air power alliance, coupled with Kurdish ground forces and maybe a rejuvenated Iraqi military, can push ISIL out of its conquered territory.
But no other American president has been able to convince Sunni Arab nations to take up arms across borders against Sunni Islamist militants.
Obama’s opponents, both in and out of Congress, will no doubt continue to find fault with his foreign affairs performance, including this episode.
It would be refreshing — and would strengthen American efforts — if such finger-pointing and nit-picking in this instance could fade, despite the heat of the off-year elections.