Obama sets his sights on the world’s hearts and minds

Obama’s strategy towards ISIS shows a great step in the US’s “hearts and minds” policy for fighting insurgency

At the UN General Assembly on Wednesday US President Barack Obama spoke of winning the “hearts and minds” of Muslim people; especially those in Syria and Iraq where US-led forces have a growing airstrike campaign. This phrase is not new and has a history of being said but not acted on by American policy makers. Yet, the way Obama has approached the fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suggests he may be serious.

Central to the traditional “hearts and minds” strategy is the local population. For a militant group such as ISIS the local population is a source of information, recruits and finances – thus if it is taken away you will gain an advantage. To achieve this, the local population must believe personal goals will be better served if those fighting the militant group in their country prevail (winning their hearts). Further, they must be convinced that these forces will prevail (winning their minds).

In the 2003 Iraq war the concept was heavily discussed. Initially, the Allied forces flagrant misunderstanding of religious customs and heavy civilian casualties allowed al-Qaeda to draw a wedged between western forces and the local population. Heavy criticism led to a new strategy which, in theory, put the population at the centre. This led to practices such as giving livestock to households to compensate for damages and trying to reduce civilian loss. Unfortunately this rhetoric was often undermined by heavy by continued civilian deaths, a hastily trained Iraqi security force and withdrawal that left in place a government which did not share power properly and a leader – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who repressed Sunni Arabs.

Now things seem different. Obama’s incremental, support gathering strategy has placed at its centre winning the “hearts and minds” of the Syrian and Iraqi publics as well as the international community.

Obama has been very clear about how he will change the strategy from his predecessors. On Wednesday he said “no external power can bring about a change of hearts and minds”. Thus, instead of having American troops on the ground the US is concentrating on training Iraqi and Syrian forces. Last month, the US sent another 130 military advisers to Iraq, which will be in addition to the 250 already there. Obama continues to ask Congress for $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition, while Saudi Arabia promised to help train Syrian rebels in the communiqué it signed with the US and ten other Arab countries this month.

Further, Obama is not just looking for a military solution. He has recognised that targeting the financing and recruiting of ISIS as well their ideological draw is equally as pivotal. Thus, Obama successfully sought the passing of UN Resolution 2178 through the Security Council on Wednesday. He claims it requires nations “to prevent and supress the recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping of foreign terrorist fighters, as well as the financing of their travel or activities”. Further, he has asked the international community to reject ISIS and al-Qaeda’s ideology and has called for a battle of ideas to be taken online.

Obama now fights a force that blurs national boundaries – ignoring the border between Syria and Iraq and targeting the nationals of countries thousands of miles away – and he too has sought the “hearts and minds” of the whole international community. He has worked with key regional, for example five countries from the Gulf and the Middle East helped in the first US-led operation in Syria on Monday. The fact Sunni-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, played a major role “should enhance their perceived political legitimacy and will factor in both international and regional responses”. Beyond the region, Obama has sought comprehensive international support. He achieved this at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. His international coalition now numbers 50; including the Netherlands (who have said they will send jets to fight ISIS), the UK (who voted in favour of using force in Iraq on Friday), France, Jordan and Turkey vowed support. Now, as Obama has said, using the alternative acronym for ISIS, this new coalition means “this isn’t America versus ISIL. This is the people of that region versus ISIL. It’s the world against ISIL”.

So far this strategy seems to be working. For example, many Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing the ISIS have welcomed the bombs and are “grateful” that the militant group which is targeting and killing Kurds is now being targeted by the US. In Raqqa a local resident said “I can already see the success of these strikes. ISIS fighters have already started leaving the city”.

Thus, Obama may have finally made the, previously hollow, rhetoric of winning the “hearts and minds” of the local population into something far more substantial and expansive than it has been before.