In the past month, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) expanded rampantly in Iraq and beheaded two US reporters and a British aid worker. US President Obama finally delivered a prime-time speech to the American people on the evening of 10 September, introducing in a rare tough tone a new US strategy to fight the ISIS. The three-staged new strategy involving a mission of almost three years was introduced almost in a rush and Obama’s speech seemingly turned him from a dove to a hawk. There are two reasons for the developments: the rising domestic calls for harsh strikes against the ISIS since the beheading of the two American reporters and the prospect of protecting the gains from the ten-year Iraq war by fighting the ISIS.
In the effort to destroy and in the end to eliminate ISIS, Obama’s three-staged strategy seems to have at least two soft spots. The first is the absence of US ground troops, the most fundamental and effective striking force. While announcing and explaining the new strategy, Obama and his senior advisors have repeatedly stressed this mission’s fundamental difference from Bush’s Iraq War in that the US would definitely not send ground troops back to Iraq (although US military “advisors” going into Iraq in three batches this last summer already total over 1500). The stress on this “important difference” is obviously aimed at safeguarding the anti-war position Obama has championed since the 2008 election and his taking office as well as his historic achievement of withdrawal from Iraq. However, without exchange of fire by ground troops in the frontal battlefield, fully destroying and eliminating the ISIS seems to be an impossible mission. In the past month since early August, although the US military has conducted 145 sorties of air attacks against ISIS forces only some American weapons used by ISIS have been destroyed and little effect has been produced in eliminating armed personnel of ISIS. Without direct involvement of the US military, it seems unlikely that only the recently established new Iraqi government (whose positions of Ministers of Defense and Interior are still not filled due to conflicting interests among different groups) and the Kurdish forces will be able to fundamentally destroy and eliminate the IS.
The second lies with whether the US may strike ISIS inside Syria and the possible dual effects such strikes, if any, may produce. Air strikes by the US force and arming the Iraqi and Kurdish forces can indeed be effective in stopping continued expansion of ISIS from the air and on ground. However, the US has encountered diplomatic resistance from Syria and Russia in pursuit of strikes against ISIS inside Syria. Furthermore, such strikes would be a double-edge sword in reality, hurting not only ISIS but also the US itself. The Bashar Assad regime of Syria, which has endured four difficult years, claims that it has been fighting terrorist forces. Not long ago, it even expressed its willingness to join hands with the US to combat ISIS. The US responded that the old principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not apply on the question of Syria and that Bashar does not have the legitimacy to rule and should still step down. Although Obama and Bashar have some common interests against ISIS, the Syrian opposition forces, which the US plans to support, are also fighting ISIS in northeast Syria while fighting Bashar with the ultimate objective of overthrowing Bashar. In such a situation, by entering Syria to strike ISIS, the US may get an opportunity to resolve the thorny Bashar problem (which seems quite unlikely) or on the other hand help remove a trouble for Bashar and thus consolidate the latter’s power (a much more likely scenario).
In this light, only the first step of increased air strikes (whether air strikes can be expanded to Syria remains a question) among the three steps Obama envisioned in the new strategy can be achieved. There is much uncertainty and resistance as to the rest two steps.
The rapid expansion of ISIS and its disruption of Middle East stability not only endanger US interests but also challenge Chinese interests in the region. During Rice’s visit to China, China expressed interest in joining the international coalition against ISIS. But the question is: where does Chinese interest lie, and how far will China go? Undoubtedly Chinese regards Middle East stability and the possibility of ISIS supporting Eastern Turkistan terrorist forces as two areas of Chinese interests, which will determine how far Beijing is ready to go. Middle East stability bears on the security of Chinese oil imports and the second issue is directly related to its domestic stability, particularly in Xinjiang. In this connection, Beijing indeed has sufficient motive to join the international coalition. Nonetheless, given the long-term double standards followed by the US on matters concerning Eastern Turkistan and the fact that strikes inside Syria without consent of the country constitute indifference towards or even disruption of relevant norms governing international relations and run counter to long-standing Chinese diplomatic positions, China is unlikely to go too far on this occasion. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China will hopefully give diplomatic and political response and support at the UN on strikes against ISIS and possibly consider providing collaboration in intelligence, training and logistics. The possibility of directly participating in the strikes with soldiers or airplanes can basically be excluded.
Both China and the US need to advance the optimistic and positive factors in bilateral relations that have been revived with Ms. Rice’s visit. The US needs to modify its double standards on questions concerning Eastern Turkistan and other terrorist groups against China and to make effort to mitigate the hostility due to close-range reconnaissance conducted by American military planes. China, on the other hand, with the realization that supporting the US and cooperating with the US against terrorism represents the trend of the times, should be able to make bigger strides after the relevant concerns are cleared.