IS group advance exposes cracks in US Middle East strategy

US President Barack Obama (R), flanked by Secretary of State John Kerry, delivers remarks to reporters at the top of a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington 21 May 2015
US President Barack Obama (R), flanked by Secretary of State John Kerry, delivers remarks to reporters at the top of a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington 21 May 2015 Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Islamic State group militants inched closer on Friday to carving out a caliphate state, after seizing the last government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq. It follows the group's takeover of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and the Iraqi town of Ramadi in just a week. The jihadists' surge comes despite eight months of US-led air strikes, and has forced a review of the US's strategy in Syria and Iraq.


The US narrative up until now has been that the Islamic State militant group was on the verge of being wiped out.

Instead the armed group has come close to wiping out ancient ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra, considered "the birthplace of human civilisation", according to UNESCO.

Their takeover of Palmyra comes only days after their seizing control of the Iraqi capital of Anbar province, Ramadi.

US President Barack Obama has played down the sweeping gains of IS group as a tactical setback and denied that the US-led coalition was "losing" the fight against the group.

French President François Hollande doesn't quite see things the same way, and said on Friday that the world must act to save Palmyra.

Beyond its archaeological importance, it's also strategically located, which makes the capture of the ancient city so important for the group, explains Emma Suleiman, a specialist on Syria.

"Geographically, Palmyra gives IS access to multiple points inside Syria and Iraq … first it gives it access to Al Anbar in Iraq, access to Damascus, which is only 200 km away, and finally it will stop logistic supply of Assad's regime from Damascus, Homs to Deir Ezzor, which IS controls," she told RFI.

In a new move consolidating their grip in Syria, the militant group seized Al-Tanaf on Friday, the last government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq, sparking renewed fears that it was inching closer to its goal of a caliphate state.

For Suleiman, IS group has already achieved that goal: "it controls almost half of Syria, it controls more land than the Syrian regime does," Suleiman declared. "And it controls cities in Iraq, Mossul and now Al Anbar, and it's advancing really fast with the lack of seriousness of the the international coalition to stop it."

The US-led coalition has been pounding IS group positions for the past eight months, with little effect. Earlier this week, military officials claimed the group had used the cover of a sandstorm to avoid coalition airstrikes while taking the Iraqi town of Ramadi. They later backtracked on this.

Their dithering is just another example of the Americans' inability to strike a coherent strategy when it comes to dealing with Iraq and Syria. This is due to the fact that the Obama administration is often collaborating with the very actors with whom it is fiercely opposed.

"On the one hand, you have a politial objective to get rid of the Assad regime, which has committed war crimes," Dr Jacob Parakilas, an associate director from Chatham House, told RFI. "But then you have IS, which is also guilty of horrific war crimes. And you can't really fight them both at the same time, and the US has elected to prioritise limiting the spread of IS rather than limiting the spread of Bachar Al Assad," he said.

For the time being, the US has restricted its role to purely a logistical one, pledging 1,000 anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi security forces to recapture the city of Ramadi.

"Beyond providing weapons to Iraqi security forces, it also needs to provide training," Parakilas criticised.

"Not only has this strategy had little effect, but it's also been a boon to Islamic State, because if forces aren't well trained to use this equipment effectively, it often falls into the hands of IS, and then the US is compelled to go in and destroy its own equipment."

The idea of putting troops on the ground however reminds of a risky calculation, given the US's appalling track record in Iraq.

The issue has been thrust to the forefront of the 2016 presidential race, making a once perillous position on sending in ground troops now more attractive, especially to young voters.

But this time if the US does enter Iraq, it will have to stay the long haul and come up with efficient state-building policies after troops leave. That would require a long-term vision of US foreign policy; unlikely in the remaining months of the Obama administration.


For more news, follow Christina Okello on Twitter @vivalid:

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