President Obama is deepening U.S. engagement in Iraq under the shadow of Syria, where he resisted similar calls to intervene — inaction that analysts and even his former top diplomat say may have sown the seeds of the Iraqi conflict.
Although she backed off some Tuesday, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the latest to slam the White House’s handling of Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State group, which has captured key areas of Iraq and plunged the nation back into chaos.
Mrs. Clinton, Republicans, many foreign policy analysts and other critics say Mr. Obama failed to contain in Syria the Islamist groups that morphed into the Islamic State and inadvertently helped the militants co-opt the larger rebel movement against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in between — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Mrs. Clinton said in an interview with The Atlantic.
However Mrs. Clinton, who served Mr. Obama as his first-term secretary of state, called the president Tuesday to tell him that she does not intend to attack him and, according to an adviser, looks forward to “hugging it out” with the president at a party Wednesday.
The White House has carefully dodged the question of whether it wants to destroy the morphing Islamic State, which also has been called ISIL and ISIS.
This position has frustrated Republican leaders and others who want the U.S. to target the Islamic State group, wherever it can be found, the same way al Qaeda has been in America’s crosshairs for more than a decade.
The president last week authorized airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq and humanitarian airdrops to provide food and supplies to Iraqi civilians surrounded by the terrorist group.
Mr. Obama said he greenlighted those missions only after it became clear that the Islamic State was poised to unleash genocide against religious minorities and posed a serious threat to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
Such military action, critics say, may have been averted were it not for a flawed policy on Syria.
“I have to say the decision not to use force in Syria a year ago — one of the consequences of that is that the Islamic State became a major player. As Assad took out more moderate factions, it was the hard-line factions that emerged,” said Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Until May 2013, Mr. Brannen served at the Pentagon as special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
The president declined to use military force last year against the Assad regime, even after it launched chemical weapons attacks against rebel forces and rebel-held civilian areas, something the White House had labeled a “line in the sand.”
The U.S. and international partners have provided humanitarian aid and some weapons to “moderate” rebel forces, but analysts say the Islamic State has seized control of the rebel movement. That outcome could have been avoided if the U.S. had acted against Mr. Assad and made a stronger commitment to moderate rebel elements much sooner, critics and some analysts say.