Top 5 Contradictions in Obama’s Emerging ISIL Strategy

By Juan Cole

In the past week, Secretary of State John Kerry has marshaled support of some sort from both European nations and from countries in the Middle East for the US push against ISIL. Unfortunately, the resulting coalition is riddled with contradictions that may well cripple it. Here a some of the more important obstacles to a smooth alliance or coherent war plan.

1. Kerry deeply wanted buy-in from Egypt, the most populous Arab state and the most important military power among the Arabs. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however, insisted that the strategy be wider-ranging than just a push against ISIL He wanted a campaign against “terrorism” in general. Al-Sisi’s government has declared devotees of political Islam, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood, to be terrorists. Al-Sisi believes he can “turn” Obama, getting him to stop criticizing Egypt for the overthrow of the Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood) government, and that the US need for him gives him a trump card in this regard.

2. There are hundreds of guerrilla groups fighting in Syria. Some of them have given fealty to the the so-called Islamic State. Others have joined a rival organization that is more Salafi in coloration, the Islamic Front (strong in Aleppo). The National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army are yet another force, heavily dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and now much weakened. So if Obama agreed with al-Sisi to pursue a global ‘war on terrorism’ together, he would be in the difficult position of opposing the Free Syrian Army and of agreeing to help crush the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood– among the major opposition groups to both ISIL and the Baath regime in Damascus.

3. That is, Obama’s desire to support a “moderate” opposition will lead him to back to the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. But Saudi Arabia, one of Obama’s major partners, has declared the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and they have the money to make that stick. With Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (because of their Muslim Brotherhood ties), Obama by allying with them is basically allying with the murky Islamic Front, which has some al-Qaeda elements and now has turned openly anti-democracy and anti-rights for minorities.

4. Saudi Arabia will provide training camps for the rebels of the “moderate” opposition. But it is rumored that the Saudis are behind the splinter group from the Free Syrian army, the “Islamic Front.” It rejects democratic elections. The Islamic Front is full of people who have continued to have rigid religious views but who are trying to find new allies. The Saudis will be training people, in other words, very much like the Islamic State fighters in their fundamentalism, but who are less hostile to Saudi Arabia and perhaps slightly less openly brutal. That’s a “moderate” Sunni opposition?

5. Iran is a much more promising ally for Obama But because of hardliners in both countries, Obama won’t be able openly to ally with Iran Still, operations by the Jerusalem Brigade of Iranian special forces such as the one to break the ISIL siege of Amerli are at least effective. The downside is that that will look like a Christian/Shiite crusade against Sunni Arabs. Effective militarily, perhaps, but poison politically.


Related video added by Juan Cole

Aljazeera International: “Egypt wants wider ‘anti-IS’ campaign Al Jazeera”

18 Responses

  1. War is basically a game of deception without rules and, despite what he says publicly, I cannot believe Obama will eschew all liaison with Damascus over bombing raids on Syrian ISIL positions.

    • People that do and have done war have offered some advice to others who want to play the game — too often starting from a notion that the war is supposed to provide some benefit to the nation. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are a couple, that our warriors are supposed to study (though given the crappy standards of scholarship, with lots of cheating, I guess those lessons don’t actually get learned.)

      So now we ordinary people are saddled with huge expenditures for endless conflict fueled by weapons manufacturers and True Believers with all those petrodollars, on phony or trumped-up “justifications,” not for the general welfare but to make a welfare state for the generals who live so large on our hard-earned dollars, link to The only rule is “maximize your personal extraction of wealth, in the knowledge that you are playing a singing part in a grand Götterdämmerung, end of the world Wagnerian opera.”

      Hitler, if he is still alive, is laughing his moustache clean off…

  2. Sounds like the US/Saudi plan is to set up an army of mercenaries with little popular support to defeat ISIS and Assad at the same time, and then install a puppet government of collaborators. Even if they are able to accomplish that (which is implausible), that will leave embittered opponents in Syria who will launch a long term civil war against the new government.

    The American people will be losers in this. The winners will be the Saudi dictatorship who will use the ongoing conflict as an excuse for repressive measures at home to keep their dictatorship in place.

    The neocons will also delude themselves that they won because they will believe they harmed Iranian interests by replacing Assad and by opening space between the Iraq government and Iran. The neocon approach is to attack any country that maintains any semblance of independence to discourage other countries from being disobedient. It is the equivalent of the old mafia protection racket. Go along with us – we would hate to seem something happen to that nice country of yours.

    US wants to attack Iran to discourage other countries from entertaining the idea of joining a potential Russia/China/Iran coalition as an alternative to US sphere of influence.

  3. As for Obama it appears he is now paying the price for his Faustian bargains with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    Patrick Cockburn’s report of a discussion with former Senator Bob Graham (not to be confused with the warmonger from South Carolina) is very revealing about Saudi Arabia’s various roles.

    “Saudi Arabia, 9/11 and the Rise of ISIS: An Interview With Senator Bob Graham” by PATRICK COCKBURN – link to

    • Interesting article. “China Matters” calls Obama’s Syria policy “Let ‘er drift” and blames his administration for allowing Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support an IS jihad to solve Obama’s dump-Assad problem.

      Now, they have a Frankenstein problem on their hands.

  4. No Arab army can be counted on to defeat Isis …nor can light air power…maybe the Iraq Shia with help can…but unlikely…I can not see a way to do this without American boots…then when they leave …back to square one..over again..

  5. Mohammad Eslami

    The erroneous strategy that has been adopted by President Obama and the great depth of the extremism crisis, which has been sweeping through Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen in recent years, only support speculations that the ISIS and other similar extremist groups are nothing but the ominous legacy of his failed foreign policy in West Asia and North Africa.

  6. Saudi and Quatar are the funding for IS, so Obama has to pretend to fight them without doing much. This is true theatre, because we want to defeat Assad and preserve Iraq at the same time. As usual the US is trying to have two things at once while undercutting both of them at the same time. DUMBS

  7. Why does the US have to do anything? ISIS is the day of reckoning for those dysfunctional Middle Eastern states.

    1. For Syria which could have allowed moderate reform without violence years.
    2. For Iraq that blindly chose the sectarian road, worst traveled.
    3. For Turkey that took a sharp turn toward fundamentalism.
    4. For Iran, which spent so much time persecuting religious minorities, now they get a taste of what they have been dishing out and can no longer even travel to Syria again.
    5. For Russia, a reminder of the cost of supporting Assad, and the price of its expansionist policies.
    6. For Europeans who don’t want to do any lifting concerning their own defense.
    7. For China, whose flow of oil might be imperiled, because of a completely AMORAL view of life.

    So why do we have to anything for the above 7? Just concentrate on energy independence and alternate energy.

    • What this country needs even more than a good five cent cigar is a presidential candidate who will repeat the above statement verbatim on national television.

  8. Obama’s strategy will not work. It’s glaringly obvious. Entering into a silent and tacit alliance (to save face) with Assad and Iran is the only thing that will get rid of the scourge. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have always been two-faced nations that cannot be trusted. Al Jazeera and a declared fight against IS on the one hand, and Madrassas, arming of IS etc on the other. Why would they now suddenly change? I totally agree with Tulsa Time. It is complete theater that will cost us dearly for many years to come. I see the hand of Israel behind this unbelievably ridiculous strategy.

  9. Egypt’s issue also extends to all other Islamist groups. Not sure how Saudi Arabia sees eye to eye with them on that. Need to call out the elephant in the room….

    Saudi Arabia , the other Sunni ‘allies’, the lacking Sunni ‘moderates’, the financing, the ideologies and global Sunni radicalism crisis in the populations. If there’s poison politically, its been more here along with US imperialism, than any past or current type of anti-US Iran/Shia radicalism, fundamentalism who aren’t anything close to their Islamist counterparts in the Salafists and Wahhabis, who unfortunately have gone mainstream in Sunni communities thanks to Saudi Arabian propagation and other aggressive foreign interests, including sectarian proxy attacks on Iran, apparently ok with other Sunni states, which has been absolutely detrimental, even to the US-but choose to not realize it or ignore despite blowback.

    Side-lining Iran won’t go down well with the Iraqi Shia majority (Iraqi FM already made a statement saying excluding Iran was a mistake) and Shia populations in the region as well, looking like the US choosing sectarian sides itself (the very thing ironically the Obama admin claims to not try to do, a message delivered over and over appealing to Sunni allies). But its not unexpected considering the history.

    Its probably easier to politically marginalize them being a smaller population in the region despite the Iranian help militarily many times over, but then discarded soon after with the Israel, Sunni allies excuse or some other canard.

    There is US interest tie ups (Oil, troops still in Afghanistan, Iran kicking them out, Israel) but really its time to re-think policy towards the region (Israel, Gulf, etc) and Iran (and vice versa) like the Leverett’s advocate for. While Iran has interests too, they certainly have not helped themselves in being understood with their deluded conspiracy paranoid views almost as bad as what Sunni Arabs spout (or even the US and Israel). Only now has Iran understood the threat of sectarianism or been open and honest about it, rather being just Israel centric.

    Unfortunately we’re talking about dogmatic US officials, sitting in security or intelligence positions, even post-Iraq invasion who couldn’t tell you the sectarian backgrounds of different militant or terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda.

  10. I would like to see Professor Cole’s top 5 things the Obama administration should do to counter ISIL and Assad.

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