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Fractures Within Alliance May Hamper U.S. Campaign Against ISIS


The United States' strategy against the group called ISIS has an upside and a downside. The upside is that the United States has assembled a coalition. The downside is that the United States has assembled a coalition. This week President Obama met military leaders from 21 countries that have joined the U.S.

Iraqis and Syrians are fighting for themselves on the ground with other Arab nations joining the air campaign, and that's all good from a U.S. perspective. The trouble, as we'll report this morning, is that not all of those countries share exactly the same interests, so not all are on the same page. Our coverage starts with NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's been just over a month since President Obama went before the American people and spelled out his strategy for degrading and defeating the militants. Obama says the U.S. and its allies have enjoyed some successes - driving ISIS away from the Mosul Dam, for example. But the president says he remains deeply concerned about the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, as well as parts of Iraq's Anbar province where ISIS has been tightening its grip.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback.

HORSLEY: Critics like Republican Senator John McCain are challenging the president's strategy as ISIS captures more territory in both Syria and Iraq.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: They're winning, and we're not. The Iraqis are not winning; the Peshmerga, the Kurds, are not winning. And there has to be a fundamental reevaluation of what we're doing.

HORSLEY: Speaking on CNN, McCain dismissed the U.S.-led airstrikes as mere pinpricks that haven't stopped the militants. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees. So far, the air war has fallen short of what was done in Kosovo or Kuwait.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: In genera,l this has been a very limited, very slow campaign, flying something like an average of 15 strikes a day, a lot of it against individual weapons systems. By the standards of past U.S. air campaigns, that's a very small effort.

HORSLEY: Even as the pace of airstrikes picked up this week around Kobani, Obama stressed the campaign to defeat ISIS can't be waged on strictly military terms.


OBAMA: This is not a classic army in which we defeat them on the battlefield and then they ultimately surrender. What we're also fighting is an ideological strain of extremism that has taken root in too many parts of the region.

HORSLEY: Obama says the U.S. and its allies have to offer political and economic alternatives to the militants. In the meantime, the U.S.-led military effort is being hampered by some of the same sectarian and political divisions that helped give rise to ISIS. The U.S. and Turkey, for example, have yet to agree on which enemy in Syria is a bigger threat - ISIS or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And in Iraq, Sunni Muslims have yet to join forces with Shiites in battling the militants, despite the formation of a more inclusive Iraqi government. The U.S. strategy depends on cooperation from local ground forces to beat back ISIS. Until that cooperation materializes, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution warns airstrikes can only do so much.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: ISIS will probably expand its control by a few percent - 5 percent, 10 percent - of either country. It's unlikely to be able to make huge new inroads. Unfortunately, the sides that we're fighting with - the people we're hoping to see defeat ISIS - are not yet in a position to do so.

HORSLEY: Obama has been adamant that he won't order American ground forces into battle, but O'Hanlon says a limited presence of U.S. Special Forces and military spotters could be helpful.

O'HANLON: I would hate to see the president decide that this is just politically undoable even though it's going to be, you know, 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops far, far, far fewer than we had during the height of the war.

HORSLEY: Obama, who was dragged reluctantly back into a Middle East conflict, says the U.S. is still in the early stages of what he promises will be a long-term campaign. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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