On Wednesday, United States President Barack Obama outlined his approach to counter the terrorist group Islamic State (ISIS) after facing a lot of flak for telling reporters recently that he didn’t have a strategy “yet” for the jihadi outfit. Mr Obama’s reluctance to get drawn into conflicts elsewhere has been a hallmark of his presidency after costly US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many argue that he could have done more to dislodge the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and his measures on ISIS have been restricted to airstrikes and military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. But ongoing depredations of ISIS — including the massacres of Iraqi minorities, enslavement of women, beheading of journalists and recruitment of thousands of Western jihadis — have forced a rethink in Washington.
Mr Obama has now rightly set out “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. A “systematic campaign” of US airstrikes will ensue with an expanded scope. The US has thus far restricted its efforts on ISIS’ targets in Iraq but Mr Obama pitched for a broader focus, saying he will not hesitate to aim at ISIS forces in Syria as well. In a significant shift in policy, the US will now ramp up its military assistance — by training and equipping — the moderate opposition in Syria to add another pressure point on ISIS. The US will also aim to cut ISIS’ funding, counter its ideology, stem the flow of foreign fighters while continuing humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians. Mr Obama’s speech, geared to satisfy domestic audiences, will reassure Americans that this threat was being taken seriously without entailing the deployment of troops on foreign soil — and he will have rallied Congressional support to devote more resources to tackle this menace.
More to the point, Mr Obama underlined that this was not America’s fight alone. He said Arab partners would need to help secure the region and pointed out that US action would depend on Iraq forming an inclusive government. That’s a useful linkage going forward but it does not absolve the US of its own policy failings, including the inability to stop the sectarian practices of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which alienated Sunnis and led to the rise of ISIS. Success against ISIS would also depend on Washington’s ability to secure the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. India will be watching the strategy unfold with interest as it seeks to maintain influence while Iraq implodes. New Delhi is currently contemplating the Kurdish regional government’s request for material assistance to fight ISIS, as Hindustan Times reported this week. India is well-placed to join the “broad coalition of partners” that the US is looking for to counter ISIS.