WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led international strategy to combat the Islamic State that President Barack Obama sketched out Friday is likely to require years of thorny diplomacy and deeper U.S. military involvement in conflicts that he has struggled to avoid.
Obama's remarks at the end of a NATO summit in Wales offered the administration's most in-depth explanation to date of how it plans to fight the Islamic State, the transnational extremist group that has seized control of an area as large as Jordan straddling the dividing line between Syria and Iraq.
The nascent strategy calls for working with European and Arab allies to confront the group not only in Iraq, where the United States is conducting airstrikes to assist government-aligned fighters, but also in Syria, where the United States has failed to fulfill its years-long promise to help build a moderate rebel force.
"We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL," Obama said, using the government's acronym for the Islamic State and referring specifically to its sanctuary in Syria. "The moderate coalition there is one that we can work with. We have experience working with many of them. They have been, to some degree, outgunned and outmanned, and that's why it's important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively."
There was little fanfare to Obama's announcement, which comes just a week after his controversial admission that there was no U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State in Syria. U.S. officials still appear to be keeping expectations low, an acknowledgment of the fraught negotiations and unpalatable options that come with enlisting Middle Eastern powers, already warring among themselves, to rally around the common cause of defeating the Islamic State.
Even limited success for this new effort, analysts say, hinges on an unenviable to-do list for the Obama administration:
• Foster cozier relations with Iran.
• Gamble on the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels.
• Strong-arm Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders into pow-er-sharing with the Sunni Muslim minority.
• Persuade Sunni-ruled nations in the Persian Gulf region not to undermine the whole effort by striking out on their own.
One major difficulty is that some Sunni nations see a need for an armed group that will protect Sunni interests against the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
"All things being equal, in a perfect universe, the Saudis would like to harness a group like IS. The problem is, IS doesn't say, 'Oh, sir, how high do I jump?'" said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Middle East and South Asian affairs with the global intelligence company Stratfor.
Still, analysts say, the old Sunni bulwarks have little choice but to support, at least cosmetically, a U.S. coalition, since the Islamic State is at their borders and unwilling to act as a proxy for them against Shiite foes such as Iran and Hezbollah. They'll push for the creation of a Syrian rebel force strong enough to fight both the Islamic State and the Irani-an-backed Assad regime.
Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it appears that Obama has been forced by the Islamic State's military successes and its growing threat to undertake a serious effort to build and arm a Syrian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamist extremists with the help of U.S. air power.
"It certainly sounds like we're more serious," said White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though he cautioned: "We've heard this so many times before, but little has come of it."
Obama's language Friday on Syria reinforced the idea that crushing the Islamic State has replaced Assad's ouster as the main U.S. priority in Syria, White said.
"We're not talking about backing forces that can fight the regime, but enhancing forces that can fight the Islamic State," White said. "It's all focused on the Islamic State, and that in a sense makes it more likely that something will happen here. It's now being defined in counterterrorism concepts as opposed to regime change."