TIME Foreign Policy

Crisis in Syrian City Exposes Fissure in Obama’s Anti-ISIS Coalition

Some key allies want to fight Assad, not ISIS

A United Nations official warned Friday of a coming massacre in a Syrian town along the Turkish border as the slowly unfolding tragedy there exposed a crucial fissure within President Barack Obama’s international coalition to fight the militant group ISIS.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, the U.N.’s special representative for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that, despite days of U.S.-led air strikes in the area, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have virtually surrounded the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Mistura estimated that some 700 residents remain in the town—most of them elderly and unable to flee like tens of thousands of other local residents already have.

Those people will “most likely [be] massacred” if the town falls to ISIS, he said.

Turkish troops just across the Syrian border from Kobani could likely rescue the town. But Turkey has a fraught relationship with the region’s Kurds. More ominously for the Obama Administration, Turkey appears unwilling to join the direct fight against ISIS unless the coalition’s strategy dramatically expands to include taking on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

In an Oct. 6 interview with CNN, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that a campaign which solely targets ISIS is a futile pursuit. “We believe that if Assad stays in Damascus with this brutal policy, if [ISIS] goes, another radical organization may come in,” he said.

Though it may be the most vocal, Turkey is not the only major U.S. ally convinced that Assad is a more important target than the radical militants of ISIS.

“There are two competing objectives within the coalition. Some countries are more interested in removing Assad, while other countries are more interested in addressing the extremist threat,” an Arab government official said. “The challenge the US will face is how to keep the coalition together and functioning given these divergent goals.”

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have joined in some American air strikes against ISIS, those Gulf Arab countries have long urged Obama to take bolder action against Assad. Their Sunni monarchs detest the Syrian dictator, a key ally of Shi’ite Iran, and whose fight to retain power has transformed into a Shi’ite-Sunni religious war that has both spawned ISIS and given it safe haven.

“They’ve always been of the mind that their participation in this coalition is really a prelude to a broader campaign against Assad,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both countries have supplied Syrian rebel groups—including factions with extremist ties—and have pressed the U.S. to arm the rebels with advanced weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis were particularly upset when Obama decided not to follow through with planned air strikes against Assad last September in response to his regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Obama never relished the prospect of a head-on fight with Assad. Military action aimed at toppling the Syrian ruler could spoil Obama’s intense efforts to win a nuclear deal with Tehran, which would be furious over such an intervention. Toppling Assad by force would also create an unpredictable political vacuum that could be filled by extremists—Obama need look no farther than anarchic Libya for an example.

But U.S. allies determined to see Assad go argue that getting rid of him is the highest priority, and that extremists can be dealt with later.

Obama disagrees. In his Sept. 10 address announcing military action against ISIS in Syria, Obama repeated his longstanding policy of seeking a “political settlement” for the Syria’s civil war, in which ISIS is just one actor. Obama plans to provide more training and aid to moderate Syrian rebels in the hope they’ll pressure Assad to negotiate a power transition that would require him to leave the country.

Assad has so far shown no interest in cutting a deal to surrender his power, and multiple rounds of peace talks in Geneva over the past year have produced no significant results.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Assad serves as a de facto ally in the fight against ISIS, although Obama officials insist they are not coordinating military action against the radical group with Damascus.

But Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.)

How should the U.S. respond Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

“The U.S. will soon be in a very public situation where Syrian helicopters are throwing barrel bombs at civilian populations, like in Aleppo, and the U.S. is gallivanting around and leaving them be,” Salem predicted.

Under those scenarios, Obama would face extreme pressure from coalition members like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take on Assad’s forces directly — perhaps enough to threaten the coalition he and Secretary of State John Kerry so proudly assembled this fall.

For now, Obama officials won’t entertain talk of shifting their sights to Assad. During a Friday briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked whether “is it still the U.S. position that you are not going after [Assad].”

“Correct,” she replied.

President Obama clearly hopes to maintain that position while also holding together his anti-ISIS coalition. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

TIME National Security

Khorasan: Behind the Mysterious Name of the Newest Terrorist Threat

William Mayville
Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Jr., Director of Operations J3, speaks about the operations in Syria, Sept. 23, 2014, during a news conference at the Pentagon. Cliff Owen—APe

The word Khorasan sheds important light on the grandiose, even apocalyptic vision that drives many Sunni radicals

It was six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and with dark smoke still rising from lower Manhattan, Ali Soufan was face-to-face with the most senior al-Qaeda leader in American custody.

Soufan, an FBI counterterrorism agent, was inside a Yemen prison, interrogating a captured al-Qaeda operative named Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard and confidante to Osama bin Laden.

Abu Jandal was far from intimidated by his American interlocutor. To the contrary, he sought to menace him. “You can’t stop the mujahedin. We will be victorious,” he smugly told Soufan. “You want to know why?”

He continued with a grin: “The hadith says … ‘If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them.’”

Soufan recognized this Islamic saying immediately, and interrupted Abu Jandal to complete it: “And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags,” he said.

The grin was gone. “‘You know the hadith?” Abu Jandal asked with surprise. “Do you really work for the FBI?’”

Abu Jandal had failed to appreciate that knowing the Khorasan hadith was part of the job of an Islamic terrorism expert like Soufan. As the former FBI agent explains in his 2013 book The Black Banners, the hadith of Khorasan — sometimes also spelled Khurasan — is fundamental to radical Islamist ideology. A prophecy describing a Muslim army from Central Asia storming across the Middle East and into Jerusalem has long inspired violent jihadists.

The hadith of Khorasan is newly relevant thanks to the disclosure by U.S. officials of a terrorist group by that name operating in Syria. The Khorasan Group was a surprise target of American air strikes in Syria on Monday night mostly aimed at the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

While America obsessed over ISIS in recent weeks, Khorasan remained unknown to the public until this month. President Obama had never publicly mentioned its name before Tuesday morning. But U.S. officials say they have tracked the group for two years.

Khorasan, they explain, consists of about two dozen members of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. Previously based in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the men recently relocated to Syria. Unlike al-Qaeda operatives who fight the Syrian regime under the name of al-Nusra Front, the members of Khorasan reportedly took advantage of the country’s lawlessness exclusively to plot terrorist attacks against the West. (Officials are trying to confirm whether the group’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed in Monday night’s strikes.)

Even as Americans try to understand this new threat, many terrorism analysts are skeptical of the moniker. They question whether Khorasan truly constitutes an independent group, or simply a clique within al-Qaeda.

“I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” says Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism analyst until 2009 and co-author of Find, Fix, Finish. Peritz wonders if the group is meaningfully different from bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “If senior members from a company’s headquarters go work in a branch office, are they still part of the main office or a superempowered part of the branch?” Peritz says. “It’s not like al-Qaeda operatives carry business cards.”

Peritz isn’t alone in his skepticism. “We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from,” Robert Ford, who served until this spring as Obama’s ambassador to Syria, told al-Jazeera on Wednesday. “All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.” Two U.S. intelligence officials did not respond to requests for comment on the name’s origins.

Amid that confusion, however, it’s clear that the word Khorasan sheds important light on the grandiose, even apocalyptic vision that drives many Sunni radicals to terrorism.

The word itself refers to a historic region centered around modern Afghanistan and which spills into Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was once an important part of the pre-Ottoman Islamic caliphate.

The prophecy cited by Abu Jandal — attributed to the Prophet Muhammad but which many experts call of dubious origin — imagines a Muslim army emerging from the region and conquering the Middle East, including Jerusalem, under their black flags. This great victory, Soufan writes, amounts to “the Islamic version of Armageddon.”

Soufan says many of the al-Qaeda operatives he has interviewed believed they were helping to fulfill the Khorasan prophecy.

Bin Laden was well aware of Khorasan. As former State Department counterterrorrism official Daniel Benjamin notes in the new issue of TIME, the founder of al-Qaeda announced from Afghanistan in 1996 that he had found “a safe base … in the high Hindu Kush mountains in Khorasan.” Bin Laden may have chosen al-Qaeda’s black flag as an homage to mythical black banner. The ISIS flag is also mostly black.

Several videos are available online telling the story the black-flag Islamic army. One of them, titled The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags of Khorasan, was part of a YouTube playlist created by the slain 2013 Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The 13-minute video, which depicts the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sign of the prophecy’s fruition, summons Muslims to join the battle.

It is still available online.

TIME Foreign Policy

How Obama’s War Against ISIS Just Keeps Growing

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama, who is in New York City for the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 23, 2014 in New York City. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

A mission that keeps shedding its limits

Barack Obama’s war against ISIS has come a long way from Sinjar Mountain.

It was six weeks ago, on Aug. 7, that the President announced his first airstrikes against the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). It was a profound decision for a President long determined to avoid military action in the Middle East—and for a war-scarred country resistant to foreign interventions.

It was also the first of many incremental steps towards Monday night’s dramatic strikes in Syria—a piecemeal approach that suggests an improvised mission, and one whose objectives and justifications have repeatedly shifted over the past six weeks.

From a podium in the White House’s state dining room on the night of Aug. 7, Obama gravely described his authorization of two military operations. One was to stop ISIS’s advance on the Iraqi city of Erbil, which Obama described as a threat to Americans stationed there. The other was to rescue thousands of Yezidi people besieged by ISIS fighters atop Sinjar Mountain. “[W]hen we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

The Yezidi rescue was the emotional core of Obama’s speech, and many listeners heard the humanitarian rationale as the real trigger for military action. In hindsight, it doesn’t look that way. For one thing, there were many fewer Yezidi on the mountain than believed, and just a few airstrikes broke their encirclement. Likewise, Erbil emerged quickly from danger as Kurdish fighters in the area regrouped.

Missions accomplished—or so it seemed. But the airstrikes continued. And soon a new mission emerged.

On a Sunday afternoon ten days later, the White House quietly issued a statement announcing air strikes with the goal of liberating the Mosul dam from the clutches of ISIS militants. The White House said the dam’s possible destruction threatened Americans stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—some 250 miles away.

Even after the dam’s quick recapture by Iraqi government forces, strikes continued in the area. Then, on Sept. 7, came word of still another mission: A Pentagon statement said the U.S. was now bombing ISIS around the Haditha dam, in western Iraq—far from Erbil, Sinjar and Mosul. By now, American drones and planes had conducted about 150 strikes in the country. The U.S. was conducting a de facto air campaign against ISIS in support of Iraq’s government.

As fears about ISIS’s terrorist capabilities grew, and after the group beheaded two American captives, Obama spoke to the nation again on Sept. 10. After weeks of action with limited goals—protecting Americans in the region, averting genocide—the President now declared a bold new objective: “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, even if it meant striking across the Iraqi border into Syria.

Obama did just that Monday night. But even this latest version of the mission has already expanded beyond its originally stated objective. American strikes, aided by five Arab allies, targeted not only ISIS fighters in Syria but also militants with the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Khorasan, who the White House says was actively planning terror attacks against the U.S.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Obama said he would “do what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group.” Americans might be forgiven for wondering how much further his mission will expand. Last week, Obama insisted that U.S. troops in Iraq “do not and will not have a combat mission,” and that he would not mount “another ground war in Iraq.”

But the words “combat mission” may mean different things to different people. And while it’s impossible to imagine Obama sending 100,000 ground troops back to Iraq, many current and former Pentagon officials say that American soldiers could be sent into battle alongside Iraqi security forces as advisors and spotters for air strikes without violating the “combat mission” stricture.

And then there are plenty of other open questions. Could the war on ISIS expand to provide air cover for moderate Syrian rebels fighting the group? What if U.S.-trained rebels need help fending off Syrian regime forces? What happens if an American pilot goes down over ISIS-held territory?

“I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama told the nation on Aug. 7. But warfare has pulled hard at Obama ever since. And the record so far leaves little reason to think it’s finished with him.

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Enlists Saudi King in War of Ideas Against ISIS

Saudi King Abdullah listens to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry before a meeting at the Royal Palace in Jeddah
Saudi King Abdullah listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting at the royal palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 11, 2014 Brendan Smialowski—Reuters

Persuading would-be jihadists that ISIS distorts Islam “probably far more important than the military,” the U.S. Secretary of State says

On the night of Sept. 11, John Kerry arrived at the royal palace here for a meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz makes his home in this coastal city during the summer months, and the palace is a testament to his country’s vast oil wealth. Kerry entered through a vast atrium beneath a towering powder dome perhaps a hundred feet high. To greet the King, he ascended a carpeted staircase beneath a huge chandelier, and into a grand sitting room where his majesty awaited. The elderly monarch, clad in brown robes and white headscarf, remained seated as Kerry leaned down to kiss his cheeks.

To say the least, Sept. 11 is an awkward date for an American official to be visiting Saudi Arabia. Many consider Abdullah’s government at least indirectly culpable for the terrorist attacks on that day in 2001, thanks to the Saudi kingdom’s generous financial support for Sunni fundamentalists whose harsh, Salafist version of Islam helped to spawn al-Qaeda. “Saudi Arabia created the monster that is Salafi terrorism,” writes Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Some suggest even more direct responsibility: former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham believes “there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.”

But there was no sign of discomfort and certainly no mention of the date as the U.S. Secretary of State and the Saudi King bantered genially, via a translator, through a short photo opportunity before getting down to business. The U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relationship has long since moved on from Sept. 11. Today, Washington considers King Abdullah a crucial ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism in general — and against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in particular. During his whirlwind diplomatic tour to assemble America’s coalition against ISIS over the past week, Kerry repeatedly stressed the King’s role in a growing effort to undermine ISIS’ religious legitimacy in the Muslim world. “We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” Kerry told reporters traveling with him on Monday.

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. Sitting in a gilded room at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, Kerry sounded irritated at the media’s focus on air strikes and ground forces. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

U.S. officials say no one is more important to that effort than King Abdullah. And the King is happy to oblige. While Saudi money has long helped nurture a fundamentalist Sunni doctrine that inspires groups from al-Qaeda to Boko Haram, Islamic radicalism has come to threaten the King as well. This helps to explain why the royal palace in Jeddah is guarded by three gated checkpoints, several armored vehicles and a truck-mounted machine gun at its front entrance. Such groups see Abdullah as an American lackey who defames the holy land by cooperating with infidels. After a spate of al-Qaeda attacks within the kingdom in the mid-2000s, the Saudis have worked extremely closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism.

ISIS seems to have raised the King’s anxiety another notch, however. He has banned Saudis from traveling to join the fight in Syria, lest they return to threaten his regime. Last month Saudi authorities arrested dozens of suspects linked to ISIS — including members of an alleged cell plotting attacks within the country.

But Abdullah wields a potent weapon in his defense: his influence over Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. The King has a symbiotic relationship with his kingdom’s hard-line clerics, whose words hold sway far across the Muslim world. The clerics recognize Abdullah’s legitimacy in return for funding, official positions and Abdullah’s tolerance of their strict form of Islam — which forbids women from driving and imposes beheadings for offenses like adultery, drug possession and sorcery.

Abdullah can also summon his clerics to action. In a speech last month that a U.S. State Department official calls “unprecedented” in its vehemence, Abdullah denounced radical Islamists for using Islam to justify their actions — and castigated Saudi clerics for not making the point more forcefully. Days later, the kingdom’s top religious authority declared that ISIS and al-Qaeda “are enemy No. 1 of Islam.” Another senior cleric soon declared it “a major sin” to join ISIS. He added that the group’s fighters might avoid damnation if they murder their commanders.

The U.S. strategy doesn’t stop with the Saudis. During a visit to Cairo on Saturday, Kerry also urged Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to pressure his country’s religious leaders. Cairo is home to two of the most important institutions of Islamic learning, al-Azhar University and Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, making it “essentially the intellectual heart of the Arab world,” as a senior State Department official puts it. “So one of the issues is to have [Egypt's] religious institutions speak out against [ISIS] … to have the imams talk about it in Friday sermons, and to otherwise sort of increase the volume on this message.”

The effort also extends beyond the mosque. The U.S. is pressing major Arab media outlets, including Dubai-based al-Arabiya and Qatar’s al-Jazeera, to broadcast more antiradical programming. (State Department officials say Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel — a former managing editor of TIME — will soon return to the region to pursue that topic.)

But the King is the most important player of all, experts say. “Saudi Arabia is the only authority in the region with the power and legitimacy to bring ISIS down,” wrote Nawaf Obaid, of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in a Sept. 9 New York Times op-ed. “[T]he Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’ monstrous terrorist ideology.”

Much like the date of Kerry’s visit to the royal palace in Jeddah, it is a deep irony that Saudi Arabia has become so critical to extinguishing the flames of Sunni radicalism it helped to spread. But it’s not an irony that Kerry cares to dwell upon. Asked by TIME on Monday about Saudi Arabia’s past responsibility for radical extremism, the Secretary of State bridled.

“There is no constructive purpose whatsoever served by going backwards,” Kerry said. “There are lots of question marks that people can dig into for history about mistakes that were made,” he added. “Nothing is served right now by chewing that over.”

TIME Foreign Policy

What a Trip to Iraq Reveals About Obama’s ISIS Plan

John Kerry Iraq Baghdad Helicopter
US Secretary of State John Kerry looks out over Baghdad from a helicopter on Sept. 10, 2014. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Rhetoric versus reality in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone

The Republican Palace in central Baghdad was once Saddam Hussein’s preferred spot for meeting foreign leaders. The complex here, which served as the headquarters for the U.S. occupation, is vast and gaudily ornate. A huge outdoor fountain features a golden dragon that blasts high-pressure arcs of water through the air.

Today the palace is back in the hands of the Iraqis, and again serves as a destination for dignitaries. Hours before President Barack Obama addressed Americans Wednesday night about how he’ll combat the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), John Kerry’s motorcade pulled up outside the palace under a blazing hot sun. The Secretary of State was there for a meeting with Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister—and a man on whom Obama is placing a very large bet.

Two days earlier, Kerry had hailed the Iraqi parliament’s choice of Abadi to succeed Nouri al-Maliki as “a major milestone” for Iraq. That may prove true: Maliki was a disaster for Iraq and for U.S. interests, a quasi-dictator whose thuggish treatment of Iraq’s Sunni minority stymied the country’s political maturation and allowed ISIS to feed off of Sunni resentment.

But it remains unclear whether Abadi truly offers a new vision for Iraq—or just a new face.

The fight against ISIS could hinge on the answer. Obama’s speech tied his expanded campaign against ISIS directly to Iraq’s political reform. “[T]his is not our fight alone…. we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,” Obama said, adding that his latest action “depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”

But the rhetoric from Washington puts a happy face on a dicey reality. A senior State Department official admitted as much in a background briefing for reporters traveling with Kerry this week. “This is going to be extremely, extremely difficult. The problems that are confronting Iraq are incredibly challenging,” the official said. “And when you look at them day to day, they are so daunting that… you ask yourself where do you possibly go from here.”

*****

ISIS hasn’t reached Baghdad, but this city is far from safe—even if the local cell phone carrier sends a text message wishing you “a pleasant stay in Iraq.” ISIS fighters have been detonating car bombs in Baghdad on a regular basis for months. Three of them exploded on the day of Kerry’s visit, killing 30 people.

Security dictated that Kerry first land in Jordan and then switch from his official State Department 757 to a military plane capable of tactical evasion and counter-measures. At Baghdad’s airport, Kerry strapped on a flack jacket for a short helicopter ride to the U.S. embassy compound inside the Green Zone, a district of government buildings heavily fortified against the daily violence beyond its checkpoints.

Kerry’s motorcade moved slowly through the Green Zone’s endless checkpoints and speed bumps. All around were armored vehicles with black-clad soldiers manning mounted machine guns. An army tank stood guard at the end of an empty bridge. Even the motorcade’s press van was joined by a security man with an assault rifle. Nerves were jangly. When a sudden “pop” was heard as Kerry exited one meeting, an Iraqi soldier came running with rifle in hand. “I was reaching for mine!” the security man said. It turned out a car had backfired.

After their private meeting, Kerry and Abadi met briefly with the press in facing arm chairs, glasses of orange juice on a table between them. Balding and pot-bellied, Abadi has a gentler air than the grim-faced Maliki, and sat with a warm grin as Kerry praised the “boldness” of his promises to resolve issues that have vexed Washington for years, including Sunni representation in Baghdad’s government and feuds with Iraq’s Kurds over oil revenue sharing.

After meeting several more top Iraqi officials later in the day, Kerry was even more effusive. In all his past visits to Baghdad, Kerry said, he’d never before heard such unanimous “commitment to the concept of inclusivity and of addressing the unaddressed issues of the last eight years or more.”

But beneath the happy rhetoric lie red flags. Abadi may speak in inclusive tones, but his background is ominously similar to Maliki’s. Both are members of the Shi’ite Dawa party, formed in opposition to Saddam’s rule and backed by Iran, a Shi’ite nation detested by Iraqi Sunnis. One former advisor to several U.S. officials in Iraq has described Dawa as having an “inherently secretive, sectarian, exclusionary, Iranian-sympathizing culture.”

And many of Abadi’s cabinet ministers are holdovers from Maliki’s government. Two of the most crucial posts—the ministers of defense and interior—remain unfilled. Abadi’s original choice to run the interior ministry, which controls the Iraq police, is the leader of the Badr Organization, a Shi’ite militia group that massacred Sunnis during the last decade. That prompted a Sunni freakout and pressure from Washington that torpedoed the choice. (Abadi says he will fill the vacant ministries by next week; whether he can will be a vital early test.)

Nor do Iraqi Kurds trust the Shi’ite power structure in Baghdad. The Kurds call their support for Abadi’s government good for only three months if their demands, particularly regarding oil revenues, aren’t met.

“There are lots of politics left to play out,” says Douglas Ollivant, a former top Iraq aide under Obama and George W. Bush. “But it’s in our interest to declare this government ‘good enough.’”

Kerry skated by such details Wednesday. At the U.S. embassy compound—itself a fortress within the fortress of the Green Zone—Kerry called Iraqi political reform “the engine of our global strategy” against ISIS. The advent of a new government, he added, means “it’s full speed ahead.”

It may be that Abadi represents a new dawn for Iraq. But we’ve been here before. Not so long ago an American president celebrated the creation of a new Iraqi government. “This broadly representative unity government offers a new opportunity for progress in Iraq,” he declared. “The new government reflects Iraq’s diversity and opens a new chapter in that country’s history.”

That president was George W. Bush. The leader of that new government was Nouri al-Maliki.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s Mission Creep in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep."

In 2003, George W. Bush was too quick to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” In 2014, Barack Obama may be too slow to admit that they are just beginning.

On Monday, President Obama boasted to White House reporters that U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi forces reclaim the Mosul Dam, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters captured in early August. That was great news. A dam breach — from sabotage or poor maintenance — could have drowned thousands and even flooded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But it was not an objective Obama had publicly mentioned before, even though ISIS had controlled the dam for two weeks. Does Obama worry about “mission creep,” asked a Reuters correspondent? No way, Obama said. “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to re-engage in combat,” the President said.

“Typically what happens with mission creep is we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Obama added.

Of course, mission creep doesn’t have to mean a huge ground force, or going it alone. (America became mired in Vietnam while fighting in tandem with South Vietnamese forces.) It can simply mean expanding goals that lead to an unexpectedly large military campaign. And we’re already seeing signs of that in Iraq.

Rewind to August 7, when Obama spoke in prime time to announce his first airstrikes in Iraq. He described two limited and discrete operations. One was “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel” in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which ISIS was threatening to capture. The other was a humanitarian mission to save thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain and facing what Obama called “an act of genocide.”

Obama can check those boxes: A Kurdish counteroffensive backed by the U.S. and Baghdad has driven ISIS away from Erbil. As for the Yezidis, Obama said on Friday that “the situation on the mountain has greatly improved” thanks to U.S. efforts, and that most have escaped to safety.

But then another item was quietly added to the to-do list: the Mosul Dam. Announced with little fanfare by a Sunday White House statement, the operation entailed 35 airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area.

On Monday Obama justified that action as “directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq,” because a dam breach would have “endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”

Never mind that Baghdad is more than 250 miles south of Mosul, presumably allowing time for a relocation or evacuation of U.S. personnel. It’s hard to fault a casualty-free operation that might have averted a catastrophe — and killed some ISIS fanatics along the way.

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action — especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.)

But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“[W]e will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

You can support all those actions and still find Obama’s explanations a little cloudy. After all, Obama has promised “limited” military action before — only to shatter those limits. In March 2011, Obama said he was ordering airstrikes in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by regime forces in Benghazi. The ensuing air campaign lasted for seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties by a multinational coalition.

Could we be at the start of something similar? The Pentagon says the U.S. has already conducted 68 airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, and Obama is talking about more assistance for the new government forming in Baghdad.

Fortunately for Obama, the public isn’t creeped out just yet. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his airstrikes so far, according to an August 18 Pew Research Center-USA Today poll.

But that support may be fragile. Pew also found that 51 percent of Americans worry Obama “will go too far getting involved in the situation.”

Obama’s vow not to commit ground troops to combat will help maintain political support. Still, that number could grow — especially if he doesn’t explain clearly how his mission can be neither accomplished nor creeping.

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