If President Obama can pull off the complicated maneuver of eradicating the Islamic State without handing a victory to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Shiite allies in Iran and Iraq, he will salvage the foreign-policy record of his presidency.
The task is extraordinarily challenging for many reasons.
IS has grown strong and rich, and it controls large swaths of territory. But what makes the effort most complicated is the tangle of enmities and agendas tripping up the Middle East. The old maxims about “the enemy of my enemy” are much too simple. The enemy of your enemy remains your enemy, and that makes for complicated strategies.
Exactly one year to the day before he made his speech on Wednesday announcing plans to strike against IS, Obama gave a Sept. 10, 2013 speech, this time announcing plans to strike against Syria’s Assad. A year ago, he was planning to hit Assad because he had used chemical weapons. Now he plans to destroy some of those seeking to overthrow Assad.
In the end, Obama backed out of last year’s plan and agreed to let Assad hand over his chemical weapons as part of a Russian deal. (Assad used other chemicals to kill just a few days ago, but that’s a whole other geopolitical vat of poison.)
This time, Obama announced he’s striking Assad’s enemies, the barbaric Islamic extremists of ISIS, the Islamic State.
IS, a Sunni extremist group, is not only the enemy of America’s enemy, Assad. It is also a threat to all Shiites, including the Iranian regime and its friends in Iraq.
So, can the United States attack ISIS without helping Iran and Assad and the most virulently sectarian forces in Baghdad, the ones that have become tools of Iran — not to mention the Lebanese Shiite militants of Hezbollah, who are fighting shoulder to shoulder with Assad?
It will be extremely difficult, but Obama has a strategy that has a chance — not a very big one — to succeed.
We should pause here to note that the same plan would have had a much better chance of succeeding one or two years ago, when Obama rejected it. But that’s a useless memory right now.
IS is a serious and dangerous threat that must be confronted. That’s why some had suggested that Obama should treat Iran and Assad the way Churchill did Stalin during World War II; ally himself with a known evil for the sake of combating an even greater threat. In other words, they said, Obama should work with Assad and with Tehran, risk making them stronger and worry about them later, while focusing in destroying IS in the short term.
Fortunately, Obama rejected that bad notion. Instead, he will try to walk the narrow path of attacking IS by strengthening non-Shiite elements.
At long last, Obama seems ready to arm the moderate opposition in Syria — the forces fighting against both Assad and ISIS — who have been clamoring for Western help for the past three years.
He has also pressured Iraq to form a mor- inclusive government and, according to his latest speech, he plans to restart the Sunni militias that helped stabilize Iraq before America withdrew all his forces.
Will this work? It’s a long shot. Assad will no doubt welcome international help in destroying at least part of the forces fighting against him.
If Obama and the Arab, Kurdish, and Western help he enlists against ISIS can manage to turn moderate Syrians into a muscular, effective force, and if they can produce a government in Iraq that answers the needs and respects the rights of all its citizens, including Sunnis, Christians and Kurds (and let’s talk about a Kurdish state later) then they will be able to not only push ISIS out of its current path of brutality and conquest. They will have gone a long way in helping to send the region in a direction that could ultimately yield more stability and less extremism.
The president clearly was more comfortable standing aside than becoming involved in the blood feuds of the Middle East. But the region — as we saw with the killings of James Foley and Steven Satloff, and in the deaths of 200,000 Syrians, not to mention the 9/11 tragedy 13 years ago — refuses to let a superpower ignore its fury.
Obama now has a chance to save his foreign-policy record, but it’s a long shot.