IS not an existential threat to US interests

IS not an existential threat to US interests
Analysis: It is easy to lose sight of the fact that US officials do not see IS as an existential threat to America, and they remain confident that Washington will remain the unchallenged power in the Middle East.
6 min read
20 February, 2015
Still looking for a cogent strategy against the Islamic State group (Getty)
Washington is unusually focused these days on what Vincent Stewart, the director of the defence intelligence agency, described as the Middle East's "new normal" - defined by the collapse of states on a scale not seen in centuries and the threat of the Islamic State group "increasing scope, volatility, and complexity".

"The global security environment is the most challenging of our lifetime," Stewart said told a congressional panel on 3 February.

On Capitol Hill, politicians have just begun debating the merits of an updated "Authorisation for the Use of Military Force", which is meant to define and limit US president’s war powers in the Middle East and give concrete expression to the US strategy of "degrading and destroying" IS.

This exercise in congressional oversight is bound to fall short, however. Congress is ill suited to define a threat so poorly understood in Washington and, in any case, has always been averse to effectively limit military operations in a changing battlefield. Nor will a new authorisation alter any military efforts now under way or contemplated – from training local forces to airstrikes and hostage or pilot rescue.

     Washington hopes against hope that the colossally ineffective Iraqi army will be miraculously whipped into fighting shape

If circumstances change, as they certainly will, the president will not feel constrained to escalate.

And even if a new authorisation is agreed, it will not repeal the blanket approval to use force granted to the president by Congress after 9/11.

A three-pronged strategy

Washington is centring its effort against IS in areas where the group is contesting the ungoverned space created by collapse of state authority in Iraq and Syria.

The region as a whole is shaking on a collapsing foundation. The current surge in Yemen by Houthi rebels that has forced the closure of US, Gulf and other embassies is not the only problem that does not fit the dominant IS template.

US officials are under no illusions about the staying power of what they still call ISIL.

"We expect ISIL to continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria while also fighting for territory outside those areas," Stewart said.  

IS's strengths are mirrored by the endemic shortcomings of the Iraqi security forces.

"The defeats of Iraqi security forces and the collapse of multiple army divisions highlight large-scale institutional deficiencies," he said, adding they remained "unable to defend against external threats or sustain conventional military operations against internal challenges without foreign assistance."

Nevertheless, the Iraqi army remains a central to at least one of a three-pronged strategy to capture hearts and minds in the contested Sunni heartland, in which a military offensive led by Baghdad and assisted by local Sunni forces, heads the list.

In this spirit, the coalition's operations coordinator, John Allen, said in a statement to the Jordanian news agency Petra that "there will be a massive attack on the ground against ISIS soon, the attack will be carried out by Iraqi forces, with support from the coalition."

There is also an anticipation, not without merit, that the IS group will overreach and thus undermine its own ability to consolidate its territorial and ideological gains. Washington hopes that Baghdad will be able to profit from the shortcomings of its enemy; that the colossally ineffective Iraqi army will be miraculously whipped into fighting shape in coming months, and that a Sunni opposition to IS will somehow be stood up.

William Mayville, the , the director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, recently told a congressional hearing: "Quite frankly, we need to see in Iraq political outreach that addresses the fact that some 20 million Sunnis are disenfranchised with their government."

Mayville warned that the expected offensive against Mosul needed to be based on a more solid Sunni-Shia consensus in Baghdad than currently exists.

No clue, no policy

"I think it is very, very important that the pace of operations be such that ... the military lines of effort don't get out in front of the political lines of effort that must be achieved in order to get an enduring solution here," he told a panel in the House of Representatives.

Mark Chandler, acting director for intelligence for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, agreed, saying "one of the things that really concerns me going forward is if the Shi'ite forces believe that they can control ISIL (Islamic State) without reconciliation with the Sunnis."

Empowering disaffected Sunni tribal and other leaders is one of the self-declared pillars of the US effort to retake western Iraq from IS. But if the failed recent visit to Washington by a delegation led by Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha of Iraqi Awakening fame is any indication, the gap separating Obama's preferences from the US interest in taking practical measures to effectively arm Sunnis has only widened.

"The Agency [CIA] is without a clue," notes a close Washington observer. "And the US government is without a policy."

He said that a meeting was held last week in Riyadh between the Jordanians, Saudis, and UAE to discuss operations against the IS group. "The Saudis have allocated $19bn to the effort. Obama is basically seen as an ally of Qasim Suleimani," he added. "The Sunni Arabs mean to force his hand."

And so, to Assad

Notable in the current Washington policy debate is the deafening silence about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and what was once Ankara's critical role in US policy towards Syria.

US defence officials continue to highlight the threat to US interests posed by IS and the Nusra Front rather than the Assad regime, including its allies in Lebanon and Tehran. And when UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced that Assad is "part of the solution", Washington was all but silent.

An open letter to the so-called 'Islamic State'. Read Lamis Andoni here

Indeed, the Obama administration's security establishment makes no secret of its assessment that "the conflict in Syria is trending in the Assad regime's favour, which holds the military advantage in Aleppo, Syria's largest city."

On this Stewart, the director of the defence intelligence agency, said: "We anticipate the regime's strategy will be to encircle Aleppo, cut opposition supply lines, and besiege the opposition. Hezbollah and Iran, Damascus' key allies in its fight against the opposition, continue to provide training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Syrian government and its supporters.

"Despite the regime’s military advantage - particularly in firepower and air superiority - it will continue to struggle and be unable to decisively defeat the opposition in 2015."

The US, without an idea of its own and losing interest and patience in the opposition in Syria - has left the diplomatic field to low-key Russian and Egyptian efforts.

It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that US officials remain confident that, notwithstanding the regional meltdown, Washington remains unchallenged in the region.

As bad as things are, "there is no 'existential threat' to the United States", said Stewart.

Living with the risks posed to allies and enemies alike, according to Obama administration, may be part of the price the US has to pay "to deal with more serious concerns" elsewhere.