Presidential candidates criticize Obama's Islamic State strategy, but theirs sound similar

From the intensity of their rhetoric, the candidates seeking to replace President Obama might sound like they have policies for combating the Islamic State militants that are dramatically different from his. So far, they don't.

At a news conference Monday, Obama made clear that in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that Islamic State claimed to mastermind, he intends to stick with his plans.

“The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” he said, speaking at the end of an international summit here. Though he repeated his pledge to “intensify” U.S. efforts, he rejected the idea that the U.S. should take dramatic new actions in the wake of the Paris attacks just to “look tough.”

The major candidates in both parties have called for airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq, providing arms to Kurdish and Arab militias and building coalitions with U.S. allies and regional partners, all of which the administration has been doing for more than a year.

In effect, despite much heated language, the candidates in both parties have been arguing that they would pursue the same approach as Obama, but would do it better. Few, if any, envision a quick solution, meaning that regardless of who wins the next election, the likelihood is that Islamic State will still control a large swath of territory in the Euphrates River valley, stretching from eastern Syria into western Iraq, well into the next president’s tenure.

Almost none of the candidates have called for sending U.S. troops into direct combat, which Obama once again ruled out Monday. The main exception has been Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has based his entire campaign on a call to send some 10,000 U.S. troops to combat Islamic State. He has received so little support that he failed to qualify even for the undercard at the last GOP debate.

Obama’s strategy has two main elements. Administration officials concede neither has yet shown more than limited progress.

One is to use airstrikes to disrupt Islamic State positions, kill its leaders and support the forces – mostly Kurdish militias – that are fighting the group in northern Iraq and northern Syria. That effort has scored some victories, including a successful drive last week by Kurdish militias to cut a strategic highway in northern Iraq leading to the city of Mosul, which the militants captured almost 18 months ago.

While those efforts aim to keep Islamic State from expanding its sway – and perhaps shrink it somewhat – the other part of the strategy calls for helping the Iraqis rebuild a national army and trying to end the civil war in Syria. The hope is that eventually the governments of those two countries can regain control of the territory now held by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“Ultimately, to reclaim territory from them is going to require … an ending of the Syrian civil war,” Obama said. In Iraq, rolling back Islamic State’s control requires “an effective Iraqi effort that bridges Shia and Sunni differences,” he said.

“We have always understood this would be a long-term campaign,” he said.

Indeed, the Syrian civil war is now in its fifth year, with no near-term end in sight, despite international diplomatic efforts. In Iraq, the U.S. has been trying for a decade to bring about better relations between the central government, which is dominated by Shiites, and the Sunni population in the western part of the country, many of whom have sided with Islamic State.

The situation is particularly complex in Syria, where at least two wars – intertwined, but separate – are taking place. The U.S. and its allies are fighting Islamic State, mostly in eastern Syria. In the western part of the country, an array of militia groups are fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces control the region around the capital, Damascus, as well as the coastline and a swath of territory linking the two.

Several presidential candidates, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and Jeb Bush on the Republican side, have called for setting up no-fly zones over parts of northern Syria, which Obama has resisted doing. Those, however, are aimed at protecting civilians against bombing by Assad and his allies, including Russia, and thereby reducing the flow of refugees into Europe.

The no-fly zone dispute has little relevance to the fight against Islamic State because, as Obama noted, “ISIL does not have planes.”

Republican candidates have sharply denounced Obama’s efforts, saying he has shown a lack of leadership. Bush, the onetime Republican front-runner and former governor of Florida, said over the weekend that the U.S. “should declare war” on Islamic State. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the U.S. and its allies should invoke a provision in the NATO treaty under which an attack on one member, such as France, is an attack on all.

Most specifics of their plans, however, closely resemble what Obama has pursued.

“What I would do,” Bush said Monday in an interview on Fox News, is to try to “bring stability” to Syria “because it’s in our national security interest to do it.”

Farther east, he said, a successful strategy “requires arming directly the Kurdish forces in Iraq. It means reengaging with the Sunni tribal leaders that were successful in fighting with us side by side with the surge” in Iraq in 2007.

Rubio, interviewed Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” also called for “directly” arming the Kurds, rather than routing much of their equipment through the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. He also called for sending more U.S. special operations forces to Syria and for stepping up airstrikes against Islamic State.

“Long-term, however, in the big picture,” he said, “the only way to defeat ISIS militarily is for Sunnis themselves to be the bulkhead of the fight.”

Obama sent several dozen special operations troops to Syria late last month to assist in increasing the pace of airstrikes. He already has dispatched several thousand U.S. troops to Iraq to train Iraqi forces and help guide airstrikes. The U.S. has conducted roughly 8,000 against Islamic State positions since the air campaign began last year.

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who’s led in several recent polls of Republican primary voters, has sometimes suggested he would back sending more U.S. troops to Iraq, but he has left unclear whether he is talking about combat forces or special operations and training units.

Several other Republican candidates have called for increased airstrikes, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump who, in keeping with his bellicose style, said recently that if he were president, he would “bomb the ... out of” Islamic State. At other points, however, Trump has suggested that the U.S. should let Russia take the lead in Syria.

Pentagon officials have said they are already bombing most of the Islamic State sites they have able to identify, with the exception of some in heavily populated areas such as Mosul. The main constraint on the number of strikes, they say, has been a lack of intelligence on where to aim.

Parsons reported from Antalya and Lauter from Washington. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

For more Washington coverage, follow @cparsons and @davidlauter


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1:52 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with comments from presidential candidates and background on Obama's strategy to fight Islamic State.

11 a.m.: This story was updated with more comments from Obama and background.

This story was originally published at 9:26 a.m.