When President Obama was asked in January about ISIL taking up Al Qaeda’s mantle in Iraq, he joked, “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” His speech last Wednesday reflected a far different attitude and understanding of ISIL’s capabilities (full text here). His strategy primarily involves continued airstrikes and humanitarian aid in Iraq and Syria. He also announced he would send additional military personnel to train and support Iraqi and Kurdish security forces but made it clear that no American forces will have combat missions. Mr. Obama continued, “America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” but unfortunately, this coalition isn’t turning out to be as broad as he intended.
Jordan’s intelligence service will be an especially important ally, having already helped the U.S. find and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group that later split off from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as ISIL. In Arabic, the name is actually “Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham,” or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. “Al-Sham” is often interpreted simply as Syria, creating the acronym ISIS, although it translates more literally to “the Levant,” a broader region covering Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Many critics, including Fareed Zakaria and Zack Beauchamp, remain skeptical that the military intervention proposed Wednesday will be sufficient, highlighting instead the need for drastic political and diplomatic changes. In regards to the military strategy itself, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the NSA, cautioned, “The reliance on air power has all of the attraction of casual sex: It seems to offer gratification but with very little commitment.”