Why Obama’s Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State Won’t Work

By Glenn M Stewart B.A., M.A. Oxon:

The recent statement by the Obama administration outlining a strategy to defeat the Islamic State issued in an attempt to cover its irresponsible but honest admission that it does not have a strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is inadequate at best and laughable at worst.

That strategy is to use targeted air strikes to degrade their military capability to narrow their scope of action, use regional allies to shrink their territory and drone strikes to take out their leadership. This he claims will allow the US to use local forces to combat them without the need for US troops to join in the fighting. He went on to say that the regional partners would be especially important in hosting training camps and advising moderate opposition forces who might serve as proxy fighters in Syria.

US officials have said that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without rooting them out of their stronghold in Syria. Obama has stated that the “moderate coalition in Syria is one that we can work with…”

He has also stated that the key to defeating the Islamic State in Iraq is to create an inclusive government in that country. In conjunction with that strategy is one of arming and using the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as our proxy fighters in Iraq.

These proposals and this strategy will not work and here is why:


There will be no meaningful inclusive government in Baghdad. The Shi’a had been oppressed by the Sunni minority in Iraq from the time of establishment of the modern state there in 1933 until we liberated them in 2003. Now that they have power they will not willingly cede any meaningful power back to the Sunni groups in the country. The inclusion of Sunnis at senior levels in the government will be for show only and effectively nothing more than a willful political fantasy imposed on the Iraqi government by the United States in an attempt to paper over the differences.

More importantly than any of this is the fact that Iran will not allow it. The current government in Baghdad is an Iranian proxy and the only reason that Nuri al Maliki stepped down is because the Iranians pulled their support from him. However, as his successor Haider Al-Abadi comes from the same parliamentary block as al Maliki nothing has changed in terms of the Iranian position in Iraq and their control over it. The United States gave Iran this power in Iraq  through its misguided and unbelievably ignorant policy there in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Army is not an adequate military force and no amount of US training can ever overcome the fact that a Shi’a army will not be able to operate effectively in the entirely hostile environment of the Sunni heartland. Any attempt by the Shi’a army to advance into the Sunni areas will merely drive tribal elements that may have been hostile to the Islamic State and its ideals into alliance with them. Resistance will merely stiffen. For the US to carry out airstrikes on Sunni tribal elements in support of a Shi’a advance will merely consolidate the position of the Islamic State and increase support for them in other Sunni areas of the region such as Jordan, Sa’udi Arabia and Qatar


The use of Kurdish forces in the North has limitations. Yes, with proper arms and US advisors the Kurds will be able to make some advances and push IS back but they cannot conquer Northern Iraq on their own. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the Kurds political motivation will largely be expended when they retake areas that were traditionally Kurdish where Saddam settled Sunni Arabs in an attempt to expand the Arab sphere of influence in the North. Secondly, the Kurds will face the same problem as the Shi’a army as they enter predominantly Sunni Arab areas. They will have no popular support. They will be seen as conquerors and will drive the tribes into alliance with IS to resist a Kurdish takeover. Finally, war is not just about weapons, it is about logistics. The Peshmerga will not possess the logistical capability to advance far into a hostile environment with continuous guerrilla action taking place in their rear area. Is the US going to provide the necessary logistical support? Once again are we going to take sides in a civil war and thus create more support for IS among other Sunni groups in Iraq, Syria and the region?


Syria is even more complex. First off we have no proxy force in place there. Let’s say that we decide that there are some so called moderate groups that we could strengthen and arm. What happens if IS defeats these disunited groups in detail and captures the weapons? Then we’ve only armed and strengthened IS, a likely outcome.

Are we going to engage in a series of major airstrikes to degrade IS’s position in Syria? If we do that we have effectively entered Syria’s civil war in support of the Assad regime and not merely supported another faction in that war. To help preserve Assad in power is to help maintain Iranian influence in the region. That is not a policy goal that we should entertain even for a minute. Iran is in fact our most powerful enemy in the region, even more so than the Islamic State at this point as Iran is actively working to acquire weapons that potentially truly strike at our interests that will hurt us far worse than the spectacle of beheading two journalists.

There is also a Kurdish force in Syria that could be used as a proxy but the same problems exists there as in Iraq.

The Solution

So what is the solution? Unfortunately the solution is complex and will require a real investment of outside military force in the region. We will need to put troops into the Sunni areas of Iraq and work with the tribal groups there that would oppose IS to defeat IS but in order for this to succeed we will have to give them a state in the upper Tigris- Euphrates valley encompassing the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. If we don’t offer them this prize why should they support us instead of IS which is delivering this state and liberating them from Shi’a hegemony? That this solution is an admission of our failure and incompetence in Iraq is an unfortunate byproduct of history but our past incompetence is not entirely irreversible if we truly had the guts to confront the challenge posed to the US and the West by radical Islam.

The next step is to set up an independent Kurdish state encompassing the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria and using it as a springboard to strip the Kurdish areas of Iran from Iran. Iran needs to feel pain on its doorstep so that its regional reach is curtailed. The Turks need to be engaged in sensible negotiations to cede parts of Kurdish Anatolia to the new Kurdish state. The compensation for this adjustment would be to join the Azeri part of Iran to Azerbaijan and create a greater Azerbaijan. This would liberate a large group of Turkic people from the yoke of Iranian oppression while further diminishing the power of the Iranian regime.

A diminished Iran would also give us greater influence in the rump Shi’a state in southern Iraq and reduce the Iranian threat to Sa’udi Arabia and Bahrain.

This would also leave a rump ‘Alawi/Christian state in Syria which is not a fully elegant solution to the problems in that country but the overall readjustments of political entities along these lines would increase the level of stability in the region.

Finally the United States needs to establish military bases in the new Kurdish state. They would welcome us and it would allow us to project power throughout the region at will. There will never be peace in the Middle East. There are too many ethnic, sectarian and cultural fault lines. The best that can be achieved is to police the region in such a way that the turbulence of the area does not spill over and threaten the rest of the world. The above suggestions would achieve that end. The Obama strategy will not.

Glenn M Stewart was educated at Oxford University where he was a member of The Queen’s College, Glenn M Stewart obtained a BA and an MA in Oriental Studies with an emphasis in Islamic History and Arabic language. He resided in the Middle East for 27 years working with Arab-owned businesses giving him a unique and unparalleled view into both the business, cultural and political aspects of this challenging region. He is one of the world’s foremost experts in Islamic commercial law and has lectured on Middle Eastern affairs at Oxford and Harvard Universities.

2 Responses to Why Obama’s Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State Won’t Work
  1. Dapo Ogun
    September 9, 2014 | 14:09

    Great work!

  2. Rebwar R
    October 7, 2014 | 18:23

    1.The Coalition Against IS/ ISIS is a political determination and consists of many nations; most importantly for Turkey, it includes moderate Arabic states. This endangers Turkey’s strategic aims because Turkey sees these Arab countries as foes not as partners.
    2.Turkey is doing everything in its power to take history back 30 years to when Kurds were “mountain Turks”, to demoralize the Kurdish people and pursue Kurds’ total surrender: thus giving Turkey a highway to get into Kurdish oil, gas and other wealth in Kurdistan. According to various sources, the funds from Kurdish crude oil sales are being placed in the Halk-Bank of Turkey, a state-owned Turkish bank holding at least US$400 million in Kurdish revenues. Thus Turkey strengthens its banks and currency with Kurdish money while does not recognize any kind of Kurdish rights.
    3.The latest test was when IS/ ISIS attacked Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territories and Turkey did not show any kind of positive reaction, despite all its bragging about friendship with ‘Iraqi Kurds’, which was also a blow to Mr. Barzani’s insistence on Turkey as a partner.
    4.Turkey seeks to make a Sunni-Coalition in the Middle East which is friendly to Turkey and hostile to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arabs, for instance Jordan and Egypt. Beyond the Kurdish issue, this is explains Turkey’s support for the Islamic State.
    5.Turkey is working to win the sympathy and the opinion of the Arab masses and thus force Arab governments to more or less accept the hegemony of Turkey, which would be reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire-model. Turkey’s hostility toward Israel must be seen in this context. Ideologically, politically and psychologically, though not necessarily physically, Turkey can rebuild such an empire if it can force Israel into concessions. Israel is indeed the only obstacle when Turkey can unfortunately easily manipulate the Arabs.
    6.Turkey is eager to use these cards when sitting with the EU. Turkey has been successful in riding the horse of Islam and using the discourse of Islam to put pressure on the EU. In almost all EU proceedings and negotiations, Turkey has been doing everything to keep today’s privileges and at the same time get more while giving back nothing in return, by simply screaming that Europe is practicing Islamophobia.
    7.Turkey would like to make today’s Syrian-refugee crisis a business opportunity: to continue getting money from the UN and at the same time get political credit. Turkish “humanitarian assistance” concerning the Kurdish people is a big lie. Almost every single Kurd has been sheltered by other Kurds on the other side of the border. At the same time it’s known that US taxpayers are paying between $2.4 billion and $3.8 billion per year, or perhaps even more, to fight IS/ISIS and other dark forces which Turkey has been supporting.

    Turkey´s aim:

    Since March 2011, when the first demonstration took place in Syria, Turkey has done its best to make fools of the Syrians by first gathering them in Istanbul and Ankara, then separating them into different groups in order to control them more easily and then helping the most fanatic Sunni-groups among them. The next step was to force the opposition to exclude the Kurds. Only after at least two years of Kurdish stable political administration, Turkey starts to soften its stance towards the Kurds. Now Kurds can take a place among the Syrian opposition, but only as “Syrians”, not as “Kurds”. This was the big failure behind the collapse of the Geneva Second Conference. Due to various reasons, the so-called “Syrian opposition”, has only served as protectors of Turkey´s national interests and not as Syrian democratic forces and, in the case of IS/ ISIS and other dark forces, they have been a part of the Turkish paramilitary forces. Making a fool of the Syrian opposition, by forcing them into total obedience, has enabled Turkey to run a puppet show in Syria.

    This explains why countries like France, the US and the UK couldn’t have any significant influence on the ground in Syria despite their tremendous financial and military help to the so called “opposition”.

    But the Kurdish democratic and secularist advance in Syria shattered Turkish plans. If it were not for the continuous IS/ ISIS attacks, the three cantons in Rojawa would have been much more stable and self-sufficient. Turkey interprets any successful Kurdish democratic progress as a potential danger.

    This is what lies behind Turkey´s sudden turnaround: after making things difficult for everybody and for the democratic process since 2011, now all of a sudden it wants to establish a “buffer zone” exactly on Kurdish soil inside Syria. Of course the Turks’ proposal to build a “buffer zone” has nothing to do with Syrian civilian causalities, helping refugees or guiding the opposition in a right direction. Turkey only wants to crush Kurdish advances.

    Border displays of heavy military equipment such as tanks and armored vehicles is nothing but a Turkish psychological war against Kurds. Turkey is expert in finding excuses: for instance, when Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed that this huge army mobilization was because “a mortar shell had hit a house in a Turkish village on the Syrian border late Sept. 28”.

    Mr. Erdoğan’s speech to Parliament on the occasion of the opening of the new legislative year, a few hours ago, was full of these kinds of threats and intimidation towards the West, the Coalition and against the Kurds.

    1.The Post-First World War arbitrary colonial borders – which never took Kurdish ethnic, national, cultural and language particularities into consideration – threw the Kurdish people into the periphery of some territorial-states which history has witnessed as the most barbaric and uncivilized.
    2.Turkey uses IS/ ISIS and other dark forces as a political card. Turkey´s demand, albeit officially undeclared, is that Turkey will abandon these uncivilized forces only in exchange for the International Community (read: the US and Western allies) abandoning Kurds or rather giving Turkey generous political and military space to suppress the Kurds. Otherwise, as happened in 2003, the US and NATO will not see any Turkish cooperation, despite Ankara´s signals about having the will for cooperation and a place inside the alliance. Turkey´s primary aim is destroying the Kurds and taking over their wealth.
    3.Turkey is also demanding cash, as it always have done it before.
    4.Kurds have shown the world that they will stand against Turkey and are getting stronger day by day. The Kurdish people have a will to fight back and to struggle for peace, freedom and sovereignty, no matter Turkey´s state terrorism and its barbaric history.

    In this connection, Kurds will be much better off if their crude oil revenues are placed in an account at JPMorgan Chase, as was once planned, and used to build up a Development Fund of Kurdistan with the help of US and Western allies. The UN and Western banks would eventually support such a step due to various reasons which are not the subject of this article.

    The Kurdish liberation movement has become stronger and more organized. Turkey was thus forced to begin secret negotiations with the Kurds (read: PKK/ KCK) which have been going on since 2010, with almost no progress, because the Turks are using this as a tactic and arcade game, a process now in jeopardy due to Turkey´s expansionistic policy.

    However, the International Community and the democracies have a responsibility towards the Kurdish people, especially now in Kobane, which the IS/ ISIS terrorists have sworn to break. Destruction of Kobane would indeed be a destruction of the free will of Kurds and their cry for respect and dignity.

    Rebwar Rashed has a Ph.D. degree in Political Science. He has translated several books into Kurdish and also written many articles in Kurdish and English about the Kurdistan National Liberation Movement, human rights, anti-Semitism, equality between the sexes and ethnicities, and the need for a democratic and peaceful struggle

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