clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Obama's 6-point plan for defeating ISIS

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Wednesday night, President Obama gave a primetime address announcing his plan for a new American war in Iraq — and Syria. The strategy, designed to weaken and eventually destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is made up of six individual planks. Here's a guide to each part of America's new war plan, and how they fit together to form a coherent strategy, with key quotes from the speech at the top of each section.

1) Significantly expand the bombing campaign in Iraq

syria map 9/10

Territory in Syria and Iraq with an ISIS presence, as of September 10th. (Institute for the Study of War)

"We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we're hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense."

This one's kind of a gimme. The Obama administration's bombing campaign in northern Iraq has met with some success. With US support, Kurdish soldiers (called peshmerga) and Iraqi army troops have pushed ISIS back from some of the northern Iraqi territory it held in mid-August, when the campaign began.

This success appears to be the template for Obama's entire anti-ISIS strategy. The American plan, in a nutshell, is to make competent local allies, encourage them to launch ground offensives directed at ISIS territory, and support those ground campaigns with targeted US airstrikes. It's working in northern Iraq, the theory goes, so it should work in the rest of Iraq and Syria.

However, it's important not to overstate the gains that have been made. ISIS still holds most of the territory in northern Iraq they took in their original mid-June push, including Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. So the US isn't content with just doing what it's been doing.

One big way things will change is by expanding the targets the US will hit in Iraq. At least nominally, the current US campaign is aimed at hitting ISIS targets that would 1) created an imminent risk of humanitarian disaster and 2) threatened American personnel in Iraqi Kurdistan. That implies a fairly limited set of targets. But, according to a senior administration official, those restrictions will be lifted. "If there is an ISIL target that we need to hit in Iraq, we will hit it," the official said on a pre-speech press call. The US will now hit ISIS anywhere in Iraq.

2) Train and equip the Iraqi army and Kurdish troops

Peshmerga on the way to Mosul, celebrating military progress. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Peshmerga on the way to Mosul, celebrating military progress. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

"[American troops] are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment."

One big problem with the current American strategy is that its ground allies in Iraq aren't super-reliable. An 800-strong ISIS contingent took Mosul back in June, when it was held by 30,000 Iraqi troops. Kurdish peshmerga melted away in the face of the initial ISIS onslaught in August, ceding territory at an alarming rate.

So that's why Obama is launching a huge effort to improve America's allies in Iraq. Building on ongoing US efforts to train Iraqi and Kurdish troops, 475 new American troops will be sent to build up Iraqi security forces. The idea is that more training and better weapons will allow the Iraqi security forces and peshmerga to take — and hold — the territory ISIS currently occupies.

Moreover, the administration is more comfortable with the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and so is willing to partner more closely with them. Iraq has "an inclusive and broad-based government," a senior administration official said. "That was an essential precondition for US action."

The administration, then, appears to be banking on the Abadi government's ability to address the sectarian grievances between the Sunni minority and Shia majority that have been fueling ISIS's rise (ISIS is Sunni). The US training will likely be designed to ensure that military operations in the Sunni areas ISIS controls don't make those tensions any worse.

3) Begin bombing in Syria

US fighter Iraq Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

An F/A-18C Hornet takes off for Iraq from the flight deck of the US navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on August 15, 2014 in the Gulf. (Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)

"I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq."

The biggest difference between Obama's old policy and the one announced tonight is the expansion to Syria. Previously, the administration had limited its air campaign to Iraq, at least openly. That's no longer the case.

The administration believes it has legal authorization to strike Syria under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed to target al-Qaeda, a senior administration official said, and the US will begin strikes "at a time and place of our choosing."

The campaign will be designed to take advantage of one of ISIS's major weak points: its supply lines. ISIS "is moving with impunity back and forth between Iraq and Syria, each time gaining arms, gaining manpower, gaining fuel — literally and figuratively — for their fight," a different senior administration official said. "An essential piece of [our campaign] is limiting that freedom of movement."

That'll weaken ISIS, but the real goal of the campaign will be to destroy ISIS's ability to control territory in Syria. The administration, according to the New York Times, believes that'll take at least three years. And will require help from allies on the ground.

4) Train and arm the Syrian rebels

Syrian rebels Aleppo

Syrian rebels fight government forces in Aleppo. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

"Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters."

Of course, for the bombing campaign in Syria to succeed, it will need to actually clear ISIS out of the territory it controls for good. That will mean having a partner on the ground like they do in Iraq, and the administration is going all in on the Syrian rebels.

Obama had already planned to send $500 million to arm and train the Syrian rebels. He's now calling on Congress to approve and expand the program as soon as possible. The rebels will, ideally, eventually become strong enough to advance in conjunction with American air strikes, clearing ISIS out of the territory it controls and kicking it out for good.

The administration had long resisted arming the Syrian rebels, citing uncertainty about who the rebels were and whether US support would end up getting funneled to ISIS. But they think they've learned enough about the Syrian opposition in the past two years to avoid these problems. "We have a two-year track record of relationships with the Syrian opposition and far greater confidence than we would have," one of the senior administration officials on the press call said.

5) Get regional actors like Saudi Arabia and European allies on board to counter ISIS' regional and international influence

Bandar bin Sultan HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

(Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, director of the Saudi intelligence agency from 2012 to 2014. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

"We will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into - and out of - the Middle East."

Obama also wants international buy-in for his plan that comes from two major sources: Sunni governments in the Middle East and America's European allies.

The region's Sunni governments played an important role in ISIS's rise — particularly the Gulf monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. They threw money and arms at ISIS when the group lacked resources, allowing it to develop a self-sustaining financial empire grounded in Syrian oil deposits and organized crime schemes.

Today, however, the Gulf monarchies are deeply concerned about ISIS, and the US wants to get them on board with its plan to help the moderate rebels. Just Wednesday, Obama spoke to Saudi leaders, and got them to commit to helping him arm, train, and fund the Syrian rebels. The Jordanian monarchy may also play a role in this plan.

The Europeans will assist in as-yet unclear ways in the on-the-ground efforts in Syria and Iraq, but they'll also help the United States address ISIS's international presence. The administration plans to step up efforts to interdict international funding for ISIS, as well as to limit its ability to strike targets outside of the Middle East. One major concern, according to the president, is that the roughly 1,500 Europeans who have travelled to fight in Syria may come back and plot attacks in the US or Europe. The United States will cooperate with Europe to try to stop these attacks.

6) Keep US troops out and stay away from the Syrian and Iranian governments

US soldier Baghdad 2008 (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

A US soldier in Baghdad during the second Iraq War. (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

"American forces will not have a combat mission - we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq."

Obama's plan also has some "don'ts" along with the "dos" listed above. There are two big ones: don't put any combat troops on the ground, and don't work with either Iran or Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

These are both serious limitations on Obama's strategy. Without US frontline troops, the military effort will be totally dependent on Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces. If these troops don't live up to the administration's promises, then Obama may face pressure to put US troops on the front lines. Allegedly, some Americans have already been spotted on the front line. So it's too early to say whether the administration will stick with its "no troops" policy.

Staying away from Assad and Iran may also prove difficult. Assad is sponsored by Iran, and the Syria-Iran axis is one of ISIS's principal enemies in Iraq. To make things more confusing, Iran is sponsoring the Iraqi government's fight against ISIS, but Assad is trying to destroy America's rebel allies in Syria. It seems like some kind of contact between American forces and Iranian-Syrian ones is inevitable.

There's also a concern that hurting ISIS will benefit Assad. Drive ISIS out of its Syria stronghold, the theory goes, and that's one less enemy Assad has to worry about. The administration is banking on sectarianism to prevent this. Assad's regime is Alawite (a Shia sect), and ISIS is strong in heavily Sunni areas. The administration believes that means that only American-backed Sunni rebels, and not Assad, would benefit from ISIS's collapse.

"The areas where [ISIS] has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad's rule," a senior administration official said. We'll see how well that theory — and the rest of Obama's plan — pans out soon enough.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.