Beyond Rhetoric, A Hard Look At Obama’​s Anti-ISIS Strategy

As President Obama makes a weighty Oval Office address to the nation, a closer analysis of recent U.S. military and diplomatic efforts to defeat the Islamist terrorist enemy.

President Obama boards Marine One last month
President Obama boards Marine One last month
Karen DeYoung


WASHINGTON â€" To its critics, President Obama's strategy to combat the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq is weak and incoherent. Even some of the staunchest U.S. allies and partners in the fight worry that the time for what they see as the administration's incremental approach has long since passed.

The White House maintains that its strategy is comprehensive and that it's working. Sharp increases in airstrikes and Obama's recent decision to deploy Special Operations troops, officials say, are part of a fundamental change in the military's mission developed this fall, along with a new diplomatic push to end the distraction of Syria's civil war.

In his Sunday night address to the nation following last week's San Bernardino, Calif., shooting, Obama outlined the elements of the strategy, assuring Americans that there is a viable plan underway to decimate ISIS where it lives. "We will destroy ISIS and any other organization that tries to harm us," he said, using an alternative name for the militants.

But the White House is clearly frustrated by its failure to communicate the elements of that plan and what it believes has been accomplished.

"Yes, there is a strategy," Secretary of State John F. Kerry snapped in a speech Saturday. "I know the criticism. We all hear them. . . . But that doesn't mean it's wisdom."

The administration's insistence that its prudence and patience will pay off â€" vs. charges of too little, too late â€" have been the two opposing narratives of the 18-month battle against ISIS and the four-year Syrian war it has now overshadowed.

An examination of the recent course of events on the military and diplomatic fronts and interviews with a broad range of stakeholders and experts provide fuel for both arguments.

From the air

For more than a year after the ISIS blitzkrieg swept across Syria and through Iraq to the Baghdad suburbs in the early summer of 2014, U.S. military operations, including airstrikes and training of local ground troops, were in what a coalition spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, called "crisis mode, just trying to keep the barbarians off the gate."

The Iraqi army had fallen apart. In Syria, as civil war raged in the west, the militants consolidated their control over the north-central and eastern areas of the country, with virtually free access to Syria's border with Turkey to infiltrate tens of thousands of foreign fighters and equipment.

Airstrikes begun by the United States and its coalition partners â€" Europeans in Iraq and Arab states in Syria â€" were tactical, focused on targets of opportunity and the need to prevent collapse. While domestic critics and allies in the region called for more strikes, more support for Syrian rebels, more U.S. boots on the ground and no-fly zones, the administration demurred.

In a broad assessment in August, the Pentagon determined it had succeeded in its initial goals of stopping further ISIS expansion and reestablishing the foundations of a viable Iraqi military. Amid repeated failures in Syria to organize and arm a rebel force to fight against the militants in Syria, it found hope in the establishment of a Syrian Kurdish and Arab force that has driven the militants from much of the Turkish border.

Adoption of what the military says is its first real operational strategy, following the chaos of the initial year, was marked by September's change of command of the Baghdad-based headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. "You have done what was necessary," U.S. Central Command Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III told departing Lt. Gen. James L. Terry.

The new commander, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, was charged with "operationalizing" the mission, Warren said.

"We always wanted to get into a position where we could apply multiple points of pressure at once, across the whole battle space," said a senior administration official. "We're now in position to actually do it. It's not going to be perfect, it's not going to be linear, it's going to be extremely hard."

On the ground

Military and administration officials, most speaking on the condition of anonymity about internal decision-making, listed the elements of the comprehensive offensive against "core ISIS" on the ground in both Syria and Iraq.

In Iraq, the focus has been on cutting ISIS supply lines into Mosul, the militant bastion in the northwest, in preparation for an eventual ground assault, and applying simultaneous pressure along militant front lines stretching south to the city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. "These are not blitzkrieg gains," Warren said, "but painstaking, incremental work against a dug-in enemy" now made more effective with the ability to integrate airstrikes with a more organized and robust ground force.

Obama has authorized a new, Iraq-based Special Operations task force to conduct ground raids against ISIS leadership targets in both Iraq and Syria. Administration officials have described a snowballing cycle in which more raids will take more leaders off the battlefield and provide more intelligence to plan still more raids. But it is unclear when the force, initially to number about 100, will be deployed.

Syria, with its separate wars against ISIS and between forces of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to unseat him, is far more complicated.

Regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, who once flew strike missions along with U.S. warplanes, have largely dropped out, an absence the United States hopes to make up with new agreements with France and Britain.

The "whole battle space" concept includes simultaneous airstrikes along the eastern border with Iraq to further cut militant supply lines, on ISIS-controlled oil fields, and in the north-central area, where Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces who have captured a wide swath of territory along the border from the militants are organizing to attack the de facto militant capital of Raqqa.

Obama has authorized the deployment of 50 Special Operations troops, the first official U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, to join those forces to assess their readiness and help develop tactical plans, although the Americans are not expected to arrive for several months, defense officials said.

In southern Syria, anti-Assad rebels have met with significant success against government forces, but sensing an opening, ISIS has begun moving into the area. The United States is sending more money and equipment, including heavy, long-range artillery, to Jordan, both to protect its own border and to engage militant targets inside Syria.

Unsatisified critics

But given the new threat to the homeland, the administration's claims of incremental success have left scornful critics asking why it doesn't do more. Asked on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday what he hoped to hear in Obama's speech, presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) replied, "That he's going to change his strategy and come up with a regional army to go in destroy the caliphate in Raqqa. . . . The president doesn't have a strategy.”

Mutual frustration has also been ongoing between the United States, as coalition leader, and regional allies, with some calling for a more aggressive U.S. policy. The United Arab Emirates said last week that it was willing to send ground forces into Syria â€" something Obama has consistently refused â€" if others would do the same as part of an international force.

But the region's governments, including Turkey, are also deeply divided among themselves, leaving the administration as both whipping boy for their complaints and mediator for their disagreements as it tries to implement a broad strategy. In recent weeks, as Kerry has launched a diplomatic effort to bring the civil war to an end in order to shift attention to the counterterrorism fight, Obama himself has intervened in a series of conversations with regional leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman.

Nowhere is the dissention more acute than in northwest Syria, where rebel groups separately backed by the United States and Europe, the Persian Gulf Arab states and Turkey are locked in a melange of battles, often beside forces of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, against Assad's military.

The entry of Russian warplanes and Iranian troops on Assad's side in western Syria has further complicated the situation, increasing the conundrum of how to take back the nearby, remaining 60-mile strip of the Syria-Turkey border in ISIS hands.

The coalition has said it is ready to launch an all-out air offensive to drive the militants out of the area, located north of Aleppo, Syria's most-populous city, but not until there are opposition forces on the ground ready to occupy the terrain. And the more the rebels are engaged in the Russian-aided fight against Assad, the less willing they are to switch their attention to the border.

U.S. officials say that a small force of opposition fighters in the area, including about 130 Syrians trained by the Americans in Jordan who are in direct communication with U.S. forces, have had some success. But their operations are still rudimentary. To delineate their lines from those of ISIS and avoid their own casualties from coalition airstrikes, they light tires on fire and warn pilots to avoid the smoke.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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