Canberra, 20 September 2014

President Barack Obama has detailed his strategy to degrade, defeat, and ultimately destroy, the Islamic State (IS) [the IS is also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)] currently considered the most threatening of the various terrorist groups operating primarily in the Middle East. Fundamental to the success of the strategy is military action aimed at degrading the combat capabilities of the fighting elements of the IS. However, based on previous experience, it is very obvious to even the casual observer that military action alone will not bring success in ‘destroying’ the IS as an entity. In fact, going by a number of reports it seems certain that, unlike other such groups, the IS has already gained the trappings of an established State—control of territory, an administrative machinery, tax collection facilities, welfare activities undertaken by a central authority, education systems, and an effective if brutal police force. Such an entrenched entity cannot be defeated and made irrelevant by military actions alone.

The group poses a clear threat to all countries in the Middle East, Europe, US and America’s allies elsewhere. It has been able to gain strength leveraging the civil war in Syria and exploiting the sectarian divide still very visible in Iraq. The IS has established itself through the use of a potent combination of insurgent, terrorist and conventional military tactics and the vicious use of violence to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, as well as weapons and natural resources.

The Four-Pillar Obama Strategy

The Obama strategy is built on four pillars. First, a broad air campaign with would include strikes inside Syrian territory. Air strikes against IS fighters, weapons and equipment have so far been the primary weapon used against the IS and will continue to be so in the renewed campaign. The broader campaign is aimed at enabling the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to continue their offensive against the IS and to regain lost territory. The territorial holding of the IS ranges across both Iraq and Syria and therefore the renewed air campaign will not be restrained by the geographic border between the two countries. The IS safe havens established within Syrian territory will also be targeted. Second, the Iraqi military and the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition will receive increased support. This would take the form of a larger contingent of military ‘advisors’ and other support personnel carrying out an advise-and-assist mission, and the provision of equipment and materiel. Initially the more basic types of weapons would be made available and subsequently more sophisticated systems.

Third, is the initiative to ensure that the IS is not able to attack the US and its allies directly. This will be achieved by the coalition of nations sharing and combining their intelligence, law enforcement capabilities, the tools of diplomacy and economic infrastructure to isolate the IS both in terms of resource availability as well as the ability to recruit more personnel. The fourth is to continue the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance to people driven from their homes by the actions of the IS.

This four-pillar strategy is, on paper, an overarching one and if prosecuted correctly one that could perhaps bring success—being defined as the defeat of IS. The proof of the pudding is, however, in the eating and this particular pudding with four distinguishing stripes will be difficult to digest. Success will depend not on the military success in the field but in the coalition’s ability to isolate the IS from its sources of support; on its capacity to achieve political progress in the region; and the willingness of the regional partners to carryout effective operations in support of coalition objectives. The ability of the US and its allies to coax success in achieving any of these objectives have always been suspect. It is even more difficult in the current circumstances where the conflict is decidedly sectarian in nature.

So, Will This Strategy Succeed?

It would be gratifying to state categorically that the strategy will succeed—and indeed it would if all the ingredients are brought to the table in the quantum required, if there are no caveats attached to the performance of the coalition partners, and if the regional allies are as committed as everyone else to destroy the IS at its grass root level. Sadly, there are far too many vested interests at play and therefore, the strategy will not get implemented as it should leading to a less than desired end-state; if an end-state is achieved at all. The impediments to the successful implementation of the Four-Pillar strategy are many, varied and intractable!

Conducting an Air Campaign

There are limits to what can be achieved with the use of air power in situations such as this. The IS, if anything, is a learning organisation and have already imbibed the lesson of not concentrating ground forces when unquestioned air superiority exists for the adversary. They have dispersed and gone to ground in the more populated towns and cities. Air power can degrade, but degradation is no substitute for wiping out the evil from its very roots, which is the need of the hour. Only its complete destruction will deny the IS any vestige of control of territory, people and infrastructure. The best result that air power could hope to achieve in such a situation would be that the IS will regress to becoming more terrorism-oriented than a State that it now claims to be, which is realistically not its destruction as an entity. Other tentacles will grow.

The other factor to consider is that the success of an air campaign revolves around the ability and the willingness of the US-led coalition to carry out air strikes in Syria. This initiative is a double-edged sword at best and could well be self-defeating in the long term. As compared to Iraq, Syria is a nightmare. The first issue is that the Bashar regime is a government that has lost its international legitimacy to rule years ago, slaughtered over 150,000 of its own people, not been averse to using banned chemical weapons to carryout mass murder, and is supported by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam in a predominantly Sunni country.

The civil war in Syria is essentially between the Government forces on the one side and the IS and the al-Qaeda franchise al-Nusra Front on the other. These two are not friends, but only oppose each other sporadically, after all for the time being they have a common enemy to fight. The Free Syrian Army, the so-called ‘moderates’ has lost its impetus and is now small and weak. The quandary is this—if the Syrian bases of the IS and al-Nusra are attacked it will only help the Bashar regime to regain control over lost territories; but if the IS safe havens are not attacked, the coalition will not be able to prevail in Iraq in the long term. History has repeatedly demonstrated that any insurgent force that has a geographically contiguous safe haven to retreat to at will can never be defeated. This is the situation that the IS has conveniently created for itself. The question to be answered is whether attacks on IS in Syrian territory are more important and of a higher need and priority as opposed to weakening the Bashar regime. A tough call to make.

The complete annihilation of the IS can only be achieved when they are drawn out from all their hide-outs, safe houses and tunnels and destroyed. This will invariably take ‘boots-on-the-ground’ not as a temporary measure but for the long term so that the seeds sown by the group do not grow and bear fruit at a later time. President Obama has made a clear statement that troops on the ground in a direct combat role is not an option being considered. This is a paradox and only means one thing, the feet within those boots have to be local and not ‘Western’. Currently such a situation is unlikely to come to pass. Although there is bonhomie being displayed in public by the regional Arab nations to each other and to the Western allies, each one of them harbours an internal agenda which are at odds with each other and mostly self-serving. So the first pillar of the Obama Strategy, a broad air campaign is unlikely to succeed in the unfolding circumstances.

Arming and Training the Opposition

The strategy next calls for the arming and training of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the moderate Syrian rebels. It has also been reported that Saudi Arabia has expressed its willingness to host and finance some of the training initiatives. However, if past experience is anything to go by, this is a task easier said than done. The Iraqi army, built up after more than US $ 25 billion has already been spent on it, was a disgraceful failure when confronted by the ruthlessness of the IS fighters. Two IS ‘units’ totalling less than 1000 fighters took Mosul in June from a contingent of the Iraqi army that numbered two divisions, having in excess of 30,000 soldiers. Therefore, this training initiative looks all set to throw good money after bad. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of US military, General Dempsey has stated that about half the brigades of the Iraq army are incapable of regaining lost territory or being effective partners for the US forces to push the IS back, while the other half needs to be at least partially rebuilt to become effective partners. This may have been the reason for the General to contradict his President and state that US ground forces ‘may’ have to be used in Iraq.

It is in the arming of the Kurdish Peshmerga that the tensions in the body politic of Iraq, Syria and Turkey come out and create open fissures. There is no doubt that the Peshmerga, who they have been fighting for generations in the guerrilla mode, are more disciplined than the Iraqi army. However, their demand for an independent ‘Kurdistan’, made up of territories spread over Iraq, Syria and Turkey have not enamoured them to any of the three nations. In fact, their fight has been directed against these three nations for decades and their opposition to the IS is a recent phenomenon. Further, being schooled in guerrilla warfare, they are not adept at conducting the mobile, semi-conventional insurgent warfare that they are now facing against the IS. The other issue is the political ‘correctness’ of arming a militia that has vowed to create an independent state, and has been involved in a long-term insurgency against the legitimate governments of the countries involved. How would this fly in the face of conventional wisdom? The end destination of the arms and other resources now being provided to the Peshmerga cannot be ascertained with any certainty. There is a high likelihood that it might come back at a later stage to bite the hand that fed it. Not that this is a new situation in the Middle East.

The arming of moderate Syrian rebels is another conundrum. The US has stated that they will arm the ‘moderate’ rebels. Where are they, and who are they? The fundamental question is whether after three years of savage civil war, there are any moderates left in the country, whether on the government side or the rebel side. Arming and rebuilding the almost completely broken Free Syrian Army, representing the moderates from a Western perspective, will be a herculean task and the stronger IS and al-Nusra elements will not permit this to happen. At least for the time being, there are no rebels of the right hue and calibre to arm and train in Syria, unless such an action is initiated to support the Government troops. This is anathema to the US and its allies, and rightly so, given the Bashar regimes track record so far.

The fact is that unless the IS in Syria is simultaneously targeted along with the elements in Iraq, any amount of building up forces in Iraq is not going to produce the desired outcome. Syria remains the riddle to be cracked first, if the second pillar of the strategy is to succeed, even a little bit.

Isolating the IS

The strategy requires the US-led coalition—of European and regional allies, including Australia—to act in consonance against the IS. To achieve the required unity of effort a clear division of labour must be done at the outset. Each nation must accept its responsibility and deliver what it has promised. Further, as mentioned earlier, the need for the regional partner nations to understand the need for their military forces to shoulder more responsibility has to be the underpinning ethos of the coalition. While the ‘point of the spear’ for the basic air campaign could well be the Western air forces, geographical containment of the IS, one that will require the use of ground forces and also some heavy fighting, will have to be a regional enterprise.

The only way the IS will be defeated is if they can be isolated not only from their safe havens but also from the sources of their economic and logistic support. Destroying the safe havens in Syria is a politically vexed challenge similar to peering into a dark tunnel with no end in sight. The leadership of the coalition has not made a call on the Syrian issue as yet. However, isolating the IS from its resource base—financial, arms and equipment, and fresh recruits—as well as from food and water sustenance, is achievable provided the neighbouring nations are willing to hermetically seal the borders, both physically and virtually. It is believed that the IS is still able generate finances, and a great deal at that, through the sale of oil and related energy sources through conduits in Turkey. Similarly, the porous borders of Saudi Arabia and the tacit support of co-religionists in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar and most of the other Middle-Eastern nations make it difficult to ‘isolate’ the IS—and isolation is the first critical step to defeating the IS as an entity.

The US has to crack the whip and get their so-called regional allies to stop their double dealings if any action is to succeed. However, considering the history of US-diplomacy in the Middle East and the long tradition of hypocrisy manifest in the regional nations, both the events are unlikely to happen. With the chances of complete isolation and the subsequent ‘starving’ of the IS, in all sorts of ways, being almost non-existent, the strategy is bound to fail.


There is no doubt that military operations will have to be at the vanguard of any attempt to defeat the IS. Decisiveness in the application of military power is a crucial ingredient for its success and therefore, the coalition will be well-advised to start the campaign with all necessary force, applying it rapidly and targeting the known centres of gravity of the IS. Success will depend on the ability of the politico-military combine to bring down military power in a sudden downpour rather than as an annoying drizzle. However, such an action by ‘Western’ air forces will look like a war on Islam—something that has to be avoided at all costs to ensure binding success in the long term. To avoid such a perception it will be necessary for the regional nations to take an effective, and not token, part in the military campaign. At present that seems to be a bridge too far.

The Strategy that has been articulated by the leader of the coalition of the willing does not incite a great deal of confidence, especially when the unstated issues are analysed. Building a coalition is perhaps the easy part of attempting to defeat an international threat when you are the President of the USA. However, defeating the threat is not just a matter of getting military forces to display their might, it has more to do with coming up with a viable long-term strategy to achieve the desired the end-state—in this case, the destruction of the IS.

What has so far been articulated are tactical actions and does not provide any insight into the strategy that will be pursued. Moreover, the strategy does not provide an indication that there is awareness of the extremely tough political decisions to be made and whether they would be made at all. The political decisions are the baseline from which this enterprise must start if it is to succeed. At the moment, the US has not been able to win anything more than a vague commitment from its Sunni Arab allies and have studiously kept both Iran and Syria out of the equation. This has further fed fear amongst Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE that a military defeat of the IS, which they have so far covertly supported, would create a vacuum that the Iran-supported Shiite militias will fill. An increase in Iranian influence in the region is not something that the Sunni nations want to see as the consequence of their support to the war against the IS. The balancing act required to negotiate this part of the coalition-building will need super human skills.

The jokers in the pack are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. [Their role and influence in the imbroglio will be discussed in a later post.] For the time being it is sufficient to state as a concluding remark that there is no clear strategy that can be discerned from all the talk and limited action that have so far been undertaken by the US-led coalition to ‘destroy’ the IS. Bluster and bombast never won a war; clear and well implemented strategy, which has no substitute, is the only element that assures victory. Time, it seems, is running out for concerted action to be initiated if the IS is to be held back—the hour glass is nearly empty.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. Hi Sanu,

    The American strategy is yet to be finalized, and probably never will. Obama is incapable of coherent thinking, and a total failure in military judgements. Currently he is fighting a war against his Generals. WH is secretive on its politics, yet spilling the beans readily on the tactical plans.

    WH plans currently have no credibility.

    The confusion is compounded by the attitude of Syria, which is currently unknown….

    Nice write up though.

    Auric Muhury
    11856 (FP).

  2. Dear Sanu

    My fear is US sponsored war effort against IS may go the Afghanistan way as there are too many stakeholders and self proclaimed leaders (Chieftains) who dont see eye to eye on anything under the sun. How can anyone in good sense expect Syria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq to fight a common Muslim enemy. They cant even get their act together to fight their common sworn enemy, the Jewish state of Israel.

    It is going to be a playground that would be interesting to watch on CNN..unfortunately it would be played with the blood of the innocents.


    Deb Gohain

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