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Should ISIS affect U.S. foreign policy?

Obama admits no ISIS strategy yet
Obama admits no ISIS strategy yet
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The escalating crisis in the Middle East has highlighted the threat of various extremist groups such as ISIS. If the increasingly alarming actions of such terroristic groups are impacting every corner of the world, why then doesn’t the U.S. foreign policy address these threats?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is an extremist Jihadist group led by Sunnis, the dominant branch of Islam that includes about 80 percent of Islamic followers worldwide. ISIS is also referred to alternately as IS for Islamic State or even sometimes ISIL for Islamic State of the Levant. Some political and media sources refer to ISIS as the successor of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but regional powers such as Egypt point out that the group is more correctly referred to as an al-Qaeda separatist faction.

Islamic State Consolidation

ISIS grew significantly under the leadership of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, establishing a strong presence in Iraq and parts of Syria, including Aleppo. The group is known for strong-arm governance of its territories and for expanding quickly into other Sunni strongholds in the region. By February 2014, al-Qaeda had severed ties with ISIS, decrying the group’s ruthless practices.

The original intent was for ISIS to establish a caliphate in Iraq, but involvement in the Syrian Civil War extended its reach and territories border towns in Syria. The group adopted the name Islamic State or IS with the official proclamation of a caliphate in June 2014. Baghdadi, renamed as Amir al-Mu'minin Caliph Ibrahim was officially proclaimed as caliph.

According to IS propaganda, the goal now is to extend the global influence of the caliphate to include all Islamic nations.

Strengths and Strategies of the IS

By August 2014, Al-Jazeerah estimates 50,000 IS fighters in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq, claiming 16 Syrian and Iraqi provinces or wilaya as part of its governed territories. IS forces are believed to include many foreigners. Even then, the Islamic State was viewed more as a highly-organized militia rather than a terrorist group. Middle East experts cite the strength of field communications, manpower recruitment and training, and urban guerilla warfare tactics for IS fighters gaining much ground in the region.

Funding is crucial to the continued operations of the Islamic State. Reports claim that IS assets are approximate $2 billion, part of which came from looting the central bank and other banks in Mosul after seizing the territory in June 2014. The traditional sources of income include extortion, bank robberies and ransom payments along with contributions from private donors supposedly from Qatar and Kuwait. After the takeover of towns in Eastern Syria, IS gained oilfield revenues as well.

U.S. Reaction to the Growing Influence of IS

The leadership and fighters of the IS have escalated the violence against minority Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims. Religious persecution includes threats, physical violence and brutal public executions of those who do not conform to IS ideals. By mid-2014, U.S. contractors and personnel were being evacuated from besieged areas.

Recent U.S. airstrikes on IS strongholds began mainly to protect Yazidis fleeing into Syria with the help of Kurdish militia. Witnesses who have fled these areas report that religious minorities were being threatened with death if they did not convert and pledge bayah or allegiance within a given time deadline.

Along with limited military support, President Barack Obama has pledged humanitarian support for Syrians and Iraquis evacuees. The U.S. and its allies have also initiated airdrops of humanitarian supplies for locals trapped in their villages by IS militants. However, the videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley magnified the brutality of the IS and the extent to which it would use non-combatants to further its cause. President Obama was quick to label this as an act of terrorism.

Given the complicated nature of the conflict, the U.S. needs to proceed with caution lest its actions upset the delicate balance of political relations in the region. President Obama has stated that regional support is required for an effective strategy against the Islamic State. While military tactics are part of the equation, strategic initiatives to discourage local Sunnis from joining the IS are also important. The U.S. will continue to support a stronger Iraqi military and Kurdish forces to push back against extremists to cut them off from sympathetic communities.

Strained relations with Syria's President Assad and his army who are already battling ISIS militants makes it difficult to predict what role Assad will play in anti-ISIS strategies. Turkey, the only NATO partner in this area, may feature prominently in political and military maneuvers to weaken ISIS. The U.S. is reaching out to Eqypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon to forge a unified strategy that would involve suppressing financial support to IS from private donors in these nations. European allies will continue to be involved in humanitarian efforts for those displaced by ISIS aggression.

Overall, Obama’s foreign policy with respect to ISIS and the crisis in the Middle East has been criticized as being “too cautious” and often lacking in any strong, definitive direction. In fact, the President himself stated that the White House “doesn’t have a strategy yet” to combat ISIS. When will the administration's policy address the crisis, remains a proverbial thorn in the President's side.