Australian Financial Review

By Tom Switzer

The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution that calls on the world to take "all necessary measures" to fight what it says is a "global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security." Yet the United States, which leads the global campaign against Islamic State, is resisting pressure to escalate its military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

Hawks – from Washington neo-conservatives to former defence minister Kevin Andrews (in these pages yesterday) – slam US strategy on IS. It's weak, worrying and shows signs of drift, they argue. But Washington's refusal to change course in the wake of the Paris atrocities is more prudent than the assertive interventionists suggest.

Hawks demand a more muscular strategy. But the critics have no plausible alternative strategy beyond escalating air strikes that reaffirm the potent Sunni narrative about Western infidels and sending up to 20,000 ground troops that no nation is likely to commit.

Consider this: From 2003 to 2011, notwithstanding as many as 180,000 coalition troops in Iraq, the US struggled to defeat the Sunni insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadists. How only 20,000 ground troops would fare better in IS strongholds in both Iraq and Syria is never explained.

But even if IS were defeated -- and Sunni towns were liberated from Sunni jihadists -- the underlying problem of the disenfranchised Sunni populations remains. The conditions that gave rise to IS won't disappear until there is a political settlement backed by local security forces that is inclusive of the various groups in Syria, as Malcolm Turnbull recognised last week.

Obama has been criticised for suggesting that IS had been "contained" on the eve of the Paris terror attacks. Yet he was right. According to Olivier Roy, the well-known French expert on jihadist groups, its strategic reach is confined to only some Sunni Arab populations in eastern Syria and western Iraq. In the north, there are the Kurds; in the south, Jordan and Lebanon; in the east, Iraqi Shiites; in the west Assad and the Alawites, protected by the Iranians and now Russians.

The reason IS is now targeting civilians in the West is clear: the network is stalled in the Middle East. But the jihadists are their own worst enemy. Add to this their recent loss of Sinjar, which connects Raqqa (the IS de facto capital in Syria) to Mosul (Iraq's second-largest city), and you see the strategic limits of IS.

Obama's strategy reflects the thinking behind his foreign policy during most of his presidency. Since he won office in 2008, he has set out to redefine the US role in the world that reflects America's changed circumstances and limited resources. After the hubris and over-extension of the Bush era, it was declared that Washington would adopt a more cautious approach to international affairs, one that recognised the costs and limits of the use of force in a messy world that would not conform to American expectations.

Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the US to attack or even topple the Damascus regime. And although Obama had talked himself into a corner concerning President Bashar al-Assad and chemical weapons in 2013, he followed the French statesman Talleyrand's famous advice, "Above all, not too much zeal" and showed a profound distaste for busyness in Syria.

For Obama, the national interest has not required a major US intervention. The political support for it has not existed and could not be mobilised. And the conflict itself remains morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion originally supported by Sunni powers Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Given that the political objective has been perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint. As Obama warned in 2013: "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

Such realism is defensible, especially given the strong public aversion to seeing US soldiers killed and wounded in endless local conflicts. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week, 76 per cent oppose ground troops in Iraq and Syria.

True, Obama has deployed about 3,500 troops to Iraq and plans to send 50 Special Operations forces to Syria. But having clearly ruled out sending more ground troops, his administration has in effect declared that the stakes are too low for a serious American military commitment.

French President Francois Hollande arrives in Washington today and he will call for a more urgent global effort against IS. But although Obama's foreign policy is under question as never before, his strategy in Iraq and Syria won't change dramatically. 

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