BY JAMES GRANT
WASHINGTON — On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama outlined to the American public his intent to “degrade” and “ultimately destroy” the growing threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The first phase of the military campaign, primarily consisting of targeted airstrikes against Islamic State assets, would be spearheaded by the United States and bolstered by a broad international coalition.
Despite promises to keep U.S. boots off of the ground, the President’s announcement nevertheless elicited memories of years of costly U.S. embroilment in the Middle East. However, at some point somebody’s boots will need to be on the ground to retake and hold Islamic State territory, and to that end airstrikes alone will not be adequate. How can this administration hope to effectively counter the Islamic State with limited risk and commitment? It seems that President Obama recognizes the answer: The United States must work to foster an alliance of unlikely but essential regional partners, all of whom share a stake in seeing the group neutralized.
The Islamic State’s rapid ascent from terrorist group (al Qaeda in Iraq) to a 30,000 plus strong jihadist army in control of swathes of Iraq and Syria has alarmed more than just the United States. Key regional players, particularly those in the Gulf, are well aware that the group’s objectives (the elimination of the modern state system and restoration of the Islamic caliphate) directly threaten their own existence. Of these players, there are three whose cooperation will prove paramount: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran.
Tactfully uniting these regional rivals in the name of defeating a common enemy should be the primary objective of Obama’s counter Islamic State strategy. By getting the ball rolling with low-risk air strikes and intelligence gathering, the United States is creating an environment more conducive to cooperation. If executed effectively, the United States could slowly move to a more ancillary, managerial role while the regional stakeholders do the majority of the heavy lifting. Like it or not, we will all be in it together for the long haul.