By Mick Krever, CNN
U.S. President Barack Obama must show the world that he is “all in” if there is any hope of defeating ISIS, two veteran American diplomats told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, hours before President Obama was set to reveal his plan to fight ISIS in a primetime address.
“We are fighting a mortal enemy, an existential enemy. We win or we pay,” said Ryan Crocker, who has served as American ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
“It's all about American leadership. Either we assert it now or we don't win this fight.”
President Obama must demonstrate that “we're all in. We are in with a coalition that we will lead, and we are going to stick with it as long as it takes.”
“He was not all in in Libya…Nothing good is going to happen in Iraq, in Syria, and in the region without American leadership, and in our system that means presidential leadership.”
Some have suggested that ISIS, though clearly radical, is not as big a threat to the American homeland as was al Qaeda. Crocker vigorously disputes that, and calls ISIS “al Qaeda 6.0.”
“They are more numerous. They are better armed. They are far better financed. They are better experienced.”
“And perhaps most critically, there are several thousand of them who hold Western passports, including American passports. They don't need to get a visa. They just need to get on a plane.”
“If we don't think we're on their target list, we are delusional.”
President Obama has long been wary of becoming entangled in the Syrian civil war, overruling then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her effort to arm the moderate Syrian opposition.
Robert Ford, who was the American ambassador to Syria at the time, said that that decision “absolutely” contributed to the rise of ISIS.
“Had they been better equipped, the moderate elements, say, in 2012 -2013, sure, it would have helped.”
Nonetheless, Crocker told Amanpour, the “most critical fight” for America is not against ISIS, but the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government “that will stand together against a common enemy.”
Some have suggested that the West should work with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to defeat ISIS, their common enemy.
“I personally don't see how Assad is going to help us very much against the Islamic State,” Ford said, referring to the name that ISIS now uses for itself. “The Islamic State has defeated Assad's forces in eastern Syria largely.”
“Assad's forces are growing tired. They just don't have the bodies. They don't have the manpower to retake central and eastern Syria. So I don't see in an operational sense how he's going to help.”
“And politically, it's very damaging with our regional friends – countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others.”
Crocker suggested late last year that Assad could be the “least worst option” in Syria. Now, with the emergence of an “existential enemy” in the form of ISIS, circumstance have changed, he said.
Similarly the two dismissed the idea that America should explicitly work with Iran, which is also fighting in Iraq. American airstrikes and Iranian militiamen were both behind the recent liberation of the Iraqi city of Amerli.
“The worst thing we could do right now as they still struggle through this is to look as though we are supporting Iran and Iran's surrogates inside Iraq,” Crocker said. “That will send the Sunnis completely in the wrong direction.”
“The Iranians are promoting the use of Iraqi undisciplined Shia militias, which are themselves guilty of sectarian killings.”
“The second reason that I think that we really can't do much with Iran is that their strategic goal in Syria is to maintain Bashar al-Assad. But it's pretty clear that the continued survival of the Assad regime has both directly and indirectly helped the Islamic State.”
It is only through American leadership, Crocker reiterated, that America will be able to defeat ISIS.
President Obama “has said that he is ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…You don't end a war by walking off the battlefield and leaving it to your enemies.”