by Huseyin Sari

“This is messy and complicated and every choice the president is going to make — and I have enormous sympathy for him in trying to make these choices — is going to have unintended consequences or intended consequences that we’re not going to feel good about,” said Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the State Department and the Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, at a panel discussion about the Middle East on September 9 of this year.


President Barack Obama’s long expected speech about the newest and savage crises-maker, ISIS (ISIL or IS), in the Middle East sent mixed signals to ears that are highly sensitive to the region. As some of the President’s hawkish critics would point out, the poor levels of decisive and speedy action taken by the US administration is not acceptable and the US should take a more assertive role in leading to formulate a solution to crises in the Middle East. Likewise, skeptics on the other side of the political spectrum see Obama’s speech as a radical shift away from ‘staying out’ of this ever-troubling region and perceive his tone in his speech as a pro-neo-con kind of image in regard to US policy in the Middle East.  

In addition to the observations that were voiced by the mainstream media, there are two very important yet not easily visible details from Obama’s speech.

The first critical detail is his distinction of ‘Iraqi’ and ‘Kurdish’ forces when he pointed out the benefits of the recent US airstrikes against the ISIS militants. As of today, officially, Kurds are still Iraqi citizens and any Kurd fighting against ISIS should fall under Iraqi Security Forces. So why would the President of the United States name them separately?

As many observers would agree, there is significant discontent among Turkish and Iranian policymakers towards the future of the Kurdish existence in the region. Since the central authorities of Iraq and Syria are in shambles, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are, despite the significant ISIS threat, quite content and looking to extend the sphere of their autonomous geography amid a disappeared border between Iraq and Syria. Given the sheer size of the Kurdish population in Turkey and Iran, the better-positioned Kurds in ISIS-threatened regions ring loud alarm bells. One could argue that the Turkish and Iranian hesitance to cooperate with the US-led ‘friends and allies’ coalition against ISIS has a lot to do with these two countries’ skepticism over the impact of US-led policy on ISIS in the Middle East. I don’t think, Turkey and Iran would mind as much if the US would have formed a coalition of ‘friends and allies’ to pursue supporters of ISIS in Europe and in America.


The second not-so-visible detail is the ‘unintended consequences’ of the US foreign policy, provoked the ISIS crisis, that President Obama would have to formulate and apply in the Middle East. Brilliantly, Prof. Burns pointed out this critical detail during the panel discussion, one day before the President’s speech, in regards to Obama’s decision to ‘degrade, and ultimately destroy’ the ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. However, one can also apply this term he used during the panel, ‘unintended consequences’, to US foreign policy in the Middle East since the fall of Shah in Iran.

Since 1979, many disturbing events have taken place one after another and as it looks, all the US can do is try to counter the ‘consequences’ after an ‘intended’ action has taken place. The rise of the mullah regime in Iran; the concentration of power by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then him turning on the US; the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and making a huge mess of setting up a democratic Iraq, yet falling under the influence of Iran; Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 and the unprecedented rise of Sisi (how ironic is that: the rise of ISIS and Sisi) in Egypt and the Middle East landscape looking like a town just ran over by a category 5 hurricane in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’. These are only a few of the examples of what the ‘unintended consequences’ look like.

Interestingly, President Obama does mention the ‘unintended consequences’ in different words: ”And any time we take military action, there are risks involved-…”

In his speech the ‘risks’ he mentions are about the possible loss of lives of American troops. But what he doesn’t say directly is the ‘unintended consequences’ that may arise once the US engages ISIS militarily in the Middle East. After all, isn’t the definition of ‘risk’ the same as ‘unintended consequences’?

If things develop the way they look right now, one can easily think that the US is about to try its chances with ISIS in the Middle East, but this time Americans are aware of existence of the undefined blowback. What about Turkey and Iran, are they ready for these ‘unintended consequences’?




Turkish-born UMass Boston McCormack Scholar Huseyin Sari, a combat-veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, is a second-year student in the International Relations Master’s program.