The United States’ approach to defeating the Islamic State differs depending on country. In Iraq, where the government is (at least nominally) pro-US, President Obama has stated that military aid is conditional on political change. With the removal of Nouri al Maliki as Prime Minister and his successor’s attempts to restructure approach both to Sunnis and to the military, Iraq seems to be at least moving toward the type of domestic reform essential to ensuring that the local support for the Islamic State evaporates -- a key in defeating the Islamic State.
Over in Syria, however, the Obama administration has drawn a clear line, choosing to avoid the subject of the government of Bashar al Assad (whom the West has called for removal of since uprisings began in 2011) in favor of the military option. The US-led coalition has made a point of bombing extremists in Syria en masse, lumping Jabhat al Nusra and even Ahrar al Sham into its operations. Though Mr. Obama has called for a political solution, no serious effort has been made to that end since the collapse of the last round of Geneva talks earlier this year.
Specific signs are emerging that the United States is reworking its approach to the Islamic State situation and to Syria’s Assad. Mr. Obama has asked his national security team -- the same one that has adamantly called for increased support to Syrian rebels, which he has ignored -- to review the progress of the current game-plan and assess the need to actively seek political transition and the removal of Mr. Assad. At the same time as this review is happening, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is hosting a planning conference “to strengthen relationships and further develop and refine military campaign plans to degrade and defeat” the Islamic State.
While CENTCOM’s conference has a stated goal of reworking the strategy in Iraq, it is without a doubt that the question of Syria will emerge as well. Depriving the Islamic State of Iraq does not wholly deprive the Islamic State of its caliphate thanks to declarations of allegiance from the Libyan Youth Council and Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, so the coalition cannot hope to solely focus on Iraq and neglect Syria.
Supposedly on the table for Mr. Obama is a no-fly zone in the north, near the border with Turkey, and increasing aid to the moderate opposition, neither of which are political and that latter point has been discussed so much one can always expect it to be on the menu, though rarely actually ordered. Mr. Obama’s reservation about providing arms to the Syrian rebels is clear: he is against sending the type of arms that could make a difference, even to the extent of overruling the rest of his advisers.
Fortunately (or more accurately, unfortunately) for him, that option of aiding the moderate rebels is not looking to be around much longer. Jabhat al Nusra has paired up with Ahrar al Sham and Jund al Aqsa in Idlib province to muscle aside Western-backed rebels. Assuming any legitimacy to assertions made to the Associated Press, Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State -- arch-rivals -- have reached an accord to pool their forces against mutual enemies, in the clearest example yet of coalition airstrikes polarizing the Syria situation.
With the moderates slowly losing Aleppo to the government and sliding under the weight of extremist elements, there likely will not be many left in the near future for Mr. Obama to contemplate arming. With that, Mr. Obama has a delicate process of figuring out just how to create a political solution in Syria. Localized ceasefires, as proposed by the UN envoy to Syria, benefit the regime and there is no way to get Mr. Assad to relinquish his position now that it is clear that those actually willing to negotiate with him are so weak as to have no clout.
Getting Mr. Assad to step down is harder now than ever before and under no circumstances would Mr. Obama entertain allowing the extremists to capture Syria. This leaves him few alternatives, for studious neglect of the moderates -- for better or for worse -- is having the predictable consequence of leaving no decent option in Syria. Unless Mr. Obama’s review pulls a feat of magic, the most likely course of action (if change is to be made at all) will not involve taking on the Assad government, but rather advocating for the ceasefires plan as political progress. Whether or not those would be an effective means to end the war justly (Telkelakh, anyone?) is the subject for another discussion.
Mr. Obama can speak of still wanting to remove Mr. Assad, but all signs point toward the United States finding a backdoor out of supporting the armed opposition. If this wasn’t apparent before, it was made clear the day Ahrar al Sham was bombed that Mr. Obama is searching for a way out.