Much of the discussion around the strategy unveiled this past week by President Barack Obama to combat the Islamic State has focused on whether or not the administration will be able to successfully forge a “core coalition” of states to participate in the fight, and whether that grouping will be substantive or a largely ceremonial equivalent of the “coalition of the willing” assembled by George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq. But the main proposition is largely accepted as a given: The United States can supply air power, intelligence assets and even training and equipment, but other coalition partners will make available the ground troops needed to engage, bottle up and liquidate Islamic State forces. These partner “boots on the ground” will also presumably, in liberating Syrian and Iraqi territory currently held by the Islamic State, provide inhabitants there with a better form of government.
The Obama national security team is pulling a page from the Libya playbook, in recognition of the fact that domestic American opinion is schizophrenic on the Islamic State threat: desiring a strong response, especially in the wake of the three grisly beheadings of Western hostages in recent weeks, but also fearful of being sucked right back into the Iraqi quagmire. The apparent rule of thumb governing U.S. military operations is to ensure dramatic results without U.S. casualties. So the United States provides the air force but others are expected to handle the ground game.
If that is the case for the fight against the Islamic State, however, there are some caveats in play. The first and most important is that those who provide the ground forces will want to call the shots as to how the ground campaign will unfold. As an unnamed French official put it on the eve of an international conference convened in Paris to address the Islamic State threat, “We don’t want to be a sub-contractor of the Americans.” So far, the end results of Secretary of State John Kerry’s “core coalition tour” has been somewhat meager; of states that have indicated that they will take part, their contributions will mostly be in the form of airpower or financial assets, not ground combat forces. This leaves as ground force contributors the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga militia and the small and ill-defined group encompassed by the moniker of the “moderate Syrian opposition”—the resistance committed to the struggle against both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State and related groups.