As the year ended, the campaign against the militant group Islamic State recorded some significant victories on the battlefield. Iraqi forces trained by the United States and supported by U.S.-led airstrikes regained control of the city of Ramadi and coalition attacks killed several Islamic State operatives, including two men linked to the gunmen who killed 130 people in Paris in November. In an interview with NPR, President Obama said that the militants' self-declared caliphate had lost about 40% of the populated territory it had controlled in the region.
But no one should be under any illusion that Obama's campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State is on the verge of achieving the more ambitious of those objectives. Obama has acknowledged that progress probably will be gradual, even with an increase in U.S. and allied airstrikes and the deployment of U.S. special forces to Syria as well as Iraq. He told NPR that he hoped there will have been “significant progress in degrading” Islamic State by the time he leaves office.
Moreover, exterminating Islamic State will depend on diplomatic as well as military initiatives — notably negotiations on a cease-fire in Syria's civil war and the creation of new political arrangements in that country as provided for in a recent United Nations Security Council resolution. The strife in Syria, which has uprooted millions and contributed to a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and in Europe, has also contributed to the rise of Islamic State.
The resolution approved by the Security Council on Dec. 18 calls for a political process aimed at producing a “credible, inclusive and nonsectarian” government and a new constitution and proposes new elections administered by the U.N. It also authorizes member states to “prevent and suppress terrorist acts” committed by Islamic State, Al Qaeda and similar groups.
The document is silent, however, on the future role of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose brutal suppression of peaceful dissent was the prime cause of the civil war and the attendant humanitarian catastrophe. Russia continues to support Assad and insists he should be able to run in a future election. Although Obama has long maintained that Assad must “step aside,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry recently said that the U.S. is not seeking “so-called regime change” in Syria. Reportedly, the U.S. will concentrate instead on pressing for an election process in which Assad would not enjoy an unfair advantage or be able to rig the results.
The notion that the brutal Assad would have any role in a future Syrian government is a bitter pill, and not only for Syrians. But the Obama administration is right to attach greater priority to ending the killing, stopping the hemorrhage of refugees and targeting Islamic State. The question is whether Assad's opponents will feel confident enough about the negotiations to accept their outcome and lay down their arms.
For war-weary Americans, it's frustrating that the U.S. continues to be involved militarily in the Middle East, even if U.S. forces aren't engaged in frontline fighting. That frustration surely is shared by Obama, who made extrication of the U.S. from foreign wars a major theme of his administration. The president had no choice, however, but to respond to the threat posed by Islamic State both to regional stability and to the safety of people in Europe and the U.S. who may be targeted by terrorists directed or inspired by Islamic State.
But Obama is also right to rule out the use of ground combat forces in either Syria or Iraq — a policy Congress needs to affirm in a new Authorization for Use of Military Force — and to resist proposals (from Hillary Clinton, among others) that the U.S. establish a no-fly zone in Syria. As Obama noted, Islamic State doesn't have an air force. Russia, however, does, and it has been carrying out airstrikes in Syria. A no-fly zone would create the possibility that the U.S. would down a Russian plane, a dangerous scenario.
In both Syria and Iraq, degrading and ultimately destroying Islamic State will take time and will require not only military action but also compromise among hostile ethnic and sectarian groups, a process the U.S. can influence only indirectly. Persistence is important, but so is patience.