Obama's ISIS Strategy Plays Into Iran's Hands

In his May 28 speech at West Point, President Obama emphasized the need of “thinking through the consequences” when engaging in acts of war. That commendable precept, however, doesn’t seem to have been adhered to in the strategy, unveiled in his prime time television address on Sept. 10, destined to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-branded “Islamic State” – formerly called ISIS.
There was indeed one critical question that should have been tackled, but wasn’t, in that address, namely: how to prevent Iran – and for that matter its Syrian ally, i.e. Assad’s regime – from taking advantage of the fight against ISIS.
This strategic conundrum can hardly be overestimated. ISIS being an enemy of the Iran-Syria axis, its weakening and eventual destruction may play into the hands of that axis unless a corresponding action is taken to preclude such eventuality.
True, President Obama announced that the U.S. would broaden its support to moderate Syrian rebels, a move that is expected to thwart the Assad regime. However, given the present balance of forces in the Syrian battlefield, it is unlikely that such support would be enough to prevent the Syrian regime from benefitting from the degrading of ISIS by the U.S.
Furthermore, nothing was said in President Obama’s television address about how he intends to proceed so as to avert pro-Iran Shia militias operating in Iraq to strengthen their grip on the Iraqi battlefield as the U.S. rolls over ISIS.
Still more worrisome, the possibility exists that Tehran mullahs seize the opportunity given by the current international focus on the ISIS threat and use it to surreptitiously advance in their hardly-hidden intention of weaponizing their nuclear program.
Conventional wisdom in the Washington establishment – which President Obama has been receptive and responsive to – tends to feed the mullahs’ expectations. It has indeed become fashionable to call for accommodating the interests of Iran so as to secure that country’s support in the fight against ISIS. Only scattered voices have warned against treating Iran as a partner in this endeavor.
And neither in his TV address nor elsewhere has President Obama clearly distanced himself from the current mood in the Washington establishment.
Be that as it may, to show leniency toward Iran’s regime would be both superfluous and misleading.
Superfluous, because Iran doesn’t need to be wooed to fight ISIS. This Sunni terrorist group represents an existential threat to Shia-ruled Iran. The mullahs, therefore, will do their utmost to combat ISIS anyway, with or without a rapprochement with the U.S.
Misleading, because the peril that ISIS represents shouldn’t divert attention away from the fact that the Iran-Syria axis isn’t any less dangerous for international peace and security.
All too naturally, Iran’s mullahs sense they are regarded in Washington as indispensable actors in the fight against ISIS and, accordingly, feel that they can afford dragging their heels in the international negotiations on their nuclear program.
Thus, as recently as last August, Iran refused UN nuclear inspectors access to the Parchin military base – even though the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, had declared that access to that site was essential for assessing the real nature and intentions of Iran’s nuclear program.
The stakes are sky high. As pointed out by Washington Post columnist Zachary A. Goldfarb, whether or not Iran manages to obtain the nuclear weapon will be the defining issue of this administration’s legacy in the realm of foreign policy.
This is not to say that the U.S. should tone down the intensity of its attacks against ISIS. What this paper contends is that an effective anti-ISIS strategy must be accompanied by a harsher stance vis-à-vis both Tehran and the Syrian regime.
The U.S. can achieve this twofold objective – eliminate ISIS and thwart the Iran-Syria axis – through three mutually-reinforcing means.
One is to intensify the pressure on Iran in the negotiations on its nuclear program – reinforcing the sanctions if need be – so as to make it clear to Tehran that the time of prevarication is over.
Another is to strike not only ISIS’s installations in Syria but also those of Bashar al Assad. Bluntly put: bomb both ISIS and Assad, as foreign-policy columnist Michael Weiss has convincingly called for.
Last but not least, the U.S. could select its military targets and bomb ISIS in the areas where this terrorist group would be fighting against the Kurdish militia (Peshmerga) and the Iraqi army, as well as against strategic sites in Syria (where ISIS command may be retrenched), but leaving the field free for ISIS to turn its guns against Assad’s forces and pro-Iran militias.
Said in other words, push ISIS and Assad’s regime to fight against each other.
As a matter of fact, pushing enemies to compete against each other is how the Syrian regime has managed to survive. That regime reportedly took the calculated decision to free imprisoned jihadists, and let ISIS forces make some territorial gains[6], so as to enable them to fight the moderate, West-compatible insurgency.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim, boastfully pointed out: “When these groups [ISIS and the moderate rebels] clashed, the Syrian government benefited. When you have so many enemies and they clash with each other, you must take advantage of it. You step back, see who is left and finish them off”.
By selecting the target zones of its airstrikes against ISIS installations, the U.S. can successfully play the same cynical game that Assad’s regime has been employing to cling to power.
True, Iran is not deprived of countervailing cards. Pro-Iran militia Badr Corps contributed to dislodging ISIS from the strategic town of Amerli[8] and may once again be useful for future U.S.-supported military action against ISIS. But the course of action proposed in this paper wouldn’t prevent pro-Iran militias to continue their combat against ISIS. Quite the contrary, it will force them to do so in order to ensure their own survival.
So much for what a coherent, consequences-minded strategy would embody. Regrettably, President Obama’s televised address left unanswered a number of critical questions in this regard.