President Obama faces in the Middle East and Russia the most dangerous international challenges of his presidency. That reality was driven home to me when I interviewed former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at an Aspen Strategy Group forum in Colorado last week. The three agreed Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s independence is the most serious crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. And they pointed to the grave dangers caused by the rapid advance of Islamic State fighters in the Middle East.
Iraq is locked in a vicious struggle for its survival fueled by Shiite-Sunni violence, the failure of the Maliki government, and the creation of the Islamic State radical terrorist caliphate in western Iraq. If Iraq implodes, violence could engulf Jordan and Lebanon and worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria, where more than 40 percent of the population is homeless.
Obama had no choice but to order US air strikes last weekend when the Islamic State offensive threatened the key city of Erbil in Kurdistan. The US action is intended, in part, to help save tens of thousands of besieged Yazidis and other minorities from the rampaging fighters.
The White House said yesterday Obama may commit troops to rescue the Yazidis. But Obama should not, and will not, commit US ground combat forces on a lasting basis again in Iraq. Congress and the public will not support it. He did sent 130 additional advisers to Kurdistan earlier this week, however, and may have to send more to coordinate air strikes inside Iraq and to equip and train the Kurdish peshmerga forces struggling to respond to the astonishing advance of Islamic State forces.
Washington now needs to assemble a combined Iraq-Syria strategy to have any chance of containing the Islamic State. That may ultimately include US air attacks against Islamic State positions in northern Syria. How else to turn back the most virulent terrorist organization since Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda?
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