Archives For: Syria

Juan Cole argues that containment is the superior strategy for answering the challenge posed by ISIS, noting that “the most effective campaigns in which the US air force has been involved have been more or less defensive”:

A minimalist, defensible position for the US could have been to say that the US will intervene aerially to ensure that Erbil and Baghdad don’t fall, but that recovering the Sunni Arab areas that Nouri al-Maliki had alienated was up to Iraqi politicans and forces. And a minimalist strategy could have simply ignored the Syrian side of the border. It is true that ISIL has a big base in Raqqah and uses its Syrian assets to support its operations in Iraq. But ISIL successes in Iraq were in any case not mainly military but rather political. Since this is so, the military position of ISIL in Syria isn’t really so central to its taking of Mosul, Tikrit, etc. Nor would holding Raqqah help it to hold Mosul if Mosul turned against it.

The US was very good in the Cold War at containing Stalinism but very bad at defeating a guerrilla group like the Vietcong. It was the former that mattered in the end.

He’s right. And I say that not from any ideological position, but simply by observing US policy failure this past decade. To try and do the same thing again when it didn’t work before is the mark of insanity. Jane Harman wants to go to war with the ideology of extremism, rather than the terror groups themselves:

What’s much more challenging is to confront—and defuse—the ideologies that underpin these groups. The jargon for this is “countering violent extremism” (CVE), a crucial part of the strategy that’s underfunded and hard as all get-out to accomplish. If we lump both al Qaeda and ISIL into one bucket labeled “terror,” we’ll never pull it off.

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Could the messaging get any worse? Eli Lake and Josh Rogin wonder how the president will maintain his light-touch approach to fighting ISIS when his people, specifically his top military brass, keep hinting that they favor a more direct intervention:

The internal dissent is likely to intensify with Obama’s choice of John Allen to lead the international campaign to persuade U.S. allies to pony up troops, money, and arms for his new war. Allen, a retired general beloved by Washington’s neoconservatives, has called for a robust U.S. war against ISIS since June. Obama and Allen sat down together Tuesday at the White House. Soon after he retired in 2013, Allen took a veiled shot at his old and now new boss, observing that in the wake of Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, “the body count is going up, the bloodletting is going up.”

As the details of the president’s new war plan leak out this week, many of Allen’s former colleagues and lawmakers wonder whether the president’s new special envoy will be able to convince Arab and European states to get behind a strategy they see as amounting to a half-measure.

Friedersdorf points out that if Obama didn’t want his administration going off-message and calling for more war, he shouldn’t have staffed it with hawks:

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Yishai Schwartz offers up one, arguing that the president’s approach to ISIS has been perfectly coherent, and not just a reaction to the beheading videos or polls:

Obama began ramping up interventions in Iraq well before these murders, and he did so in response to substantive strategic realities. It was in mid-June that Islamic State militants routed the far larger and better-equipped units of the Iraqi army. Only days later, reports began to surface that President Obama had offered air strikes in support of the Iraqi military, but made them conditional on Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s resignation. On August 7, IS militants seized the crucial Mosul Dam.

The same day, profound humanitarian and strategic considerations forced President Obama to compromise somewhat on pressuring Maliki, as he authorized his first air strikes to protect the besieged Yezidi population and to bolster buckling Kurdish forces. Around the same time, the U.S. began to build the international coalition against IS that would emerge weeks later. On August 15, Maliki finally caved to international and internal pressure and stepped aside, and on August 17, American forces helped the Kurds retake the Mosul dam. All of this occurred well before the video of Foley’s murder went online.

This chain of events does not look like a sudden reversal after pressure from post-beheading opinion polls. It looks like a roadmap to war …

I guess you can take this to be reassuring – if you believe in a sustained, perpetual US war in Iraq (currently a war that has lasted from 1990 – 2014). Schwartz’s reading of the chronology is also problematic:

a steadily deteriorating strategic situation, an expressed American willingness to strike predicated on the meeting of a condition, the fulfilment of the condition …

But a clear-eyed assessment of the actual situation does not lead many to believe that IS was about to take over all of Iraq. If it were, do you think Turkey would be hanging back? In fact, its capture of Mosul may well have been its high watermark – unless Americanizing the war gives IS a new lease on life. Then “the meeting of a condition”. I think that refers to getting rid of Maliki. But that was not the condition. The condition was a unified, multi-sectarian government in Iraq – which was the point of the “surge” as well. It never happened under the surge – which is why it failed; and it hasn’t happened even as these loons have come close to Baghdad.

Today, the Iraqi parliament could not confirm the new prime minister’s nominations for the defense and interior ministries – the two that really count, and the two that are still a function of Iraq’s permanent sectarian divides. So as the US president commits this country to war in defense of “Iraq”, the same “Iraq” is so divided it cannot form the government that Obama explicitly said was a prerequisite. Which means it was not a prerequisite. It was more bullshit for an open-ended war with no Plan B that had already been decided upon.

To me, that does not seem something that we elected Obama to do. Au contraire. I will add a couple more points: General Dempsey today filled in the blanks for what happens after the current “strategy” fails:

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Desperately Seeking Moderates, Ctd

Sep 16 2014 @ 3:22pm

The House is working on an authorization to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels:

The House Armed Services Committee has drafted an amendment to grant authorization to the President to arm and train Syrian rebels opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). There are some strings attached, including requiring that the Pentagon report to Congress 15 days before it plans to train and equip the rebels, and provide subsequent updates to relevant committees every 90 days. The language will be included as an amendment to a government funding bill that needs to pass Congress by the end of the month to avert a partial government shut down. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a key member of the House GOP whip team, said the amendment will pass this week.

But these “moderates” we’re supposed to be counting on seem to be on their last legs, to the point that a major American support group for them disbanded last month:

On August 19, the Syrian Support Group, which had previously arranged a few shipments of nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army, sent a letter to donors explaining why the group was shutting its doors. “Over the last year, the political winds have changed,” the letter read. “The rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [an Al Qaeda-affiliated opposition force in Syria] and the internal divisions among rebel forces on the ground have complicated our efforts to provide direct support.”

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Ali Murat Yel defends Turkey’s reluctance to join the war coalition against ISIS:

Public opinion in Turkey holds that a Muslim cannot be a terrorist and any terrorist cannot be a Muslim. In other words, terrorism and Islam cannot be reconciled. This public conviction is certainly the real attitude of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has formed the Alliance of Civilizations with Spain against the expectation in some quarters of a “clash of civilizations” and has been trying to restore peace with different ethnic groups in Turkey. The President himself and the majority of Turkish people believe that terrorism could be defeated intellectually not through waging war on them.

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Fear And Loathing In Lebanon

Sep 15 2014 @ 7:45pm

Sulome Anderson checks in from Tripoli, the northern Lebanese town that has become a microcosm of the Syrian civil war and which today “seems to lie in ISIS’s shadow”:

Although the extremist and ultraviolent Sunni group has few open supporters here, the appearance of pro-ISIS paraphernalia and graffiti, the clash last month in the Bekaa, and the fact that Tripoli’s Sunni-majority population has a historical tendency toward radicalism, have raised worries that the group might gain a foothold here and send the city into a spiral of deepening violence.

Local tensions in Tripoli follow essentially the same ethnic lines as those in Syria’s war:

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Can America “Destroy” ISIS?

Sep 15 2014 @ 7:14pm

Tomasky wishes Obama would treat Americans like grownups and admit that we can’t eradicate the evil embedded in ISIS:

We’ve been trying to destroy Al Qaeda for 13 years now. We have not. We will not. And we will not destroy ISIS. We can’t destroy these outfits. They’re too nimble and slippery and amorphous, and everybody knows it. So why say it? Why not say what we hopefully can do and what we should do: contain it. We have contained Al Qaeda. Some of the methods have been morally problematic (drone strikes that sometimes kill innocents, etc.), but the methods have worked. Al Qaeda, say the experts, is now probably not in a position to pull off a 9/11. Containment is fine. It does the job. But no, I guess a president can’t say that. A president has to sound like John Wayne. It’s depressing and appalling.

Steve Chapman explains why, in his view, the war against ISIS is unlikely to succeed:

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Aaron Blake flags a new poll showing lackluster public confidence that Obama’s approach to ISIS will work, even though most support military action against the group:

This vote of no/little confidence, without a doubt, owes in part to the tough situations in the two Middle Eastern counties the United States has attempted to stabilize over the past decade: Afghanistan and Iraq. Given those experiences, it’s not surprising that Americans would be pessimistic about succeeding against the Islamic State.

But Obama’s persistently low approval rating on foreign policy suggests that it’s also in large part because people doubt he’s up to the task. Polls have repeatedly shown that people don’t think Obama is tough enough. This is an extension of that.

Philip Klein observes that Americans want ISIS destroyed but don’t want to make too many commitments or sacrifices to that end:

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Desperately Seeking Moderates

Sep 15 2014 @ 1:59pm

Juan Cole complicates the administration’s plans to fight ISIS in Syria by partnering with “moderate” rebel factions:

Obama’s desire to support a “moderate” opposition will lead him to back to the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. But Saudi Arabia, one of Obama’s major partners, has declared the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and they have the money to make that stick. With Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (because of their Muslim Brotherhood ties), Obama by allying with them is basically allying with the murky Islamic Front, which has some al-Qaeda elements and now has turned openly anti-democracy and anti-rights for minorities.

Saudi Arabia will provide training camps for the rebels of the “moderate” opposition. But it is rumored that the Saudis are behind the splinter group from the Free Syrian army, the “Islamic Front.” It rejects democratic elections. The Islamic Front is full of people who have continued to have rigid religious views but who are trying to find new allies. The Saudis will be training people, in other words, very much like the Islamic State fighters in their fundamentalism, but who are less hostile to Saudi Arabia and perhaps slightly less openly brutal. That’s a “moderate” Sunni opposition?

Even the NYT editorial board is skeptical of this plan. Jamie Dettmer still wonders who these “moderates” are supposed to be, anyway:

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The Obama administration is now saying that “several” Arab countries will participate in an air war against ISIS but won’t say which:

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Paris, declined to say which states had offered to contribute air power, an announcement that White House officials said could await his return to testify in Congress early this week. State Department officials, who asked not to be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters, said Arab nations could participate in an air campaign against ISIS in other ways without dropping bombs, such as by flying arms to Iraqi or Kurdish forces, conducting reconnaissance flights or providing logistical support and refueling. “I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these Arab members haven’t offered to do airstrikes, because several of them have,” one State Department official said.

Ian Black considers the interests of our likely partners, saying Arab support is symbolically important but might not be that helpful:

Military capability is not a problem: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar together have hundreds of advanced fighter aircraft, though the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has next to no experience of coordination. Politically, however, fighting with the US would require greater determination than they have yet shown to tackle the jihadis who have sent shockwaves across the region.

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