TIME France

Anti-ISIS Coalition Meets in Paris to Formulate Battle Plan

France Iraq Diplomacy
Iraq President Fouad Massoum, center, followed by Iraq Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, left, arrive with Iraqi officials at Orly airport south of Paris, on Sept. 14, 2014 . Francois Mori—AP

Delegates from more than 20 countries have descended on the French capital to discuss how best to tackle the Islamist terrorist group

Representatives from across the Middle East and Western nations are convening Monday in Paris, where an emerging coalition will begin formulating a strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Before flying to France on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canvassed American allies in the Middle East, aiming to rustle up support for military operations targeting the extremist Islamist group that continues to hold sway over large areas of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

“I can tell you right here and now that we have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what it requires,” Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation from Cairo on Sunday.

Kerry’s interview appeared to be part of an all-out media blitz by the Obama Administration following the U.S. President’s pledge last Wednesday to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

However, after issuing plenty of tough talk earlier this week, the White House has continued to remain adamant that no major deployment of U.S. combat troops will be used against the radical Sunni militants on the ground.

Instead, the Administration hopes to recruit and bolster Sunni proxy forces in the Middle East, including opposition groups currently fighting inside Syria.

“Ultimately, to destroy [ISIS], we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed, ideally Sunni forces,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. This was the thinking, he said, behind the “proposal that the President has sent to Congress to authorize us to train and equip the Syrian opposition that’s on the ground fighting [ISIS] today.”

During an address on Sunday, President Barack Obama called for “a targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against [ISIS] that combines American airpower, contributions from allies and partners, and more support to forces that are fighting these terrorists on the ground.”

However, the President’s critics in Congress blasted the White House for failing to mobilize the necessary force to confront ISIS.

“You cannot create an army to destroy [ISIS] without an American component,” said Senator Lindsey Graham during an interview on Fox News. “This is war.”

Meanwhile, ISIS posted another video over the weekend showing the third brutal execution of a Western hostage, British aid worker David Haines.

Following the release of the video, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the murder of Haines — calling ISIS the “embodiment of evil.” Cameron went on to vow to “hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice, no matter how long it takes.”

TIME Military

Putting the ISIS Threat in Perspective

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
An ISIS militant in Raqqa, Syria Reuters

This is not a well-armed fighting force, but a ragtag collection of militants using secondhand weapons

If you’re having a tough time figuring out how much of a threat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) poses to the U.S., you’re hardly alone.

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Aug. 21. “They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.”

Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t seem to share the Pentagon chief’s foreboding, given how ISIS fighters scattered “the minute we hit them” as they tried to take the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq. “These guys are not 10 ft. tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks,” Kerry said on Sept. 5. “They’re not as organized as everybody thinks.”

So who’s right?

To be sure, nothing grabs attention like the barbaric series of videotaped ISIS beheadings of Westerners, which continued this weekend with the release of footage of the murder of British aid worker David Haines. Such horrors generate a visceral bloodlust, and they have achieved their goal: President Obama declared last week that the U.S. military and its allies are determined to destroy ISIS.

“We have countries in this [Middle East] region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what is required,” Kerry said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

There’s a parallel to al-Qaeda here. Both Sunni groups leapt to prominence only after attacking the West with its own weapons. Al-Qaeda did it with airliners; ISIS has done it with the intrepid journalists and aid workers they captured and then murdered. Their chosen tools highlight how impotent they actually are.

That became even clearer last week when the Pentagon released its first comprehensive accounting of the ISIS targets it has hit in its month-long series of more than 150 air strikes.

The single largest category — 88 of 212 individual targets, or 42% — is “armed vehicles.” Not “armored vehicles,” like a tank or personnel carrier, but civilian pickups with machine guns mounted in the rear. A pair of tanks and assorted other armor accounts for a scant 7% of the targets.

Roughly 10% are antiaircraft artillery and locations described as “IED Emplacements, Mortar Positions, [and] Machine Gun Locations.” The “facilities” on Central Command’s hit list include “Fighting Positions, Checkpoints [and] Observation Posts.”

This is not an arsenal, but a ragtag collection, including gear the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi army, which ISIS seized after driving Iraqi forces from Mosul (the U.S. has attacked 37 ISIS Humvees built in Mishawaka, Ind.).

Of course, foes don’t need huge and costly weapons to be effective. The 9/11 hijackers murdered over 3,000 armed with nothing more than $2 box cutters. But they did that by exploiting yawning vulnerabilities in commercial-aviation security. The terrorists’ caginess must be trumped by wily thinking by the U.S. and its allies, a strategy in which air strikes can only play a supporting role.

Paltry gear shouldn’t been viewed as evidence of ISIS’ inherent weakness. It is waging war on a far broader battlefield than that being attacked by U.S. warplanes. That means it cannot be defeated by military means alone. Until the underlying causes for ISIS’s rise — the anti-Sunni governments in Iraq and Syria chief among them — are dealt with, ISIS will pose a real threat to the civilized world.

But it’s also important to realize that ISIS has succeeded only where it has been unopposed. Its proclaimed state is in the middle of one of the world’s most-heavily-armed regions, and it has shown little ability or desire to challenge a motivated military force.

They say nature abhors a vacuum. So do terrorists, judging by the CIA’s assessment Thursday that ISIS has grown from 10,000 to as many as 31,500 fighters over the summer, owing in no small part to its military success. They’re eager to plant their black flags in ungoverned terrain. That the West permitted such a fertile field in which ISIS could take root — in fact, all but plowed and sowed it — is the real harvest of the Iraq War.

TIME White House

White House Emphasizes ‘Degrade’ Over ‘Destroy’ on ISIS

Barack Obama Address to the Nation
President Barack Obama speaks to the nation on his plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS Saul Loeb—CNP/AdMedia/Corbis

The White House has offered differing visions for when the U.S. can declare "mission accomplished" with ISIS

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough described narrow Administration’s goals for combatting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Sunday, defining “success” as eliminating the threat, not the organization.

“Success looks like an [ISIS] that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States,” McDonough said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “An [ISIS] that can’t accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise. And that’s exactly what success looks like.”

The comments came days after President Barack Obama set a tall order for the U.S. in his address to the nation on Wednesday, pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group. But in public statements and closed-door comments, his Administration is putting more emphasis on the first verb.

For Obama, the risk is a familiar one: overpromising and underdelivering. In 2012, Obama set a “red line” in Syria, suggesting he’d use air strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, a standard he repeatedly shifted throughout 2013.

For months this summer, the Obama Administration had set its goal on containing the threat of ISIS, but a combination of factors, including public outcry and congressional uproar over the brutal killing of two American journalists, has led the White House to escalate its rhetoric. But the harsher tone hasn’t meant a change in the underlying aims.

Obama first embraced the “degrade and destroy” formulation in a convoluted press conference in Estonia a day after ISIS released a video of the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. But the operative lines were his admission that the group could never truly be eradicated. “As we’ve seen with al-Qaeda, there are always going to be remnants that can cause havoc of any of these networks, in part because of the nature of terrorist activities,” Obama said. “You get a few individuals, and they may be able to carry out a terrorist act.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Majority of Americans Lack Confidence in Obama’s ISIS Strategy, Poll Finds

Barack Obama, Joe Biden
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses while making a statement about immigration reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on June 13, 2014. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

Nearly 70% are unconvinced the U.S. will achieve its goals in fighting the terrorist group

Nearly 70% of Americans say they lack confidence that the U.S. will achieve its goals in fighting the terrorist group ISIS, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll. The findings come in the wake of President Barack Obama’s national address announcing new measures to combat the Sunni militants.

Pressure is mounting on the U.S. and its allies to cripple the militants, who have waged a brutal campaign across Syria and Iraq. ISIS already has beheaded two American journalists and on Saturday released a video showing the execution of a third Westerner, British aid worker David Haines.

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME Foreign Policy

White House: Iraq War Vote Obama Opposed Could Be Used for ISIS Strikes

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama salutes as he arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2014 Evan Vucci—AP

President Barack Obama won the White House largely on his opposition to the Iraq War and was re-elected in 2012 on having ended the conflict. But his Administration is using the never repealed authorization vote as a supplementary legal justification for the planned expansion of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The New York Times first reported Friday that Obama Administration officials believe that the 2002 law which authorized the war “would serve as an alternative statutory authority basis on which the President may rely for military action in Iraq.” The news comes just months after National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was no longer operative.

“With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2001, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal,” Rice wrote to Speaker of the House John Boehner in July.

During the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama eviscerated then Senator Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the 2002 Iraq War Resolution, and in the election, drew sharp contrast with Senator John McCain over how to bring the war to an end.

A senior Administration official says the White House still supports repealing the 2002 law, and fully believes it can use the 2001 AUMF, passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to allow the U.S. to strike al-Qaeda, to justify the strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the 2002 law would provide additional legal underpinning to strikes in Iraq — and even Syria — as scholars question the applicability of the 2001 authorization to ISIS, which publicly broke with al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“We believe that the President would have the statutory authority to conduct air strikes against [ISIS] in Syria under the 2002 AUMF in at least some circumstances,” the official said.

For the opening stages of the American air campaign, the 160-strike effort largely restricted to humanitarian missions, and protecting American personnel and facilities, Obama relied on his constitutional authority to protect the American people. Hours before Obama announced a broader campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamist militant group Wednesday, officials revealed that Obama would rely on the 2001 AUMF, which the Administration had said previously it hopes to reign in.

In a statement, the senior Administration official explained how the White House applies the 2001 law to ISIS:

The 2001 AUMF authorizes the use of “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” responsible for 9/11 and those who “harbored such organizations or persons.” The Administration has interpreted the 2001 AUMF to authorize the use of force against AQ, the Taliban, and associated forces. Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, the extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position — supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups — that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy, the President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against ISIL, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’s senior leadership and ISIL.

TIME intelligence

CIA Says ISIS Ranks May Have Tripled

ISIS Mosul Iraq Islamic State
Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq on June 16, 2014. AP

Foreign fighters, including Americans, appear to be pouring into Syria to support the terrorist group

The number of combatants fighting under the banner of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could be three times larger than intelligence officials previously believed, according to a new estimate from the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA estimates that ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group that has declared a caliphate in the large swath of Iraq and Syria which it now controls, “can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria, based on a new review of all-source intelligence reports from May to August, an increase from our previous assessment of at least 10,000 fighters,” a CIA spokesperson said. That estimate accounts only for individuals fighting with ISIS itself, not with any affiliated group.

The new estimate reflects a sharp uptick in recruitment over the summer “following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate,” the CIA spokesperson said.

The CIA believes more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries—at least 2,000 of whom are Westerners—have traveled to Syria to join ISIS ranks. A dozen or more could be Americans, the CIA believes.

A U.S. intelligence official cautioned that the CIA’s estimate is not a precise figure and reflects a broad approximation based on limited intelligence. “The gap between the low and high points indicates there is uncertainty about the exact number of fighters in (ISIS),” a US intelligence official said. “Given the changing dynamics of the battlefield, new recruits, and other factors, it is difficult to assess the precise number of individuals in a terrorist group that is evolving and practices good operational security.”


John Kerry: ISIS Action Is Not a War, It’s Counter-Terrorism

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter-terrorism operation, and it's going to go on for some period of time"

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that the U.S.’s mission to defeat Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was not a war but a counter-terrorism operation. He was speaking in an interview on CNN.

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter-terrorism operation, and it’s going to go on for some period of time,” he said. “If somebody wants to think about it as being at war with [ISIS] they can do so, but the fact is it is a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

Kerry’s comments came after President Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday, saying he would expand the U.S. air campaign against ISIS.

“We will degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” he said.

The U.S. has launched 150 air strikes into Iraq to target ISIS, and in his Wednesday address Obama warned that he would, “not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria.”

Kerry is currently touring the Middle East to garner support for an international coalition to take on the militant Islamic extremist group.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile announced Thursday, his full support for Obama.

“Now these groups must be fought … they must be rolled back and they must ultimately be defeated. That’s why Israel fully supports President Obama’s call for united action against ISIS,” he said, speaking on Israeli television.

However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, told CNN Thursday that the Syrian government found Obama’s strategy lacking. She said his plan had “many loopholes” and warned that “we are ready to cooperate, but if any strike is done without our cooperation, we will consider it an aggression.”

The BBC reported that Russia, an ally of Assad, denounced any U.S. action in Syria without backing from the U.N.

“This step, in the absence of a U.N. Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law,” said Russian ministry spokesperson Alexander Lukashevich.

ISIS has taken over control of vast areas Iraq and Syria. The CIA says the group has between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters, triple the agency’s original estimate, reports CNN.

“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity and additional intelligence,” a CIA spokesman told CNN.

TIME Barack Obama

Obama’s Anti-ISIS War in Syria May Be Illegal

U.S. President Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, before giving a speech to the nation regarding the fight against ISIS, from the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington on Sept. 10, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Obama is relying on questionable legal authority in his pursuit of terrorists, but that never stopped George W. Bush.

If truth is the first casualty of war, law is apparently the last, at least for President Barack Obama.

Obama came to office declaring his determination to reimpose legal limits on the American effort to defeat al Qaeda. He swore to close Guantanamo Bay, abolish torture, tighten rules for the treatment of terrorist prisoners and rein in the broad executive power President George W. Bush had claimed in the global hunt for terrorists.

But after five-and-a-half years of near-constant terrorist brush fires in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and a Congress that remains largely unwilling to update key counterterrorism legislation, Obama appears finally to have surrendered to a very loose legal definition of where and when he can use military force against terrorists.

In his prime time speech Wednesday evening, Obama told Americans he was expanding attacks against the group calling itself the “Islamic State”, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by targeting its fighters not just in Iraq but also in Syria. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq,” Obama said, “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Strategically, that makes sense. Speaking to reporters before Obama’s speech, a senior administration official explained, “ISIL is moving with impunity back and forth from Syria to Iraq, and vice versa, each time and from each place gaining arms, gaining manpower, gaining fuel, literally and figuratively, for their fight.”

Legally, however, Obama’s authority to attack ISIS in Syria is on shaky ground. Under the Constitution, Congress decides if and when the U.S. goes to war. In 2002, it authorized President George W. Bush to attack Iraq. That authorization, broadly interpreted, can be read to include the threat ISIS now poses there. But it doesn’t apply to Syria, at least not easily. And the Obama Administration announced this summer that it was no longer using the 2002 authorization to justify its actions.

Instead, Obama claims he has authority to bomb ISIS in Syria under the Sept. 14, 2001 authorization from Congress following the 9/11 attacks. In the call with reporters, Obama’s senior administration official said, “We believe that he can rely on the 2001 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL.”

That joint resolution gave the president the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

A variety of legal scholars on the left and the right, including Obama himself, have argued that authorization is too broad and needs to be rewritten so it doesn’t give eternal war-fighting power to all future presidents. And as Jack Goldsmith writes for TIME today, it’s a stretch for Obama to claim it applies to ISIS, given that ISIS and al Qaeda split earlier this year.

According to a 2012 speech by Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security who previously served as Obama’s top lawyer at the Department of Defense, there are two characteristics that a group must have to be considered an “associated force” with al Qaeda under the 2001 authorization. First they must be “an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al Qaeda,” and second, the group “is a co-belligerent with al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” The White House has yet to release to Congress or the public any detailed analysis of their determination that the Islamic state meets these standards.

If Obama is breaking the law, don’t expect much to come of it in the short term. The consequences of Obama’s legal interpretation, beyond his own discomfort, are not likely very great. The Bush administration showed the bar for legally constraining presidential counterterrorist actions is high, and even when it is surmounted there are little or no penalties. Politically, the president has nothing to fear: no matter how angry they are about the new effort against ISIS, the left wing of Obama’s party isn’t going to impeach him, and the right won’t either, at least not for going after Islamic extremists.

In the long term, perhaps Obama’s legal legerdemain will boost those who want to come up with new, clearer legal frameworks for international counterterrorism operations. But for now Obama, like Bush before him, seems determined to act without them.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 11

1. National service is a critical American value that has the power to unite us.

By Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates in Time

2. The challenge for America’s strategy against ISIS isn’t our military might. It’s the will of our partners in Iraq and Syria.

By Jeff Shesol in the New Yorker

3. After a decade of urban violence, blacks in America report PTSD symptoms at the same rate as veterans of our last three wars.

By Lois Beckett in Essence

4. Municipal buses move more than 5 billion people annually. Converting them to electric power would slash carbon emissions dramatically.

By Daniel Gross in Slate

5. To gather valuable health data from the poor, texting survey questions yields impressive results.

By the University of Michigan Health System

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Congress

House GOP Looks to Authorize Obama’s ISIS Strategy

Barack Obama John Boehner
US President Barack Obama (R) talks with Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a meeting with the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

Republicans look to schedule a vote authorizing the President's plan to "destroy" the militant group ISIS

House Republicans indicated Thursday morning that they would support President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, despite misgivings that he hasn’t laid out enough detail about his plans.

“At this point in time it’s important that we give the President what he’s asking for,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.

Boehner said he supports the President’s request to arm and equip the Syrian rebels, but he ripped Obama for not including “all that we can do” to defeat the terrorist threat from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“A F-16 is not a strategy,” Boehner said. “Air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the President has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well somebody’s boots have to be on the ground. … I would never tell the enemy what I was willing or unwilling to do.”

Boehner’s comments followed supportive remarks from other members of his Republican conference earlier in the day, giving Obama rare congressional support as the midterm elections approach.

“I think the vast majority of us understand that we need to get this done,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said. “You can’t have 535 commanders in chief. It may not be the perfect plan, it may not be everything you want, but you either have to vote against doing anything or you have to support the Commander-in-Chief in this case. Partisanship has to go out the window when it comes to defending our country.”

“I’m willing to support the president’s strategy and giving him the authorization he wants and the money he wants to try to see if this plan will work,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who added that “most” of the House Republican conference would support the President. “It’s worth a shot.”

The conference has yet to figure out the way in which it would authorize the President’s plan, which includes new air strikes in Syria and expanded efforts to train and equip the Syrian rebels. The quickest method would be to attach a provision to a short-term government funding bill that needs to pass by the end of the month to avert a government shutdown. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said Thursday that the House would employ this method to vote on the President’s plan next week.

Obama has said he already has the executive authority to act without congressional support but that he would “welcome” it as a show of American unity.

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