WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s view of the US role in the Middle East and North Africa is being challenged by deepening crises in the very countries he has seen as models for his approach to the volatile region: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
After making good on his pledge to end large-scale American ground wars in the region, Obama has inched the US military back into Iraq. The targeted counterterrorism campaigns Obama prefers to ground combat have weakened some extremists, but done little to quell the chaos in which terror groups thrive, or ward off the formation of new factions, like the Islamic State group. And Obama’s calls for regional governments and local security forces to take the lead for stabilising their own countries has often only exposed the weaknesses of those institutions.
The White House acknowledges that the terror threat has spread throughout the region, though officials argue the risk to the US posed by groups like the Islamic State is less than when al-Qaeda was at peak strength. Still, US defence and intelligence agencies are deeply concerned about the number of countries buckling under a toxic mix of political chaos and security concerns.
Let’s take a look at the situation in countries where Obama has tried to stake out a new model of American engagement in the Arab world.
In the case of Iraq, it once looked as though Obama’s legacy in the Middle East would be bringing an end to the unpopular and expensive Iraq war. As he heralded the withdrawal of US troops in late 2011, Obama said the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”
But last year, a few thousand American troops returned to Iraq to help combat the violent Islamic State group. And in August, the US began launching airstrikes against militant targets in the country.
Obama’s critics have accused the president of putting his political interest in withdrawing from Iraq ahead of concerns about the security situation he was leaving behind. They argue the US pullout created a vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to thrive and capture large swaths of northern and western Iraq.
Obama pinned the blame for the Islamic State’s rise in part on the Iraqi government’s alienation of minority sects. US officials helped ease Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from office last year, but the political situation remains fragile.
Baghdad is still witnessing near-daily attacks by militants, including suicide and car bombings, seeking to undermine the government’s efforts to maintain security.
Syria has perhaps been the most vexing Middle East crisis confronting the White House.
Eager to keep the US out of the quagmire of Syria’s civil war, Obama threw his support behind diplomatic negotiations to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad from office, negotiations that repeatedly failed. He nearly launched airstrikes against Assad after a 2013 chemical weapons attack, but backed away in favour of a negotiated settlement to strip Syria of its stockpiles of deadly gases.
“We now have the opportunity to achieve our objectives through diplomacy,” Obama said at the time.
But after nearly four years of fighting, the civil war rages on, more than 200,000 people have died and Assad remains in power. Obama reversed his opposition to training and equipping Syrian opposition forces, but that mission has been slow to develop.
It was ultimately the Islamic State group that pushed Obama into military action in Syria. The US, along with Arab partners, started launching airstrikes in September, but the White House continues to lack a clear plan for getting Assad to leave power and ending the civil war.
In Yemen, when Obama announced airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, he held up Yemen as a successful story for how the US could fight terrorism without being drawn into ground combat. For years, the White House had heralded its counterterrorism partnership with Yemen’s government and its drone-based attacks on the country’s dangerous al-Qaeda branch. Yemen’s military has also received heavy aid from the US in hopes it could be built into an effective bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Gulf.