By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
When President Barack Obama returns from an extended holiday vacation to Hawaii, he will face numerous foreign policy challenges, but none more volatile than the continued turmoil in the Middle East.
Last Friday, the Pentagon announced that 1,000 soldiers from the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division will be deploying to Iraq in January to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Defense News reported, 1,500 U.S. troops are heading for Iraq in early 2015 to serve what are expected to be nine-month tours, to train and assist nine Iraqi Army and three Kurdish Peshmerga brigades, at several undisclosed sites across Iraq.
While those 1,500 U.S. troops will bring the U.S. contingent in Iraq to about 3,100 troops, they may be joined by as many as 1,500 additional forces from partner nations, according to senior U.S. defense officials.
Last week, Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, had stated that it will take “a minimum of three years” to re-build the capabilities of Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
When the president returns from vacation he will have to begin articulating a strategy, as his nominee for Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will definitely be asked a multitude of questions during his confirmation hearing next month by the new Republican Senate majority.
Recently, Kurdish forces have taken back large amounts of territory from ISIS militants, including many Yazidis who had still been stranded on Mount Sinjar. All this is being done in-conjunction with U.S. air power. Gains have been made on the battlefield, but lingering and more problematic questions still remain.
The U.S. has been targeting ISIS in both Iraq and in Syria, while The New York Times reported the Obama administration’s strategy of combining American air power with local ground forces is worked well in northern Iraq, partnering with the Kurds. But lately, it has been less successful in other areas of the country, where the embattled Iraqi Army is struggling to push back against ISIS. The United States has about 1,700 troops here to train Iraqi forces, and that figure is expected to rise to roughly 3,000.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had relatedly called for more “air support, training and armaments for Iraq’s security forces,” but promises have been made to train and equip Sunni tribes, especially in the Anbar province, and bring them into Iraqi security forces.
How successful has the Iraqi government been incorporating Sunni tribes into the Iraqi security forces? Why would the Sunni tribes want to be part of the Iraqi security forces when they have been marginalized by the Iraqi government, and then what happens to the Sunni’s once ISIL has been defeated?
The U.S. has to be realistic on this key component! The U.S. may be successful in Iraq, but what about ISIS’s sanctuary in Syria?
In November, the Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS, have put aside their differences and joined forces to fight coalition forces, which include the Free Syrian Army.
After two months, since Congress authorized the mission to training and equipment the Syrian rebels, recruiting and training has not even begun. The question which needs to be asked is, when will this start, and what is the strategy for the implementation of this rebel force inside Syria?
With the U.S. attacking ISIS, it has only strengthened Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, enabling him to now concentrate on the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army. The U.S. strategy so far has alienated Turkey, who feels the real threat is Assad, not ISIS, while Turkey also has a long simmering history with the Kurds.
This conflicting dilemma also extends itself to the Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, who see Iran as the more immediate threat then from ISIS; evidence of strong Iranian support to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and Shiite rebel forces taking territory in Yemen, which incidentally borders the strategic oil choke point of Bab el-Mandab, the gateway to the Red Sea.
All the while, the president will have to deal with the extended nuclear talks with Iran, which U.S. polices have alienated our allies in the region.
President Obama has stated that the strategy has always been to degrade and destroy ISIS, but the militant group is now expanding its influence into Egypt. Last month their influence reached the Sinai, as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged alliance to ISIS, and is now challenging the government of Egypt; who just declared a state of emergency.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is now fighting the Egyptian government of President Abel Fattah al-Sisi, and recently attacked police forces and Egyptian military forces. Currently the U.S. has a strained relationship with Egypt and lacks a coherent strategy in this crucial region, as Egypt straddles the important economic oil choke-point of the Suez Canal.
When the president returns he will have to begin answering these questions, or at least begin articulating a strategy in preparation of the State of the Union address at the end of January.
Read more by John Ubaldi at The Ubaldi Reports.