“Harder than anything we’ve tried to do thus far in Iraq or Afghanistan” is how a U.S. general described planning to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to the Washington Post, adding that it “makes Iraq seem easy” in comparison. “This is the most complex problem we’ve faced since 9/11. We don’t have a precedent for this.” In laying out his four-point plan for countering ISIS, President Obama still left several questions unanswered. Here are some of the challenges that help make the situation as complex as it is and policymakers should be asking themselves.
1. What happens in the spaces in Syria where ISIS is rolled back?
In his speech, Obama made clear that operations against ISIS won’t be limited to just Iraq. “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” he declared. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the group. Currently ISIS in Syria is fighting against nearly every other participant in that conflict, including both al Qaeda and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The White House is currently taking an optimistic view of what will happen once that occurs. One senior administration official told reporters ahead of the president’s speech that “we do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because, frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad’s rule. These are Sunni-majority areas in the eastern part of the country.” Rather than Assad being able to move back into these areas once ISIS has been defeated, the official argued, “the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition who we work with.”
That prospect appears to have occurred to the Syrian regime as well. Over the past several months, Syria has attempted to rebrand itself: rather than the government that used chemical weapons on its own people, Damascus wants to be seen as a partner in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups. But that too has its limits, as made clear on Thursday. “Any action of any type without the approval of Syrian government is an aggression against Syria,” Ali Haidar, Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs, told reporters in Damascus. “There must be cooperation with Syria and coordination with Syria and there must be a Syrian approval of any action whether it is military or not,” he continued, echoing comments previously made by Syria’s Foreign Minister last month.
But Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister had a much friendlier tune to sing for Washington. “When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences… and forget all about the past,” Faisal Mekdad said in an interview with NBC News. “It takes two to tango…We are ready to talk.” He too, however, urged there be coordination between the Syrian government and U.S. before any strikes so “there should be no mistakes.” The Obama administration has in contrast continued to insist that Assad and his government are part of the problem that forged ISIS to begin with, ruling out any cooperation.
2. How much will all of this cost?
The Iraq War was sold to the American public as being a short, cheap endeavor. Officials at the time estimated that it would cost no more than $50–60 billion for the entire process, from toppling Saddam Hussein to building a new government. Instead, the cost of the war has been estimated as being as high as $2.2 trillion over the course of nearly ten years.
So far, the debate over just how much the current operations at ISIS will cost hasn’t been a major part of the debate over the response. The only dollar figure mentioned in the president’s speech was $500 million for training and equipping members of the Syrian opposition, which was part of a request sent to Congress months ago. In late August, the Pentagon provided an estimate for how much current operations in Iraq — which until last night were limited to airstrikes against ISIS threatening Kurdish positions and helping retake the Mosul and Haitha dams — had cost: roughly $7.5 million per day since mid-June. Extrapolated out from then, that comes to roughly $682 million so far.
But the Pentagon isn’t sweating this, as the money is so far coming from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, a pool of money designated for military operations abroad. For the last fiscal year, that was equal to about $66 billion to conduct operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “Pentagon officials have said that the first four months of renewed operations in Iraq will not require additional money from Congress, and regarding the new fiscal year 2015 starting in October, the top brass is taking a wait-and-see approach,” the Army Times reported on Wednesday.
3. Just what will our allies actually be doing to help?
In his speech, President Obama declared that the U.S. wouldn’t be acting alone in the face of ISIS. “With a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” the president said. Last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the first outlines of that coalition — the “core coalition” as he referred to it — which includes the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.
That expanded on Thursday when a slew of Arab countries — including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan — signed on to take further action against ISIS alongside the United States. According to the statement released, the countries will devote efforts towards “stopping the flow of foreign fighters through neighboring countries, countering financing of ISIL and other violent extremists, repudiating their hateful ideology, ending impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice, contributing to humanitarian relief efforts, assisting with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities brutalized by ISIL, supporting states that face the most acute ISIL threat, and, as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign against ISIL.”
Each country so far, the administration has argued, brings something different to the table. “Some of them, including Britain, France and Canada, have already participated in humanitarian airdrops to Iraqi communities besieged by Islamic State forces and have delivered weapons to the Iraqi military or Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq,” the Washington Post noted at the time of the announcement. “Germany has said it will also supply weapons.” A U.S. official told the New York Times that “certain countries bring specific expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence, Turkey in border control and Saudi Arabia in financing.”
But that leaves vague precisely what sort of aspects of the military campaign any of them will actively be taking part in. Turkey has reportedly denied the U.S.’ request to use its air bases for launching airstrikes against ISIS. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius offered up his country’s air force for strikes against ISIS in Iraq — but not in Syria, citing international law concerns. The United Kingdom meanwhile on Thursday insisted that it had not ruled out strikes against ISIS, after Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond had briefly appeared to close the door on the prospect.
4. What’s comes next for Iraq?
Suppose ISIS actually is degraded to the point that it’s more of the low-grade — but still deadly — threat that Al Qaeda in Iraq was in the years before the Syrian civil war brought it back from the brink. There’s still a host of issues that Iraq has to contend with before it can be considered a stable country. In his speech, Obama praised the formation of a new Iraqi government, a process that had taken months to achieve. But now the newly appointed Cabinet has to actually not only manage the day-to-day problems that any country faces, but also try to wage a war against ISIS and close off the border with Syria that has become porous.
That will be difficult as while a Prime Minister and Vice-Presidents have been named, including former prime minister Nour al-Maliki, there are still several important Cabinet posts that remain open due to bickering among the Iraqi parliament. That includes, one reporter pointed out to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at Thursday’s briefing, both the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry, which control the police and military respectively. In response, Earnest said “our democracy is also evolving.”
There’s also still the question of what’s next for the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, whose stock has risen substantially throughout the current crisis. Despite some setbacks, the peshmerga fighters loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have been one of the most effective groups in actively pushing back against ISIS. Early on in the conflict, the Kurds also managed to seize the oil-producing town of Kirkuk from ISIS, an area that the KRG has long been in a dispute with the government in Baghdad over. The fight over Kirkuk and other areas nearly derailed the much lauded formation of a new government and the issue isn’t going to go away once ISIS has been defeated.
5. When will it end?
“What does victory look like? What does destroy mean?” a reporter also asked Earnest on Thursday. Earnest’s answer was less than informative: “I didn’t bring my Webster’s dictionary.” That flip answer belies the fact that the commitments laid out so far from the Obama administration are remarkably open-ended. The initial phase of the campaign against ISIS was narrowly tailored to protecting the American forces that Obama had deployed to advise the Iraqi military, protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and push back ISIS at key locations such as the Haitha and Mosul dams.
Now, the mission according to Obama’s speech is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Degrading ISIS is already occurring, rolling back its ability to threaten the Iraqi government and civilians. But while it may sound simple on the surface, destroying a group is much harder. According to the Army’s own definition, an enemy is “destroyed” when it has been rendered “combat-ineffective until it is reconstituted.” The White House and other parts of the administration have been fond of saying that the U.S. “decimated” core al-Qaeda’s leadership after more than a decade of war. But it still hasn’t managed to destroy the group entirely, as it is still capable of planning and potentially launching attacks. In promising to eventually destroy ISIS, Obama was promising to not stop until the group can no longer wage war against the region at all.