By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The brutal and calculated horrific terror attack in Paris by ISIS shocked the world and has changed the calculus that the war on terror is not over. A question lingers, does President Barack Obama understand the terror threat to the U.S.?
Hours before the attack by ISIS, President Obama spoke on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when George Stephanopoulos asked Obama if ISIS was gaining in strength, to which Obama denied they were.
“I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” Obama responded. “What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq, and in Syria they’ll come in, they’ll leave, but you don’t see this systemic march by ISIL across the terrain.”
The president needs to define what he means by ‘contained.’ On Thursday, ISIS unleashed various suicide bombings inside Lebanon, killing 50 and wounding 250. Only two weeks ago, ISIS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian Passenger plane over Egypt, killing all aboard.
The reach of ISIS extends far beyond the Middle East. In March, ISIS accepted the allegiance of the Nigerian Terror group Boko Haram, and is now conducting combat operations across the Middle East and North Africa.
In the past few days, much debate has been made about what the president meant, but he has a habit of making comments like this such as his much touted reference, calling ISIS the “JV team” in its relationship to al-Qaeda.
In 2012, during the president’s re-election campaign, he continued the moniker of “Al-Qaeda is on the run and Bin laden is dead.” Unfortunately, campaign rhetoric aside, ISIS has metastasized into something far worse the al-Qaeda, all while the U.S. engages in half measures in containing and defeating ISIS.
In his interview on “Good Morning America,” the president also commented that, “What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures. We’ve made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters and part our goal has to be to recruit more effective Sunni partners in Iraq to really go on offense rather than simply engage in defense.”
The situation in defeating ISIS is complicated; the president is correct in the need for the U.S. to leverage Sunni partners, the unfortunate part it that leveraging Sunni partners will be a difficult proposition.
The Sunni allies needed inside Iraq will not join any coalition against ISIS, without addressing their primary concern; the Iranian backed government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad.
Until a more inclusive government is established in Baghdad, the Sunni’s will not join any coalition. This also extends to any of the Gulf States to include Saudi Arabia, as they see Iran as a far more of a threat then ISIS. President Obama spent far too much time on the Iran nuclear deal and far too little attention on the threat Tehran is fermenting in the region.
The situation is further complicated with Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. air power, driving back ISIS from Sinjar mountain, placing a wedge between the United States and Baghdad.
As the New York Times reported on Friday, the Obama administration only intervened with airstrikes after the militants were threatening the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and waging atrocities against the Yazidi minority in Sinjar, near the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. That fact was immediately seized on by Iraqi politicians, who accused the United States of being more concerned about protecting the Kurds than Iraq’s Arab majority.
Even if Kurdish forces are successful in driving ISIS from Iraqi territory, they will then draw the ire of Turkey, who are adamant against any Kurdish homeland on their border. Ankara has actively engaged Kurdish YPG militia, backed by its PYD political wing. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “We have said ‘PYD will not cross west of the Euphrates, we will hit them the moment they do’ and we have struck them twice.”
Military commanders have stated in the past that unless you have a ground force inside Syria you will not be able to defeat ISIS, and the president has stated he will not allow U.S. ground forces inside Syria.
The other area complicating matters is Russian military operations inside Syria, as they are more focused on keeping Assad in power then defeating ISIS.
With the attack on Paris, the president now has to face two very distinct possibilities, the first being the status of Syria refugees flooding into Europe, who have the potential to be ISIS sympathizers. One of the Paris terrorist had a Syrian passport in his possession when he was killed.
Current policy has President Obama ordering the U.S. to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees with some already arriving in the U.S., Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes stated that “we’re still planning to take in Syrian refugees,” Rhodes responded, adding, “We have very robust vetting procedures for those refugees.”
“It involves our intelligence community, our national counter-terrorism center, extensive interviews, vetting them against all information,” he said, “and what we need to be able to do frankly is sort out that foreign fighter flow — those who have gone into Syria and come out and want to launch attacks or those who have connections with ISIL in Syria.”
Rhodes never explains how this is to be accomplished, with most intelligence experts stating this is an impossible task!
The final challenge, and one that will upend the president’s ISIS strategy, what if French President Francois Hollande, who has stated this is an “act of war,” institutes article five of the NATO Charter?
Article five of the NATO Charter states, “that an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against them all,” referring to member countries.
How will the president respond?
President Obama needs to understand the terror threat; otherwise he will be shaped by events to the detriment of the United States.