President Barack Obama and Republicans agree on at least one foreign policy issue, calling for Arab countries to do more against the Islamic State. But there are reasons aplenty to see holes in what is a key part of their strategies for defeating the violent extremist group.
Despite a new Saudi Arabian-led coalition to fight ISIS, the U.S. has gotten little in return from bipartisan calls for its friends in the Middle East to help raise an Arab ground force. And some experts and lawmakers doubt that will dramatically change, further giving the 2016 election the look of a national security referendum.
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“Right now, we don’t have the Arab force that we need,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a senior Foreign Relations Committee member. “Even the sorties by our partners in the region have totally stopped,” he added, referring to counter-ISIS air strikes carried out by Arab countries.
Menendez, among a group of security minded Democrats who sometimes break with Obama, said in an interview that White House officials “have to be willing to use [their] political capital to get those nations together and say, ‘You have to come together and make that happen.’”
On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic members of the committees that oversee U.S. national security and foreign policy said the White House is rightfully pushing America’s Arab allies to do more. What’s more, interviews showed there is bipartisan agreement that a sizable ground force — led by Arab countries — is the missing ingredient in not only Obama’s strategy, but those being pushed by presidential hopefuls and members of Congress.
“I think there is a new sense of instability in the region in terms of [an ISIS] caliphate versus nation-states,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democratic Armed Services Committee member. “There’s an awful lot at stake for the Arab states to stomp this out. … “We didn’t do well in Iraq until we had Sunnis rise up against al-Qaida. And we won’t have success against ISIS until moderate Sunnis are more concerned about ISIS than [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.”
The panel’s GOP chairman, John McCain, R-Ariz., says the Obama administration is guilty of dissuading Arab countries from sending ground forces or doing more to bring Syrian Arab rebels together. When asked by Roll Call why such an Arab-only force is not already fighting the Syrian strongman’s military, he replied: “Because we will not go after Bashar al-Assad.”
“The reason why the Turks won’t do it is because we have said, ‘ISIS only,’” McCain said. “Assad is the one who has killed 240,000 people. Assad is the one who’s caused the refugee crisis.”
Experts, however, doubt there’s any such all-Arab ground force to be built.
“There is growing concern about ISIS in the Arab world,” said Perry Cammack, a former Middle East policy adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry. But turning that concern into an actual ground force that’s willing to fight and die in Syria and Iraq is another matter.”
Obama’s counter-ISIS strategy since the November attack in Paris and one in California earlier this month apparently inspired by the group consists of stepping up U.S. and coalition air strikes, seizing territory ISIS controls, strangling its funding sources, and targeting its communication and recruitment efforts. But the president is opposed to deploying a significant number of American combat forces, suggesting instead that Arab countries at the very least help raise indigenous ground forces.
“The strategy is kind of unfulfilling as the president has outlined it,” said Cammack. “But it’s probably at the same time the most effective strategy anyone is going to get.”
With Obama and most of the 2016 presidential field opposed to inserting American combat troops, Cammack said highlighting the dependence on some sort of yet-mythical Arab military fighting the group on the ground is “really putting your finger on the main problem.”
Some senior Republicans have said it likely will be necessary to deploy more U.S. forces, but they are quick to add Arab countries should do the heavy lifting on the ground.
“You’re going to need more boots, but they don’t all have to be ours,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week.
One possibility would be to give Kurdish forces more weaponry, training, and other forms of military and intelligence support.
“But that’s not going to work in Sunni Arab-controlled areas for a variety of reasons,” said Cammack, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has mentioned using the Syrian army,” but quickly noted “that’s problematic in so many ways.”
Saudi Arabia recently announced a 34-country — mostly Muslim nations — coalition to fight ISIS, with one of its top diplomats telling reporters “nothing is off the table” when asked about ground troops. Obama administration officials reportedly want Saudi leaders and other U.S. allies to take the lead in constructing a Syrian Arab coalition ground force to take on ISIS there.
Some have suggested Saudi Arabia might be willing to send special operations forces to Syria. But of talk about even small footprint military deployments to that country from U.S. partners in the region, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relation, recently told MSNBC: “I don’t see that.”
“We still do not have a ground partner in Syria,” Haas said, noting local forces are fighting ISIS inside Iraq. “If there’s a big hole in the cheese, it is a Syrian ground partner.”
During a Dec. 6 prime time address from the Oval Office, Obama noted that “since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies — including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — have ramped-up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.” Eight days later, Obama added Australia and Italy to that list, then pointedly said of stepping up military actions against the group: “so must others.”
Not-so-conspicuously excluded, experts note, were U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. The White House has avoided finger-pointing at specific allies causing it the most frustration.
Donald Trump, the 2016 GOP front-runner, gets raucous applause from supporters when he vows to “bomb the s— out of” ISIS, and has called on the Saudis to do more. He has portrayed Obama as too passive in fighting the group, even saying he would “put boots on the ground” to target the oil and related infrastructure crucial to its financing.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has called for an “intensification and acceleration” of Obama’s approach rather than big changes like inserting U.S. ground troops. She also has criticized Turkey and Saudi Arabia, while saying “local people and nations have to secure their own communities” and U.S. boots on the ground “cannot substitute for them.”
At times, the White House has publicly stated Obama’s desire for Arab countries to do more against ISIS. The Obama administration has even acknowledged having discussions with its Arab allies about regional ground forces.
“I can tell you that the president has had those kinds of conversations with a variety of world leaders who are leading countries that are part of our coalition,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Dec. 9.
The president dispatched Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter to the Middle East to have more conversations with allies. On the matter of commitments for Arab boots on the ground in Syria, Carter appears to have come back empty-handed.
But some lawmakers, like Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., a former Armed Services ranking member, sees a larger hole in the White House’s strategy.
“I don’t see a strategy from the White House and the president,” he said in an interview. “It has to start out with an endgame that says what success is, and then identify the resources, and gives the timeline. You cannot answer these other questions until you have that.”
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