WASHINGTON -- As he embarks on a new, more aggressive approach to confront the rise of the Islamic State, President Barack Obama is being hit from all sides with criticism, including that he waited too long to formulate a strategy and act.
But in one of the more detailed defenses of administration policy to date, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that the reason Obama decided to go after the Islamic State was not because the president changed, but because the group changed. It wasn’t just the videos the Islamic State released, showing the beheadings of two American journalists, that motivated the president -- though those were “the most shocking component” of the threat posed by the group. Rather, it was the evolving nature of the Islamic State, which became an increasingly dangerous organization as it piled up victories and expanded its territory.
“The situation did just change. It changed from June to July and it changed from July to September,” said Rhodes. “Their ambitions seemed to grow with their advance. In other words, after Mosul, they declared a caliphate, they declared the genocidal intent on the Yezidis, they seemed to ratchet up the degree of their ambition in ways that were concerning for a lot of reasons.”
Speaking from his office in the West Wing, Rhodes offered an assessment that was candid, if somewhat pessimistic, about the capacity the United States has to destroy the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL. He readily acknowledged that the United States would not be able to “defeat the tactic of terrorism” or “eliminate extremism in the vein of Islamic extremism.” The objective, rather, was to “methodically degrade” those “discrete organizations and affiliates” for whom terrorism is a tradecraft.
With respect to targeting the Islamic State, Rhodes was more bullish about some elements of the president’s new policy than other elements.
“You can actually see the play in Iraq,” he said. There, a new government has formed that the administration hopes will pursue policies more inclusive of the Sunni population. Rhodes wouldn’t discuss the possibility of partitioning the country into three separate states -- “nobody is arguing for a breakup of Iraq,” he said -- but he did proffer that a semi-autonomous Sunni region in the western part of the country could alleviate the fissures that facilitated the Islamic State’s power grab in the first place.
“This question of how power is shared and organized in the country between regions that are majority Sunni, Kurd and Shia … that's going to be part of the long-term solution,” he said.
Militarily, targeted U.S. airstrikes have stopped the Islamic State’s advances in northern Iraq and given the Iraqi army breathing room to push back from positions in and around Baghdad. The last component of the “play in Iraq,” as Rhodes outlined, is the rise of moderates in the country.
Rhodes said Sunnis are invested in the political process even more than they were during 2007's Sunni Awakening in part because the removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- a Shiite -- has presented a new opportunity to restructure the government.
“That was the big obstacle to Saudi Arabia and others kind of cooperating with Iraq," Rhodes said. "It would have been unthinkable six months ago for Saudi Arabia to invite the Iraqi foreign minister to that meeting [Secretary of State John] Kerry was at [last week] and to give humanitarian assistance and to give other support to the effort in Iraq.”
Whereas there was reason for some optimism in Iraq -- or, at least, a hypothetical roadmap for success -- Syria presented a pile of complications.
Rhodes acknowledged that training Syrian moderates and sending arms to them was an inherently dodgy venture. One need look no further than Iraq to understand the risks. There, “ISIL took over stocks of weapons that were intended for the Iraqi security forces,” said Rhodes, adding that “there's always a degree of danger associated with these types of things.”
But while countries such as Germany have declined to send weapons to moderate Syrian rebels out of fear that, as in the case of Iraq, they could end up in the hands of the Islamic State, the Obama administration says it has screened the potential weapons recipients thoroughly.
“We know them better today than we did a year, two years ago,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes downplayed Obama’s past criticism that the rebel factions were farmers and doctors who didn’t stand much of a chance of overthrowing Assad. He noted that the administration has “worked with the Syrian opposition now for a couple months” and that the president has called for sending additional assistance for some time. As part of a $500 million proposal to train and arm the moderate factions, Rhodes said, the administration is limiting its armament policy and not “introducing weapons systems that if they proliferate, they have the greatest danger.” MANPADS were an example he gave of the type of arms that wouldn’t be sent to rebel factions.
The quickest way to degrade the Islamic State could very well be for the U.S. to reverse course and team up with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Haaretz reported recently that the U.S. is already coordinating intelligence with Assad through a third party, a report the administration has officially denied. Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. would "deconflict" with Syria -- in other words, try to stay out of Assad's way. And any strategy to take out the Islamic State's base in that country necessarily empowers the very president that the Obama administration says must go.
But the White House won't overtly back Assad, for a variety of reasons.
"The moral answer is we're not going to work with a guy who is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths," Rhodes explained. "But the practical answer is you would have no chance of having Sunni cooperation if you were to work with Assad. You guys have put your finger on it, which is that there are 20 million Sunnis who live in this area of Syria and Iraq. If we were to try and run a play with Assad ... we would ensure that they would turn against us and in fact we would be taking a side in a sectarian war on one side."
But if, as Rhodes said, the war is a sectarian one, pitting Sunni rebels (from ISIS to more moderate factions) on one side and Assad and his supporters on the other, the U.S. winds up choosing regardless -- unless it takes both sides.
The Islamic State seems to feel no similar limitations. For them, an enemy of an enemy may not be a friend, but it is certainly no foe. This past weekend, reports emerged that the group had forged a non-aggression pact with a faction of moderate Syrian rebels, agreeing not to fight one another but instead to both fight Assad. The Obama administration denied those reports, as have some moderate rebel groups.
"Syria's the more challenging side of the border, candidly," Rhodes said. "You need a partner. I mean, it's true that you can't succeed in the long-term objective if you don’t have some partner on the ground who you're going to work with in Syria. That's why we want to do the training."