The capitals of Europe are under attack. There’s nothing new about this, major terrorist attacks have occurred over the last several years and have included Spain, England, France, Germany and now Belgium. Although the contagion spread to the U.S. long before the recent San Bernardino massacre with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and then the second World Trade Center disaster on 9/11/01, the last seven plus years under the Obama administration have been characterized by a distressing level of passivity bordering on indifference.
Although the problem of Islamic terrorism in Europe is complicated by domestic issues of immigration, non-assimilation, and economic and social dysfunction, the threats of Islamic violence in both Europe and the United States share a basic cause. This is the leadership of the Islamic State and its absurd fantasy of creating a medieval styled “caliphate” across international borders in the Middle East and beyond.
Despite the various contributing domestic issues which offer a supply of willing volunteers in Europe, the role of Islamic State leadership in Syria is primary. It recruits, encourages, supplies and trains the individual terrorists who do their bidding. This is an extension of their military expansion within the nations of Syria and Iraq which could ultimately spread to Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya.
Thus, the undeniably necessary response from the nations most directly affected, including the U.S, is the destruction of the Islamic State at its core. To date, no serious international response has been forthcoming. The U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition has never been effective as it has lacked coordination, commitment and has been limited to military aid and training for rebel forces mostly engaged with Syria’s government forces and since 2014 to tactical air strikes encumbered by highly restrictive rules of engagement.
The regional members, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have withdrawn their air support, as has the new Liberal government of Canada. This leaves only the U.S., Britain, and France as the major participants. Drone strikes on ISIS leaders have had some success but a “strategy” of trying to kill off the leaders of this forty thousand plus terrorist organization one by one is not a strategy at all. Obama is locked into a political philosophy of passivity and seems to have had a long term lack of understanding of the implications and seriousness of the problem. He is unwilling to make a major commitment as a starting point to negotiations with regional states and affected European nations to commence serious operations against this major source of international terrorism.
Obama’s dismissive attitude towards domestic terrorist attacks is astounding. He has said that more people in the U.S. are killed in bath tub accidents and automobile deer strikes than in terrorist attacks and that the Islamic State is not an “existential threat” to the U.S. Thus horrific slaughters of individuals as occurred in San Bernardino, California are just risks we must accept like slipping in your tub.
Of course ISIS is not an “existential threat” to the United States. That is a naïve “straw man” argument to justify largely ignoring the problem. The Islamic terrorist’s attacks and numerous attempted plots are attacks on the sovereignty of the nation and the lives of its citizens. These are not to be discounted or minimized as an inconvenience or domestic criminal matter. The ISIS inspired terrorism in San Bernardino was an “existential threat” to the American citizens who were killed and wounded. Their deaths and others yet to occur should not be simply accepted as “collateral damage” to Obama’s unwillingness to eliminate the threat.
As Obama entered the final year of his presidency, he has turned away even more than before from the hard decisions that go with the office and has let his concern with his “legacy” guide his policy priorities. Thus he had Secretary of State Kerry “negotiate” a flawed nuclear weapons agreement with Iran. Desperate to conclude some kind of agreement, he avoided the tough negotiations that would have been necessary to give the agreement the longevity of a formal treaty, opting instead on an executive agreement that is vulnerable to modification or termination by his successors.
The result of his urgency is an agreement which lifted the economic sanctions on Iran which brought them to the negotiating table and which provided the strongest card in the U.S. hand to make the outcome a genuine and long term denial of a nuclear weapons program. He then returned approximately 1.5 billion dollars in sequestered funds which gave up the next most powerful negotiating position. The final result included only a ten year limit on Iran’s nuclear weapons development plan and an agreement that Iran would “self-inspect” its primary nuclear weapons facility.
The opening of relations with Cuba is another “legacy” policy. It was time to establish more normal relations with the island nation just ninety miles from Florida. But again, Obama gave, but did not receive. The new relationship will be much more valuable to Cuba than to the United States as tourism and investments flow in. This reality could have provided negotiating incentives for Cuba’s aging leadership to make concessions on human rights and market based economic policies, but since Obama’s goal was simply to put “opening Cuba” on his legacy list, those opportunities were ignored. Cuba’s founding autocrat, Fidel Castro publicly disparaged the entire process.
Obama’s belief that global warming is a bigger security threat than international terrorism led to another legacy chapter. This was the much promoted idea that the emissions agreement with China and the subsequent international agreement on the same and finalized in Paris were Obama led “break throughs”. But the Paris agreement, while including a more comprehensive list of nations than the previous Kyoto Agreement, is long on style and short on substance. It is a voluntary agreement. The parties decide on their own what level of reduction of greenhouse gases they will set as a “goal”. The agreement contains neither mandatory reporting requirements nor accountability if violated. Climate experts agree that the expected individual national “goals” will be inadequate to reduce global warming by the scientifically agreed critical target of 2 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile the unwillingness to lead an international effort to destroy the ISIS army and its occupation of large areas of Syria and Iraq, is a similar “legacy” driven policy of non-involvement in ground operations in the Middle East, a political campaign promise related to his pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. But ISIS has evolved, both from that pledge, and from the reluctance of regional states to act without the support of the United States with its superior military capabilities.
The medium term future is not promising. Intelligence agencies in Belgium and France have reported that hundreds of Islamic terrorists are in their midst to carry out future domestic attacks. ISIS has also openly put the U.S. on its latest target list.
Although the American public would likely not support a major invasion of Syria on the scale of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Such a mission would not be required. The U.S. led coalition in 2003 defeated the large, highly organized and well equipped army of Saddam Hussein in just seven weeks. The ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria are essentially civilian recruits with light weapons, a few captured tanks and no air capabilities. Their strength against the currently weak opposition of the Iraqi army and the Syrian government’s forces, has been in urban fighting, and that has shown recent signs of weakening.
Obama has chosen to pursue a policy that looks as if he is committed to doing something but without taking any risks. The result is a U.S. led coalition effort involving tactical air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The air campaign coalition (Operation Inherent Resolve) is a smaller part of the larger anti-ISIS coalition (Operation Enduring Freedom) which is focused on providing aid and training to Iraqi and Kurdish troops and to rebel forces fighting the Syrian government.
While Inherent Resolve has the participation of several regional nations plus several more European nations and Australia, their contributions are small in number. Australia’s six fighter aircraft and three support aircraft is the second largest foreign contingent after the U.S. Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its planes as has Canada. But in spite of flying thousands of sorties (one plane on a single mission) since beginning in 2014, the territory controlled by ISIS is essentially the same as it was when the operation began. Obama has said the Islamic State is “contained” but estimated that the air operations would need to continue for three years. Retiring Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno who was more pessimistic, and not at all worried about his legacy, estimated a period of “10 to20 years.”
The basic problem with the air operation is that it is so seriously encumbered by restrictive rules of engagement which have been imposed by political authorities over a fear of killing even “one civilian” that most valuable targets are off limits and when pilots report targets of opportunity they must get radio clearance before making an attack. They report that this process can take up to an hour or more rendering the request useless. The result as reported to Senator John McCain, himself a former Navy attack pilot, in the first year of the mission, is that pilots were returning to base without dropping their bombs 75% of the time. The commander of the air mission, Lt. General John Hesterman, confirmed this figure.
The rules have been somewhat loosened in recent months as ISIS controlled oil facilities have been bombed and the ridiculous rule prohibiting the attacking of ISIS oil delivery trucks because the drivers might be civilians, has been revoked. Still, the majority of targets are empty building, vehicles, storage facilities and “fighting positions” outside of populated areas. The “capital” of the Islamic State is the city of Raqqa in Syria, but Isis leaders and combatants, fully aware of the restrictive rules of engagement intermingle with the civilian population and avoid attack.
Military experts say that victory over ISIS will never be accomplished with air power alone. A determined effort by a coalition of professional ground forces from Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and led by a contingent of American forces with American battlefield intelligence and air power seems to be the only answer to the eradication of this otherwise permanent terrorist threat to the civilian populations of Europe and America and the direct military threat to regional states.
This is a complicated situation and requires tough decision making and leadership. Jordan, with a border on Syria, has said it will not participate in a ground operation without a mandate from the UN and the forces are “led by the Americans and the British.” Saudi Arabia has discussed participation in such an operation in cooperation with Turkey. But Turkey’s participation is complicated by their hostilities with the Kurds whose territory lies along the northeast border of Syria with Turkey.
The civil war between the Assad government in Syria and rebel forces is also a complicating factor as a foreign ground invasion directed at ISIS in the northeast of Syria would help Assad. But a cease fire between Assad’s government forces and the rebel forces which is under negotiation could open the door for a separate ground operation against ISIS.
Thus it can be done if the planning starts now, and it is the only alternative to a generational conflict in the region and a permanent terrorist threat to Europe and the U.S.
Obama’s concern about his place in history is myopic and his “legacy” list is flawed. His primary responsibility is to protect the security and interests of the citizens of the United States at home and abroad.