For the past two weeks, President Obama and other senior U.S. administration officials have been putting together an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but have revealed few details about how that coalition will function. Obama said in an interview with MSNBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that he would finally reveal his strategy in a speech Wednesday.
“I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we’re going to deal with it and to have confidence that we’ll be able to deal with it,” he said in the interview broadcast Sunday.
Given what we have heard so far, what can we expect in Obama’s speech Wednesday about the international coalition’s strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS?
1. More funds and weapons for local fighters
In the case of Iraq, U.S. and other international coalition partners, including other western countries such as Britain, may ramp up funding and distribute more weapons to the Iraqi and Kurdish (peshmerga) military forces to fight ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan and Anbar Province. Last week Obama approved the deployment of an additional 350 U.S. troops to the country, bringing the total to 1,100. The troops stationed in Iraq will serve no combat role, he said, but would work with the Iraqi and Kurdish military as advisors. The U.S. will continue to work with these forces in Iraq and work toward pushing back ISIS from key areas including those near Kirkuk, a major oil-producing city, and dams.
2. U.S. airstrikes on ISIS convoys and military strongholds
Those are already happening in Iraq -- but not in Syria. The U.S. has already launched more than 100 airstrikes in Iraq on ISIS convoys and other targets. Obama has said those airstrikes will continue as long as ISIS still poses a threat to Americans in the country. Obama will most likely provide an update on the exact number of strikes launched in Iraq and how much more we can expect.
3. Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Sinjar
Yazidis have been besieged there by ISIS, and the persecution of other ethnic minorities in Iraq. One of the reasons Obama authorized targeted strikes against ISIS was to prevent a “potential genocide” against the Yazidi people living in the Sinjar Mountains.
4. Naming all, or some, of the partners who have signed on to the international coalition to fight ISIS
Obama, as well as spokespeople at the State Department and Pentagon, have alluded to the fact that several countries in the Middle East, and some in the west, had already agreed to sign on to the coalition. But it is not yet known in what capacity they will help in the fight against ISIS.
“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we’re going to defeat them,” Obama said in his interview with Meet The Press.
The Arab League on Sunday agreed to take all necessary measures to confront the Sunni militant group. The group did not explicitly back U.S. military action against the group, but did endorse a U.N. resolution issued last month that imposes sanctions on a number of the group’s fighters and "act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria."
U.S. rhetoric between the president’s speech at West Point in May and now could give us an indication of how the U.S. and the international coalition will play out.
“We should not go it alone,” Obama said in his speech at West Point in May. “We need to mobilize allies and partners to take collective actions. We need to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law and, if just and effective, multilateral military action.”
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a press briefing Monday that more than 40 countries have already contributed to the effort in Iraq over the past several months. She said the U.S. would build on this already established effort. Psaki gave some indication in her briefing of countries that are already helping fight ISIS in Iraq, but said that the U.S. did not consider Iran as one of them. She said some Arab League members are already involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
U.S. officials have said that Britain and Australia were potential candidates to include in the new coalition, as well as Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Germany.
5. Setting a timeline for the international coalition's fight against ISIS
President Obama said in his speech at West Point in May that “for the foreseeable future the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” Obama will most likely lay out a loose timeframe for when the international coalition will begin the offensive against ISIS, and how long it will last.
6. Details on how the international coalition will operate and in what capacity
The international coalition could align with the strategy Bush adopted in 2001 to fight al Qaeda. His policy included a coalition that would fight terrorists diplomatically and militarily, and would work to stop finances from flowing to the terrorists. The coalition would most likely include countries that could help quell the ISIS threat not only militarily, but also by cutting off aid or ramping up efforts to secure border crossings.
7. Reliance on Sunni counterparts in the Middle East for possible military intervention in Syria
Last week Obama noted that the international coalition would rely heavily on Sunni partners in the region “that reject the extremists, that say that it is not what Islam is about.” In the past, the U.S. has relied on Jordan and Saudi Arabia to support its mission of propping up the moderate opposition in Syria. Both countries could be key partners in the fight against ISIS, along with other Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, experts say.
8. Helping the moderate opposition in Syria
The U.S. administration has been training and giving weapons to the moderate opposition in Syria for more than a year. During that time, leaders of the Free Syrian Army have asked that the CIA-led U.S. program provide more sophisticated weaponry such as MANPADS, portable anti-aircraft missile launchers. But so far, the U.S. has not fulfilled that request for fear that powerful weapons could fall into the wrong hands. In his speech Wednesday, Obama is most likely to address the need to send more money to the moderate opposition in Syria, but he will most likely not approve the deployment of MANPADS.
9. Counterterrorism funds
At his speech at West Point in May, Obama called on Congress to approve a $5 billion counter terrorism partnerships fund. According to the White House, the fund would "build on existing tools and authorities" to establish a "more sustainable and effective" counterterrorism approach, focusing on building the counterterrorism capacity of partners worldwide through "train-and-equip" and other activities. The White House said Monday that Obama wants Congress to inject money into that fund.