Is Obama’s ‘Iraq First’ Strategy Working Against ISIS?

The Obama administration believes it can tackle problems in Iraq first, then Syria, but will that make things better or worse down the road? By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Stephanie Gaskell

When it comes to U.S. military action against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is pursuing an Iraq first policy of strengthening Baghdad while taking back terrain the group has claimed in the country. In Iraq, unlike in Syria, the United States notes it has a government that invited them in, American forces know the terrain well, and U.S. troops spent years training Iraqi forces.

The strategy is not only Iraq first in pursuing ISIS in Iraq rather than Syria, but also in the sense of putting Iraqi forces in the lead in the fight versus American “boots on the ground.”

But the question is: Can Iraq first work in this fight when the source of the problem is headquartered in Syria? Or is containment really the best the U.S. can hope for?

Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the military campaign in Iraq and Syria, told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that ISIS, or ISIL, is on the defensive in Iraq.

“We're seeing initial successes in this fight. My assessment is that Daesh has been halted in transitioning to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have,” Terry said, using the term Daesh to describe the Islamic State, a term he said is preferred by the Iraqis. “My principal focus in Syria is to, while we are working Iraq first, is to make sure that we shape that deeper fight out of there in terms of sanctuary in some places, in places like Raqqa, so that it has an enduring effect on what we're doing in Iraq also.”

"Inside Syria, where we see Daesh, and we have an ability to target them, we will conduct precision strikes,” he said. And on Thursday, Pentagon officials said air strikes in Iraq killed “multiple senior and mid-level leaders within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

But as those within the administration working on Syria policy note, there is a challenge in pursuing an Iraq-first policy for fighting a Syria-based ISIS when Washington is the only one who sees the border between the two countries.  For ISIS, that border ceased to exist in practical terms months ago. ISIS now controls a third of both Iraq and Syria and its forces move freely and fight in both countries.

“The military strategy is Iraq first – but not Iraq only,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said at the Defense One Summit in late November. “We have a strategy,” he said. “But here’s what I can tell you about that strategy: It’s going to change. It’s going to change often.”

This is a story of too little, too late.
Obama administration official

ISIS has been fighting in Syria for some time now, but when its fighters were able to take Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in August, the U.S. took notice and expanded its military campaign against the jihadists into Iraq.

“Six months yesterday was when Mosul fell. Six months ago yesterday was when we all wondered whether this was the beginning of the end of Iraq,” Retired Gen. John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, reminded an audience at the Wilson Center in Washington earlier this week.

“Sometimes when you hear the campaign depicted or portrayed, you’ll hear it as an ‘Iraq first and a Syria second.’ That’s too stark a depiction,” he said.

“What is happening, because we’re dealing with Daesh across boundaries, because we view Daesh as a threat to two countries in particular, but a region and more broadly to the international community by virtue of its reach and direct or indirect influence, it’s important to say that the main effort of the campaign for the moment is in Iraq,” Allen said. “And that main effort not only is dedicated or directed at an attack on the Daesh formations, and the Daesh nervous system, if you will, but it also is complimented very importantly by this building of partner capacity. That’s an inherent part of the strategy. It has been the reason that the number of our troops and coalition troops has been increasing in Iraq, is to provide the basis for the building of partner capacity.”

Allies in the coalition have clearly been more willing to provide military support in Iraq than Syria, because of the complicated nature of fighting the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time. 

In Syria, nearly 97 percent of the strikes in December have been carried out by the U.S., according to Reuters. And then there is the role of Iran: Iran and the U.S. share a desire to support the ruling government in Iraq. They are on opposing sides when it comes to Syria.

Allen said Ramadi in Anbar province, once a stronghold for al Qaeda fighters during the Iraq War and a city that ISIS very much would like to control, has been stabilized. But when it’s time to eliminate ISIS in Iraq, he said, “I think Mosul will be probably the climactic battle of the fight in Iraq.”

Since Aug. 8, there have been more than 1,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria – a large number of them to protect the Mosul Dam.

Since this summer the Obama administration has ratcheted up the number of troops sent to Iraq, from a few hundred to possibly as many as 3,000 by February.

The idea behind the politically palatable policy has been to stand up the Iraqi Army and security forces for the fight in Iraq and to do what America could to help in Syria without getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East - or anything resembling it. 

“There’s no real choice on one level. In Iraq there’s a government, hopefully, that we can work with … In Syria, we’re lucky we can find a few hundred on our side,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brooking Institution.

The administration is spending $500 million to arm the moderate Syrian opposition, a move that those inside the administration who support further involvement in the Syrian civil war had pushed for more than two years. Moderate recruits may be ready for the battlefield come June or July. But by then it's unclear what the war will look like and to what degree there will be a war in northern Syria for such recruits to join? And will the fight in Iraq just drive ISIS back into Syria?

"This is a story of too little, too late," one administration official said.

The most likely outcome is that the slow, stalemated, bloody war that has now displaced half the Syrian nation and created refugees equivalent to the population of Chicago will grind on. And the Syrian conflict and the fight against ISIS will become the next administration's problem.

“There’s a very distinct possibility that Syria has become the new Somalia, and it’s just too late to change that,” O’Hanlon said. 

The start of 2015 will mark the fourth anniversary of the Syrian war. The grim reality is that this is unlikely to be its last anniversary.

“What we will have is Iraq slightly better off than it is now, the regime still in charge in Syria and ISIL still a fact on the ground in both countries,” the administration official predicted.