The U.S. government is preparing a campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL) that may last three years, officials say, surpassing the amount of time that President Barack Obama will be in office, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Despite stating that the U.S. has "not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland" from ISIS, Obama said on Meet the Press this weekend that the government was committed to pushing back against the militant group through a three-part campaign involving airstrikes and arming and training Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria. The third phase, which will attempt to bring down ISIS from within Syria, where the militant group has occupied large chunks of territory, may not be completed until the next administration, the Times said.
The announcement echoes Secretary of State John Kerry's statement during the NATO summit in Newport, Wales last week, where he said that the U.S. "has the ability" to destroy ISIS. "It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen," Kerry said.
Obama's statement also comes less than a week after he brought the total number of troops in Iraq to over 1,000, and the same day as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed that the U.S. has launched a new round of airstrikes in the region. In Syria, the country's military forces set off an aerial attack on ISIS operatives in Raqqa, killing 20 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.S. has conducted a total of 148 airstrikes in Iraq since June.
Meanwhile, on Meet the Press, Obama claimed he did not want to start "the equivalent of the Iraq war."
Middle East experts have criticized the continued airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which they say actually strengthen and embolden ISIS militants, who have made significant advances on land in the region since June and carried out killings and abuse on "an unimaginable scale," as the U.N. Human Rights Council said last week. Stephen Miles of Win Without War told Common Dreams that ISIS "has grown strong and gained recruits, money, and territory from the violence in Syria and Iraq. They depend on those conflicts. If you are exacerbating them by taking part in Syrian civil war you will play right into their hand. The U.S. will give them a rallying cry in the war against us."
The Times continues:
Unless the new Iraqi government is substantially more inclusive, American encouragement and support for these groups to turn on ISIS may be far less effective than it was in 2007, when many tribes fought the forerunner of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Some Sunni tribal leaders are still bitter at the treatment under former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite.
“Even if they try we will not accept it,” said Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleimani, a tribal leader in Anbar who lives in Erbil. “In the past, we fought against Al Qaeda and we cleaned the area of them. But the Americans gave control of Iraq to Maliki, who started to arrest, kill, and exile most of the tribal commanders who led the fight against Al Qaeda.”
Following Obama's appearance on Meet the Press, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted:
Will "destroying" ISIS take more or less time than it's taking to "destroy" the Taliban?— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) September 8, 2014
An "unnamed official" told the Times that U.S. allies in the Middle East — likely including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — supported airstrikes in Iraq and that Syria's involvement, although controversial, was inevitable. "Everybody is on board [for] Iraq," the administration official said. "But when it comes to Syria, there’s more concern... [but] there’s really no other alternative."
Hagel will travel to Ankara, Turkey this week to attempt to persuade the country's leaders to ally themselves with the U.S. in its fight against ISIS. Its proximity to Iraq and Syria would make Turkey a useful partner in the campaign, officials say, particularly as foreign fighters often use Turkish borders as a passage into the region to join the militants. But the country's officials are hesitant to antagonize ISIS, as the group is currently holding hostage 49 Turkish diplomats, including the consul general, and some of their families and children.
Obama is expected to clarify his plan in more detail in a speech on Wednesday. As the Times points out, even promising not to put troops on the ground in the region does not necessarily rule out deploying "small numbers of American Special Operations forces or C.I.A. operatives" to assist with the campaign.