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Opinion: Obama and the Absence of Strategy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US President Barack Obama speaks in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, in Washington, DC, on September 16, 2013. (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

It was good that US President Barack Obama was recently honest enough to admit that his government doesn’t have a strategy to deal with the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria. His frank confession attracted attention and angered some American politicians. A White House spokesman tried to clarify the situation, saying that while Obama said there was no strategy to confront ISIS, this did not mean the absence of a policy towards the situation in Syria, like some observers had thought. But truth be told, this clarification further complicated the situation.

Syria is now merely a battlefield and no longer a state, even if the Syrian regime has managed to survive so far thanks to weapons from Russia, and assistance from Iranian forces and Iraqi and Hezbollah militias. There is no longer a government, but instead an organization that represents President Bashar Al-Assad and the remnants of his regime present in some Damascus neighborhoods and coastal towns. The rest of the country is divided among other organizations such as ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army, and the Kurds. When Obama says he doesn’t yet have a strategy to combat ISIS, he’s practically saying there’s no strategy for Syria. And if he doesn’t have a plan to deal with ISIS in Syria he doesn’t have a comprehensive plan against ISIS in Iraq. This is the logical conclusion to draw, since the organization’s home is in Syria while its activities are mainly in Iraq.

If the American president had a plan to confront ISIS a year ago, the organization may not have become as strong as it currently is, and would probably not have posed as much of a threat as it does today. The Syrian national opposition, which believes in civil values and whose leaders include women, Christians, Kurds, Alawites and Sunni Arabs, could have been given more support. Syria’s neighbors could have prevented foreign fighters from entering the country. Turkey in particular has become a pathway for thousands of foreign fighters from across the world, crossing into northern Syria from Hatay province. If Turkey had succeeded in preventing the passage of ISIS and Al-Nusra fighters—and, remember, Turkey is a member of NATO—then perhaps only a few dozen jihadists would have arrived to the battlefield and ISIS may not have been born. A firm stance against Russian and Iranian support to Assad would have stripped ISIS of its reason to exist as it has gained legitimacy during the past two years while urging people to join its fight against the Hezbollah militias, Iraqi Al-Haq brigades and Iranian Revolutionary Guards who arrived in Syria to save Assad’s regime.

The lack of an American strategy for the past three years—except for one of “wait and see”—has led to the emergence of terrorist organizations, like ISIS and Al-Nusra, who are now stronger than Al-Qaeda. It has enabled extremist jihadist movements, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar Al-Shari’a in Libya, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis in Sinai, and Al-Qaeda in Yemen, to go public. Jihadists now consider the world’s strongest country as no longer being in a state of war with them. They believe the US has withdrawn to its own territory, leaving them with a chance to achieve their dreams in countries where there is a political vacuum and chaos, particularly in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The lack of a practical strategy to confront terrorist organizations helps them spread like cancers and threaten not only the Middle East, but the entire world.