The militant group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) controls a huge swathe of territory straddling Iraq and Syria. The human rights abuses they have committed have sparked an international outcry; each day brings a new horror story. Earlier this month, the group released a video showing the American journalist James Foley being beheaded. They have said that unless the US stops its airstrikes, a second kidnapped journalist, Steven Sotloff, will meet the same fate.
Of course, the US has not met the demand. But the incident has highlighted the difficult position for policy makers in America. There is little appetite in Washington for a return to boots on the ground, just a few years after the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Yet following the murder of Foley, President Barack Obama has been under immense pressure to deal with ISIS. Some have speculated that he plans to increase airstrikes, possibly into Syria.
In a speech on Thursday 28 August, Obama attempted to defuse this speculation, saying: "I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are."
Predictably, Obama has been pilloried by the Republicans for saying that he does not have a strategy. On Twitter soon afterwards, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: "In his remarks today, [Obama] was explicit – as he has been in the past – about the comprehensive strategy we'll use to confront [ISIS] threat." He added on CNN later in the day that Obama "was referring to military options for striking [ISIS] in Syria."
So what, if anything, is the US strategy, overall? In his speech, Obama continued that his top priority was rolling back ISIS's gains in Iraq, where the group poses a threat to US personnel in Erbil and Baghdad. "Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected," he said.
But, of course, it is impossible to tackle ISIS in Iraq without tackling it in Syria. It was territorial gains in Syria that allowed the group to gather sufficient power to seize swathes of Iraq. Its self-proclaimed caliphate has not been acknowledged internationally as a new country – but if nothing else, it is an area where ISIS can operate with impunity, which means that regardless of its legal status, it is important for any military strategy. The American National Security Council is reportedly working on a plan to tackle the group in both Iraq and Syria.
Obama is considering extending airstrikes against ISIS to Syria, but knows that it might be difficult to get congressional approval. Last year, Congress voted against plans to intervene in Syria. While the situation in Iraq is seen as relatively clear-cut because of the immediate threat to American citizens in the country, and because a stable government in Iraq is a key foreign policy priority, the situation in Syria – wracked by three years of civil war – is seen as more complex. Bombing ISIS would help President Bashar al-Assad – and the US has called for his removal. Both Democrats and some Republicans are cautious about supporting a new American military enterprise in the Middle East.
It's a difficult area for Obama and his own administration; as the New York Times puts it, "the White House is also wresting with how to define the president's war-making authority in a way that does not undermine his claim last year that he had finally taken the United States off a permanent war footing."
Of course, the murder of Foley – an American citizen – means that there is political momentum behind the idea of further US action. But it remains a difficult balancing act for Obama; the most likely outcome is narrow military action, ruling out ground troops and placing a time limit on the operation. Whether this is sufficient to tackle ISIS, or whether the US becomes further embroiled in this Middle Eastern war remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.