U.S. President Barack Obama’s prime-time address to the American people on Sunday night more or less fulfilled American commentators’ predictions. There was lots of determined rhetoric, worded in Obama’s usual exemplary fashion, but few changes to the administration’s overall strategy against Islamic terror.
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Although the president again promised to destroy Islamic State, he is not planning at this point to back up this pronouncement with a significant American ground presence. The “boots on the ground” will have to wait. From the president’s words, it seems the United States will for now suffice with intensifying its air raids on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. Fighting on the ground will be left to operations by rebel groups, Kurds and moderate Sunnis.
Obama claims this is enough to defeat ISIS. But this approach has yet to meet the reality test in Syria, where the United States began an air campaign against ISIS back in the summer of 2014 after the organization executed a string of Western hostages. Although the Americans and other Western states, along with Arab countries and, since September, Russia, have been pounding ISIS targets from the air, the organization shows no signs of weakening. According to most intelligence assessments, the number of new volunteers joining the group, many of them Muslims from Western countries, has made up for the losses of fighters it has suffered so far.
Except for those places where the West provided air support for Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and northern Syria, ISIS hasn’t lost significant parts of the territories it has won control of during the past two-and-a-half years. Nor has the American hope of relying on moderate Sunni groups led to any significant achievements on the ground. Russia is having similar difficulties. In October, Moscow organized a ground attack in northern Syria that was to integrate forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards with Shi’ite militias. The successes were minor and have not given added momentum to the air bombardments.
Experts dispute whether it’s even possible to achieve a complete, long-term military victory over terrorist and guerilla groups, or whether the best to hope for is their containment and a reduction of terror. Moreover, there are very few global precedents of winning a campaign with air power alone. The most outstanding success of this kind was achieved by NATO in its air campaign against Yugoslavian forces in Kosovo, who surrendered and withdrew after 78 days of bombing in 1999.
The Israeli experience with this has not been positive. When the Israel Defense Forces relied primarily on air power and deployed relatively few ground forces (as in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the last three campaigns in the Gaza Strip), the achievements were limited at best. In the West Bank, when Israel in March 2002 launched a long-term, massive ground attack against Palestinian terrorists in Operation Defensive Shield, the results were impressive. However, success took several months and involved considerable loss of life.
That, of course, is the other side of the coin – the high cost of ground operations, which don’t always succeed like Defensive Shield. There is the fear of heavy casualties among the soldiers, the growing economic cost of warfare, the need to hold territory for extended periods and the political disagreements and crises liable to erupt over the objectives of the fighting. It’s not just Obama who’s afraid of sending young Americans to fight ISIS on the ground after being burned in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. opinion polls in recent years show similar reservations among the majority of the populace.
After the shooting attack by the husband-and-wife ISIS supporters at the community center in San Bernardino, California, The New York Times described the difficulty Americans are having coping with homegrown Islamic terror. Alberto Fernandez, a former senior State Department official who visited Israel often in that capacity, told the paper that the California attack was an example of “do it yourself jihad” that the administration has a hard time acknowledging.
Fernandez has always stressed ISIS’ skill at using social networks for incitement. In this it indeed has a leg up on Al-Qaida, although in part it might just reflect the spirit of the times. When Osama bin Laden was at his peak, his propaganda was not managed with Twitter and Facebook (which did not yet exist), but relied primarily on videos made somewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan and then smuggled out.
In the American effort to cope with this homegrown terror one can pick up similarities to the difficulties Israel is having against the latest wave of Palestinian terror that started at the beginning of October. In both cases, the governments were surprised by the process of individuals becoming radicalized through the Internet. Both governments are searching for conceptual and technological solutions that could help them locate the “lone wolf” who has no previous security record and who is liable to strike without almost any sign.
A 14-month freeze?
Obama’s address to the American people was preceded by a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry to Israelis and Palestinians at the Saban Forum in Washington. It was an “I can’t do it anymore” speech by the man who in recent years has invested more than anyone in failed efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Although on a declarative level, his address included a stern historic warning to the Israelis of what’s in store for them if they stick with a policy of “managing the conflict,” rather than trying to resolve it, the practical message was different. Kerry, long after his president, has come to the conclusion that there will be no new American initiatives to try to save the two sides from themselves.
The administration is thus ostensibly conveying that there will be 14 months of diplomatic stalemate in the region, until the next U.S. president is sworn in and his or her cabinet is seated. U.S. administrations have already intervened in the Middle East unexpectedly, when difficult circumstances required it. But while the terror may continue, as long as the number of victims remains at a sub-intifada level, Washington is content to let Israel and the Palestinians stew in their own juices.
Although the latest Palestinian terror does not seem organized and appears to stem from individual initiatives, it is not completely detached from what is happening on the diplomatic front. Israeli intelligence, for example, sees a link between the speech given by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations on September 30, in which he basically divorced himself from the diplomatic process, to the outburst of violence that began with the Henkin murders the very next day.
The line that connects Obama’s speech with Kerry’s is the administration’s reluctance to increase American diplomatic and military involvement in the Middle East, given its past failures. For the time being, it seems this fear of failure is greater than the desire to directly confront the challenges that the latest developments are posing for Washington.