Key Factors Shaping the President’s Islamic State Speech

There are several critical aspects of the U.S. strategy in Iraq that the President may not be able to address in full. They will, however, be critical to what the United States can and cannot do in the future.

The United States Already Has a Strategy

The real world context is important. The President is now trapped to some extent by his previous misstatement about the United States not having a strategy. Anyone who looks seriously at the timeline of U.S. action will see he is now formally announcing a strategy that the United States not only had already developed in July, but partly begun to implement after the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) first made major gains back in December 2013. At the same time, there are many good reasons the President needs to be cautious about what he says and not speak too openly about the details.

Deploying Ground Troops

There is a critical difference between no ground troops and no major ground combat units. The United States already has some 1,100 military personnel in Iraq and counting. It will need more in the future — plus civil intelligence personnel — for training, equipment transfers, targeting and intelligence analysis, and various enabling functions. Ideally, it will also need Special Forces or there equivalent to work with Sunni areas that return to supporting the government or become hostile to the Islamic State, work with the Kurds, and embed in Iraq forces to help provide tactical guidance and air strike planning.

At the same time, the President has very serious reasons not to commit major land combat units that have nothing to do with any U.S. war fatigue. This is not simply a war against the Islamic State. It is an effort to end a low level civil war and a mix of Arab-Kurdish ethnic and Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions that ex-Prime Minister Maliki did so much to create and that enabled the Islamic State to make major gains in the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq.

Even if the United States could suddenly deploy, supply, and base major ground units, it could not risk thrusting them into situations where they would be perceived as taking sides on an ethnic or sectarian basis or becoming tied down in missions separating Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish and Sunni and Shi’ite forces and militias – just as it cannot allow itself to use airpower in such ways.

Equally important, Iraqi forces can never recover from the corruption and sectarian abuses caused by Maliki, and defeat the Islamic State, unless they can be remade into nation, rather than Shi’ite forces, and all of Iraq’s major factions unite. This is not a mission for U.S. combat units, although it will be a real mission for U.S. advisors and enablers.

At the same time, if such unity can be developed, the Islamic State forces still seem to consist of a maximum of some 30,000-45,000 men, only roughly a third of which are highly skilled forces. Under these conditions — coupled to the extremism of the Islamic State — Iraqi government forces may well be able to handle all of the ground mission.

The Iraqi Government is Still Incapable of Unity and Leadership and U.S. Strategy is Fighting a Political Battle to End a Low-Level Iraqi Civil War.

The new Abadi government is still extremely unstable, and only 179 members of 379 in the Council of the Republic participated in its selection. It may not survive, and has no Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior.  The Kurds have only made tenuous commitment to supporting it, no major new Sunni faction has joined and the Sunnis who do participate only provide tentative support. Maliki and Shi’ites like Hadi al-Amri who are linked to Iran and militias who have attacked Sunnis are still part of the new government.

The United States still faces as much of a threat from the weakness of the Iraqi government as it does from the threat of the Islamic State, and cannot really commit fully to aiding Iraq until it is clear there is a real national government that can win broad support. This limits U.S. ability to commit airpower, advisors, and arms shipments as well as does much to strengthen the Islamic State by default.

The United States has been working to create a real national government for months, but the odds of success still seem about even. Unless the Islamic State implodes from its internal divisions or because it alienates large part of the Sunni population, this also means it will probably take several years to create an effective enough Iraqi mix of political and military unity to fully feat its combat elements in Iraq, and there is no clear timeframe for a similar defeat in Syria.

Airpower and Decisive Force

Limited U.S. airpower may be able to contain the Islamic State, but it will take a far larger air campaign to defeat it in Iraq and a campaign that strikes targets in Syria to have any chance of reducing the Islamic State back to a small extremist faction with only limited support. In practice, air power must be extended well beyond targeting forward IS combat elements and strike at the entire leadership, military forces, key cadres, and key strategic political and economic centers of IS operations.

This will, however, take time if the United States is to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage. It will require creating an extremely sophisticated intelligence, targeting, and damage assessment capability. And, it can only succeed even in Iraq if the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces make the previous kinds of reform.

It is unclear should the President announce the full level of airpower he will commit before the Iraqis make the necessary internal reforms. It is also unclear that he should formally announce the expansion of an air campaign into Syria now, rather than find a rational like hot pursuit or some egregious IS action in the future.

At the same time, the President needs European and Arab allies to provide as much active air support, and air basing capability, as they can to give the operation an international, Islamic, and “Arab” character, and defuse the inevitable charges that airpower is being used recklessly and unfairly targeting civilians.

The President also needs to appear strong and decisive enough in using airpower and in being willing to support Iraqi ground forces and the Syrian rebels to counter his image as weak, indecisive, unwilling to fully commit, and leading a war weary nation – an image that may be personally unfair and current polls show is not a correct picture of the American voter, but presents major problems in getting full allied support and convincing Iraqis to link themselves to a U.S. strategy and national vs. sectarian and ethnic efforts.

The Assad Problem: The Enemy of Our Enemy is Worse than Our Enemy

The United States cannot afford to link itself to Assad. His regime has caused the death of some 192,000 Iraq civilians by UN estimates. The UNHCR estimate that some 9.3 million Syrians out of a population of some 17.9 million were of concern in August, with 2.9 million refugees outside the country and 6.6+ million internally displaced persons.  Compromising with Assad would mean a future nightmare in terms of Syrian stability and raise massive questions about whether the Unites States can be trusted in the Sunni populations of other Arab states.

This presents a dilemma that the President may well not be able to address. He will have to assert the need to use airpower in Syria as a defensive measure against a threat in a state that cannot secure its own borders, rather than reach a formal agreement with Assad. Any military risks do, however, seem more than acceptable, given the growing weakness of Assad’s forces, the decline in his air and air defense forces, his need to limit the IS, and the fact that Syria has not resisted Israeli strikes and overflights since 1982.

The President can also state that he will join key Arab allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in doing more to arm and support moderate Syrian rebels. In practice, they are now so weak and have so little broad Syrian support, this seems unlikely to have a major impact, but it is at least worth trying.

In the real world, however, the ground threat to the Islamic State is far more likely to be other Islamist extremist forces like the Al Nusra Front. As a result, the net impact of attacking the Islamic State in Syria will be to leave Syria divided between the Assad west and the divided unstable rebel East. The United States simply does not have a near-term option that offers a clear chance of victory or stability in Syria, and may not have one for years to come.

These are not realities the President has much incentive to address.


The President may be able to finesse the Iran issue by allowing Iran to operate in parallel with a de facto agreement by both countries to cooperate by not threatening the other state. The United States and Iran do, however, have fundamentally different strategic interests. Iran wants to maximize its influence over a Shi’ite dominated Iraq and will seek to use its military aid and advice to do. The United States will seek to create an independent and unified Iraq linked to other Arab states.

Certain and Uncertain Allies

The final key problem the President faces is the uncertain mix of allies. Many European countries can show solidarity, but only Britain and possibly France can deploy meaningful airpower. The key allies are regional. They can help shut down the Islamic State’s fundraising and economy. They can best attack its religious legitimacy and social and human rights abuses. They can best focus media on Syrian and Iraqi audiences. They can best control the flow of foreign volunteers, and private outside donations. They can best provide bases, and at least highly symbolic elements of combat forces like Special Forces, trainers, and airpower as well as arms transfers.

In spite of what is likely to be broad Presidential rhetoric, however,  each such ally presents a different set of problems the President may well not wish to address in his speech:
•    Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan strongly oppose the existence of the Islamic State, actively support the United States in seeking to destroy it, and increasing cooperate with the United States in aiding moderate Syrian rebels. They do, however, question U.S. willingness to act and make serious commitments, and they are hostile to the past Maliki government for its treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis and ties to Iran. Cooperation requires both decisive and consistent U.S. leadership and proven changes in the behavior of the Iraqi government.
•    The UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar all provide bases for U.S. air strikes. The UAE, however, is the only state fully committed to destroying the Islamic State. Kuwait is deeply divided politically and still has major private donors to the Islamic State and other extremist causes. Qatar remains divided from the other Arab states, has more sympathy to the Islamist movement, and more tolerance of private funding of the Islamic State. It is unclear how much influence and pressure — and effective unity of action — the United States can bring to bear.
•    Turkey is critical to any effort to seal off the Islamic State, but has many diplomats as hostages, faces serious problems in securing long borders, has extensive trade links to the Islamic State, and is deeply concerned about the threat posed by its Kurdish separatists and any Iraqi Kurdish independence. President Erdogan is very sensitive to U.S. military action in the region, and concerned with the past disruption caused by the U.S. invasion in 2003. He allows U.S. UAV flights out of the air base at Incirlik, but may not agree to any U.S. combat operations from a key facility for operations against both Syria and northern Iraq.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy