Having Islamists in the coalition and infighting between Shiite and Sunnis are just two of the problems that could derail Obama's strategy.
President Obama announced a four-part strategy to “destroy” the Islamic State terrorist group, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL. It consists of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, support for Iraqis and Syrians fighting the group, international counterterrorism cooperation and humanitarian aid.
This is a broad strategy that could succeed in eliminating the group’s safe havens. There are four problems ahead that the U.S. and its coalition of over 40 countries must expect:
Radical Shiite Influence Ends Sunni Cooperation
Iraqi Sunni tribes have pledged to work with the Iraqi government in fighting the Islamic State and the U.S. is in communication with them. Over 25 Sunni tribes are now fighting the Islamic State and are even working with the Iraqi military around the town of Haditha despite their adversarial relationship.
The formation of a new and more inclusive Iraqi government is being described as a "milestone" by the U.S. Sunnis appear receptive to the new government, at least for the moment, but their cooperation could cease with any indication of sectarianism, Iranian puppetry or use of radical Shiite militias in areas where Sunnis live.
The breakdown in the relationship between the Iraqi Sunnis and the Shiite-majority Iraqi government provided the critical opening for the Islamic State. Tension will arise if the Iraqi government chooses to give the post of Interior Minister to Haid al-Ameri, leader of the Iran-backed Badr Organization that has a militia.
If Iranian-linked militias grow in power and are seen as extensions of the Iraqi government, then cooperation with Iraqi security forces will end. Shiite militiamen massacred 73 Sunni civilians at a mosque in Baqubah last month, causing Sunni leaders to suspend talks on forming the new government.
Sunnis are much less likely to fight the Islamic State if they believe the Sunni terrorists will be replaced with even more hostile Shiite extremists. Acts of sectarian violence and oppression could cause Sunni tribes to embrace radical forces and some could even come to see the Islamic State as protectors and try to reconcile with them.
Iranian-backed militias and terrorists could also unravel cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi government. Iran was the first country to arm the Kurds against the Islamic State, but the Kurds would prefer to ally with the U.S.
The Islamic State’s siege of Amerli was broken by U.S. airstrikes and two Iran-linked militias that the U.S. considers to be terrorist groups: the Hezbollah Brigades and Asiab al-Haq. Though Kurds worked with these militias, they are calling them the “Shiite Islamic State.” The Hezbollah Brigades are refusing to let the Peshmerga into Amerli and are burning homes of Sunnis suspected of belonging to the Islamic State.
Any successful strategy for Iraq must include limiting Iranian influence and the long-term disbanding of radical Shiite militias.
“Moderate” Syrian Rebels
There are Syrian opposition figures who want to topple the Assad regime and defeat the Islamists so that a secular democracy with separation of mosque and state can follow. Kamal al-Labwani, a major opposition leader, is one example. Clarion Project interviewed al-Labwani in April 2012.
Removing the Islamic State from Syria would require some kind of force on the ground. Supporting moderate rebels is the only option since the Assad regime also sponsors terrorism and is an ally of Iran. However, Islamist radicals dominate the armed rebel forces that would fight the Islamic State.
In April 2013, the New York Times reported, “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” As of June 2013, 10 of 12 rebel groups were Islamist.
Of the two that are not Islamist, one consists of the Kurds, who have PKK terrorists among them. The second one is the Free Syria Army (FSA), which has Islamist factions fighting in its name. Any arms given to the FSA could pass into unsavory hands because the FSA collaborates with Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Further, many FSA fighters have switched sides and joined al-Nusra.
Time and time again, “moderate” Syrian rebel political leadership has been linked to Islamists. Ghassan Hitto, the former prime minister of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, was linked to the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood network and backed by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. He was rejected by the FSA, but the point remains that the rebels have a major Islamist component.
Prominent pro-rebel groups in the U.S. also cannot be relied upon. The Syria Support Group, the only group licensed by the U.S. to provide material support to the FSA, has Islamist links. It has gotten at least $12 million in U.S. government aid.
The leader of the Syrian Emergency Taskforce supports the Islamic Front, a coalition of Salafists that want to institute sharia governance, some of whom work with al-Nusra. An Islamic Front-aligned cleric has raised millions of dollars in the U.S. The Front’s takeover of FSA bases in December prompted the U.S. and U.K. to suspend non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels.
Another radical cleric came to America on a fundraising tour with the Syrian American Council. This organization has officials that used to belong to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It opposed the designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department.
Pro-Islamist Allies in the Coalition
The U.S. must also be prepared for the pro-Islamist members of its coalition against the Islamic State to predictably support Islamism.
Secular Syrian opposition figures complain that Qatar and Turkey are sidelining them by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. When the U.S. worked with Qatar in removing the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Qatar exercised its influence to benefit the Islamist forces. Libya is experiencing bloody fighting between Islamist and secular forces today.
Qatar continues to support the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Islamic Front, specifically Ahrar al-Sham. An Ahrar al-Sham leader named Abu Khaled al-Souri had high-level Al-Qaeda ties and was killed by the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra and other Al-Qaeda-linked figures see Qatar as friendly territory.
Saudi Arabia, which has agreed to help support rebels fighting the Islamic State, has already been supporting the Islamic Front, specifically Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam (or Jaysh al-Islam). His ideology is similar to that of Al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Saudis also back a coalition named the Syrian Revolutionary Council. It condemned the United Kingdom for sentencing Islamist cleric Raed Salah for inciting terrorism. He was previously imprisoned in Israel for financing Hamas and working with an Iranian intelligence operative.
The Meaning of Combat Troops
President Obama announced that an additional 475 U.S. troops are going to Iraq to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces. This raises the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 1,600, but President Obama is adamant that they won’t play a combat role.
The scope of their mission may not include combat operations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll avoid combat. Islamic State supporters have incessantly expressed their eagerness on social media for U.S. troops to come fight in Iraq.
All Americans in Iraq, especially soldiers in any role, are a top target of the Islamic State. These soldiers won’t be on the frontline, but they will be at risk. The Islamic State will try to attack them at their bases.
Just as Afghan soldiers and policemen have attacked U.S. soldiers in "green-on-blue" attacks, Islamic State may have sympathizers ready to do the same to U.S. troops in Iraq. And if American soldiers are attacked, they will be equipped and ready to defend themselves — in other words, engage in combat.
Should American soldiers come under attack, President Obama will face the difficult task of articulating how having troops in combat is not a violation of his pledge.
Before President Obama’s address, a CNN poll found that 76% of Americans support airstrikes on the Islamic State and only 23% oppose them. In addition, close to 62% favor military aid to those fighting the Islamic State, a dip in support likely reflective of American concerns about arming the wrong actors.
A Washington Post poll found that 71% of Americans support bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and 65% support doing so in Syria. About 58% want to arm the Kurds.
These polls indicate broad support for the announced strategy. However, Americans opinions have not been tested by stories of setbacks and possible American casualties.
If the U.S. government is to wage a successful campaign against the Islamic State and maintain American support, it must prepare to deal with the problems above.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on Fox News.