This image shows fighters from the Islamic State group that recently captured the Tabqa air base from the Syrian government.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s acknowledgement the U.S. still lacks a strategy for defeating the growing extremist threat emanating from Syria reflects a still unformed international coalition.
The president is meeting with his top advisers and consulting members of Congress to prepare U.S. military options. At the same time, he is looking for allies around the world to help the U.S. root out the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
“Any successful strategy ... needs strong regional partners,” Obama told reporters Thursday.
In the last year-and-a-half, Islamic State extremists have fought the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iranian forces. They’ve clashed with al-Qaida’s local affiliate, routed Iraq’s army and pushed back Kurdish peshmerga fighters. American airstrikes in Iraq have recently caused somewhat of a retreat. But U.S. military leaders say the terrorists can’t be crushed unless their sanctuaries in Syria are targeted.
While debate in the United States centers on military tactics and Obama’s level of congressional and public support for action in Syria, U.S. officials are trying to come up with a coordinated approach to fighting the Islamic State group among a wide range of governments and militias. Some are competing against each other for influence or engaged in outright war.
A look at what the United States is probably asking, and not asking, of some of the region’s central players:
IRAQ — Iraq is the focus of U.S. strikes against Islamic State and is Obama’s priority. The U.S. wants the new government under prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to be as inclusive as possible, bringing Sunni groups back to the government and away from the Islamic State. It is trying to get the army to improve rapidly after it fled from several fights. The U.S. also is likely to continue arming Iraqi Kurdish forces. All of the efforts aim to push back the extremists on the battlefield and isolate them from supportive communities. If Sunni tribes turn on the Islamic State, as with al-Qaida in Iraq in the last decade, it could leave the group short of local recruits and safe havens.
SYRIA — The epicenter of the problem, Syria is still the big question mark for Obama. He says the U.S. won’t cooperate with President Bashar Assad, whose government is battling Islamic State fighters but whom Obama wants to leave power after a bloody civil war. U.S. and Syrian officials rarely, if ever, communicate any longer. However, the U.S. needs a ground force ready to assert control in the event of strikes against the Islamic State group. That won’t be American soldiers. And in Syria, there are only two real alternatives to Assad’s army and the Islamists: the moderate rebels and the Kurds.
The moderates are weak, squeezed by extremists and government forces, and may need American assistance simply to hold on. Syria’s Kurds, meanwhile, have long been ostracized by the U.S. for their links to terrorism in neighboring Turkey. Working with them against the Islamic State group would be a significant policy shift and probably require Turkey’s blessing. Having no one to fill the power void could lead Syria further down the road toward a failed state. As a warning, the U.S. need only look at lawless Libya three years after dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.
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