The Reluctant Loner President Builds a Coalition and Goes After Terrorists Across Syria

Four early observations about a new phase of the Syria conflict

Possibly not a good night for the putative caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Reuters TV)

So, our reluctant, hesitant, wan, diffident loner egghead of a president somehow managed to pull together a potent Arab coalition and launch an air war against extremists of the Islamic State terror group on their home turf. Very surprising, given his reputation.

Defying expectations is one thing; winning a war in which victory has not yet been adequately defined is another. And yet, President Obama has taken the first, significant steps to at least slow, and possibly reverse, ISIS's expansion.

Four quick, early morning observations (to be followed by more, I hope):

1. The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the "red line" crisis of last year. That said, Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.

2. It is true that there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory. The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on toward Baghdad, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can "win" this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.

3. This struggle is now owned by the United States. President Obama has spread around the risk, but make no mistake, this is an American fight. If President Obama wasn't convinced that the U.S. is—and should be—the world's sole remaining superpower, he is now. Our reluctant president came to the conclusion that it would be insane for the civilized world to allow the barbarians of ISIS to overspread the Middle East. He looked around, and realized that the only country that could lead the anti-ISIS campaign was his. He's right, alas, and this leadership has a cost. ISIS was mainly interested, for the moment, at least, in securing its own borders, and building the infrastructure of a state. I have a feeling its long-term planners woke up this morning newly interested in finding ways to hurt Americans.

4. This American-led campaign isn't unalloyed good news for Bashar al-Assad. ISIS has been, in practical terms, his best friend this past year. The threat of ISIS caused numerous anti-Assad parties to think twice about calling for his removal. And ISIS did a great job on Assad's behalf of eliminating the more moderate Syrian opposition. Nevertheless, American bombs are falling in Syria, and they're not falling on Assad. Very few people a year ago could have predicted this.