At 9PM Eastern tonight — Wednesday, September 10 — the President is scheduled to outline plans to engage a radical religiously-inspired insurgency sometimes known as Islamic State (IS) or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The confusing labels reflect a fractured reality. I am inclined to call it the Raqqa Rump. The wanna-be capital of the self-styled caliphate is at Raqqa (Syria). As you know, I have a weakness for alliteration. And the phrase signals my own view of their fundamental character.
To better hear what is being said — and not said — by the President, following is some background.
Back in June START generated a fact-sheet that situates my Raqqa Rump among other terrorists, insurgents, freedom-fighters, violent extemists… whatever.
On August 27 the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published an analysis of the current military-political context in Syria and Northern Iraq.
On Saturday (September 6) a Chatham House middle east expert published a thoughtful commentary in The Guardian.
British Prime Minister Cameron has warned that ISIL, especially potential British returnees from the fighting along the Euphrates, are a direct threat to British and European security. In a mid-August commentary, the Prime Minister painted a rather nightmarish picture:
We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in Isil a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives. Already it controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate. It makes no secret of its expansionist aims. Even today it has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeds, we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member. This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge.
The immediate implications for the United States posed by those claiming Raqqa as home are a bit more ambivalent. Obviously they are a deadly threat to any Americans they encounter in Syria or Iraq. There has also been talk of attacks on the United States. Some number of Americans have made a pilgrimage — horribly misguided summer break? — to Raqqa. The numbers are estimated at between a dozen and hundreds.
There is an intent to hit the US. There is some level of capability. The so-called caliphate’s extra-regional capacity is, however, not thought by most informed observers to be significant — at least not yet. Strong action now is intended to be effectively preemptive.
But whatever the reality in and around Raqqa, an opinion survey conducted last weekend found a significant majority of Americans perceive a clear and present danger. “Seventy-one (71) percent of respondents said that members of the militant group ISIL have the capability and resources to carry out terrorists plots in the U.S. The same poll found that 53 percent of those interviewed are “very concerned” about the threat ISIL poses to national security, while 34 percent are “somewhat concerned.””
As noted in a previous HLSWatch post, the President has recently determined to “degrade and destroy” the current threat of “systemic and broad-based aggression” by the group. The US delegation left last week’s NATO summit with several commitments to support such an effort. Later today we should hear more about why and how.
Prime Minister Cameron is not alone among European leaders in his concern. Tuesday the editor-in-chief of Deutsche Weld argued:
The “Islamic State” (IS) does not have to be contained. It has to be destroyed: militarily at first, but then politically, by breaking the allure of jihadism and drying up the sympathy for it. Foremost, the IS terror militia has to be fought. As if of their own accord, expectant eyes have turned to the United States for that task – and then to the entire West. NATO has, in any case, established a ten-party coalition of the willing to combat IS forces.
(Approximately 400 Germans are estimated to currently be fighting in Syria and potentially in Northern Iraq.)
On Sunday during a Meet The Press interview President Obama emphasized that the mission against the Raqqa Rump would depend on ground forces from the region — principally Iraqi military, Kurdish peshmerga and perhaps the Free Syrian Army — supported by an international coalition including Anglo-American air power.
SecDef Hagel has been in Turkey for consultations. Other than Iraqi Shias and Kurds, the Turks are probably the most important regional partner in the anti-Raqqa coalition. So far Turkey’s involvement sounds rather restrained. (More)
It is not at all clear how Iraqi or other Sunnis will respond to this international intervention. Ultimately it is their response that is likely to determine if this is all just another tactical clash or something more strategically significant: positive or negative.
Secretary Kerry has arrived in Baghdad. It is not clear the new — still incomplete — Iraqi government can earn any credibility with Sunnis (or even the Kurds). Much may depend on the radicals from Raqqa becoming so offensive as to generate (temporary) common-cause among various Iraqi factions. This is, after all, the same group that AQ-core considers crazy.
But what should be very clear is that neither the tactical nor strategic horizon is clear at all.
Homeland security will be a leading justification for expanded operations in Iraq and presumably Syria. The immediate threat to the United States will probably, if anything, be slightly increased by more robust US engagement. Our renewed military operations along the Euphrates and Tigris will increase the desire of some to directly target the United States.
Longer-term disruption and deterrence of attacks on Western targets depends a great deal on how the military operation and its consequences are perceived by a wildly incoherent — and so-far really rather small — cross-section of disaffected, often casually religious, volatile, violently-inclined young men in the region, in Europe, and here in the United States.
Late afternoon Tuesday the President met with Congressional leadership at the White House to discuss US military options. According to The Hill, “None of the four leaders present in the meeting mentioned the need for congressional action following the meeting, nor did they offer many clues as to what new strategy elements Obama might announce.”
It is also worth noting that while we are — necessarily — focusing a great deal of attention on Raqqa and related, the situation in Afghanistan, Libya, and possibly in Yemen seems to be reaching a critical juncture.
Some analysis of this context — and the President’s message — here on Thursday morning… I’m not promising by when.