America Pivots Back to the Middle East
I believe that President Obama tipped his hand as to the basic US strategy for IS in Iraq and Syria when he stated that the US goal was to reduce IS to “a manageable problem.” Once the appalling implications of this apparent endorsement of a permanent presence for the transnational, decapitation-happy caliphate sank in, Joe Biden was sent out for damage control with the hyperbolic message that the US would pursue IS “to the gates of hell.” Well, truth be told, actually entering the gates of hell and thoroughly sorting out the mess it created in the Middle East is apparently the one thing that the US isn’t very eager to do.
One of the ironic things about the current situation is that, as the United States has pinned the “Hitler of the Month” label on a succession of adversaries–Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jung Un, Bashar al Assad, Vladmir Putin—it seems unwilling and unable to so characterize the most Hitlery of forces to emerge in recent years, the IS Caliphate. The IS Caliphate is an expansionist, belligerent, intolerant, and eliminationist threat to people and states in the region.
If the UN Security Council clubbed together to mount a genuine transnational effort against IS, it would be doing the kind of thing it was originally designed to do at the close of World War II. It would also involve an intensive counter-insurgency operation in Iraq and Syria along the lines of the Anbar Awakening which, not to put too fine a point on it, was a tag-team exercise in local identification of, and JSOC death squad liquidation of, al Qaeda assets in Anbar province, coupled with massive financial subsidies to employ and sideline potential AQ fighters and allies. The current analog would be clubbing together with Bashar Assad in Syria, the Saudi and Turkish military, and, hopefully, some cooperative sheiks in Sunni Iraq, to drive IS to ground. But we’re not going to get that. For one thing, the US and UK have already stated that they will not work with Bashar Assad in planning their anti-IS air strikes in Syria because “we don’t like him” is sufficient justification for brushing aside Syrian sovereignty.
As Ian Black approvingly tells us in that reliable chronicle of neoliberal folly, the Guardian:
The pragmatic western case for working with the Syrian president is that the war is at a stalemate and his cooperation is vital in the face of the Isis menace. Obama and Cameron are not buying this. Additional arguments deployed against engagement with Assad are that he cannot be trusted and that helping bolster his position would alienate Sunnis in Iraq and Syria whose support is needed to fight Isis. In the words of Nadim Shehadi, the Chatham House analyst, the Syrian leader has all the credibility of a convicted arsonist offering his services as a firefighter.
It could also be said that working with Assad would alienate Sunnis more powerful and influential than local figures in Iraq and Syria, specifically the leaders running Saudi Arabia and Turkey—both of whom has invested considerable political capital in the “Assad must go” campaign and have accelerated Syria’s slide into hell by pouring money, arms, and jihadis into the conflict. The US, which also bet on the oust-Assad line, probably didn’t need much convincing to slap aside Assad’s offer of assistance. There is also a more dubious game afoot. The West has apparently decided to put its chips on a reworking of the heretofore terminally inept and corrupt “moderate” anti-Assad alliance instead of working out a modus vivendi with the Syrian government.
Cynically and, I’m afraid, accurately, the US position might be characterized as: Assad was beating the West and GCC in Syria, but the unnerving rise of IS has upset the chessboard.
Now the US has an opportunity to go in, help set up the chessboard, rearrange the pieces in a more favorable configuration…and add a few pieces of its own. And I expect the prospect of sticking it to Assad was the deciding factor in White House deliberations as to the political advisability of dipping America’s toe into the Middle East inferno once again.
Peace and stability in the Middle East might be beyond our reach in other words, but nailing Assad after four years of invective, sanctions, anti-diplomacy, and subversion: that’s a Win! for a beleaguered foreign policy team that has not much to show for its recent tenure.
The devolution of President Obama’s foreign policy in his second term into what I characterize to be moronic, reactive, middle finger hugger-mugger from China to Ukraine to Gaza to the Middle East has not, I believe, received the attention it deserves from America’s army of plugged-in Washington journos. Instead of “not doing stupid sh*t” and pivoting away from the Middle Eastern morass to Asia, the US is back in the thick of it, stirring the sh*t in a manner clumsy and shortsighted enough to put America’s friends as well as adversaries on notice that having the US apply its foreign policy expertise to their region is not necessarily an unalloyed good.
The obvious explanation is the reign of Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, and the president’s first choice for Secretary of State before Benghazi sidelined her and John Kerry got shoehorned into the position. She appears to be a combative short-term oriented pol who—I never thought I’d say this—makes me nostalgic for the calculated opportunism of Hillary Clinton.
So, instead of a multinational effort to uproot IS and perhaps restore Syria and Iraq to some semblance of normalcy, we get an alliance of the usual neoliberal suspects, led by the United States and NATO—the “core coalition” of Christian Atlanticist powers plus Turkey–to pursue a few agenda items that were previously unattainable and are not exactly harbingers for a return to stability in the Middle East. First, NATO, America’s murderously dysfunctional European strategic asset, is reaffirmed as the global U.S. partner in geopolitical mischief, ready to reprise the role as handmaiden to disaster that it performed so enthusiastically in Afghanistan and Libya. Second, the ouster of Maliki as Prime Minister, whose removal was unambiguously linked to the provision of US military support to Iraq against IS, but seems to mean little more than reassurance to Saudi Arabia that the US is not dancing exclusively to a Shia/Iranian tune in Iraq.
Maliki is now a VP in the new Iraqi government and the PM is a Shia empty suit, Haidar al-Abadi. The breakthrough Maliki’s removal was supposed to catalyze—the appearance of an anti-IS alliance of Iraqi Sunni politicians—has yet to materialize. Or, per Reuters:
A senior Kurdish politician listed the tasks, which include winning Sunnis back from armed revolt, persuading Kurds not to break away and convincing Abadi’s own Shi’ites that he has the steel to protect them from fighters bent on their annihilation. “He has to make Maliki happy. He has to make the (Shi’ite religious leadership) happy. He has to make the Sunnis happy to turn them against IS. He has to make us very, very happy. He has to make the Americans happy, he has to make the Iranians happy.” “Can he? I don’t think so.”
Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Bashari, a 52-year old leader of Sunni anti-government demonstrations Maliki tried to crush last year, said Abadi must distance himself from his predecessor. “Abadi should let the Sunnis feel that they are first class citizens, not like Maliki, who made them feel that they are not part of this country.” He said Abadi will fail to woo the Sunnis unless he can disband the Shi’ite militias that Maliki first opposed but in the past year increasingly relied on to defend Iraqi cities when the army proved incapable. “Maliki was stronger than him and he couldn’t do it,” Bashari said, adding that Sunnis would never fight against Islamic State as long as they see the Sunni Islamist fighters as protectors against the Shi’ite militias. The tribes will never fight any group which defended their cities, including the Islamic State.
Not quite time for US to get the “Iraq—We Fixed It!” gold star in my opinion.
Third, a renewed effort to use the anti-IS campaign to reconstitute and enhance the anti-Assad opposition without helping Assad.
Job one: use the IS threat to compel the Syrian Kurds—an effective regional military force which to date showed a wise distaste for joining the floundering anti-Assad crusade and instead concentrated on securing its ethnic stronghold—to join hands with the Free Syrian Army. Per Reuters on the grand strategy, which is scheduled for a test drive in a joint operation north of Aleppo:
The fight against Islamic State could at last win Syria’s Kurds the Western help they have sought, but they must first clarify their relationship to President Bashar al-Assad and reassure Turkey that they won’t cause trouble on its border. Part of his plan is to enhance support for moderate Sunni Arab groups, who are fighting against both Assad and Islamic State. The Kurds say they are cooperating with the same groups, notably in a battle for territory north of Aleppo. For such cooperation to take hold, the Syrian Kurds and moderate Sunni Arabs must shelve suspicions of each other’s aims. Aleppo could be a test case. The Islamic State’s advance in territory north of the city is threatening supply lines for other Sunni Arab groups and also poses a risk for Kurdish interests in the town of Afrin and elsewhere.
On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the U.S. helping the Syrian government reconquer the key provincial capital of Raqqa and sweep IS fighters out of the Taqba Air Base very soon. Safe to say, an important calculus for the United States in striking against IS will be, can the “moderate Syrian opposition,” and not Assad, seize and hold the territory that IS abandons? Can attacks and the promise of close US support and weapons be orchestrated to achieve the redefection of FSA fighters out of the IS ranks and into the “moderate” coalition? Can the war against IS be fought while demanding the departure of Assad and the establishment of a “government of national unity” in Damascus as the price for US aid?
Plenty of employment, in other words, for America’s eager but not particularly successful Middle East boffins, who have campaigned through the region for the last three decades under the banner “This Time We’re Really Gonna Get It Right!” (alternate mottos: “There Are No Bad Policies, Only Bad Clients” and “When In Doubt, Elevate Process Above Results”).
Assad, of course, will not stand idly by, nor will his allies in Russia and Hezbollah. And, if the US plans for Syria hinge on Iran throwing Assad under the bus for the sake of the nuclear deal, that may not happen either. My chosen metaphor is, The US is trying to play the Syria regime change melody on a piano as it’s thrown out of a window. I’m expecting crashing, screaming, and horror, and not much beautiful music.
In an attempt to explain away the US/KSA/Turkish role in the rise of IS and justify giving the back of the hand to Assad, a considerable amount of flummery has been printed in the Western press along the lines of “Assad allowed the IS threat to burgeon.” Actually, Assad had his hands full dealing with a foreign supported insurrection that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey laid on after the outgunned domestic democratic movement and the woeful MB-dominated émigré opposition failed to seal the regime-change deal. In real time, I wrote about Assad’s attempt to close the books on the Syrian uprising (with Russian and Chinese support) by crushing resistance inside Homs, Tiananmen-like, in February 2012 and then offering parliamentary elections. The US and its buddies were adamant this not happen, and opened the doors to two years (and counting) of hell in Syria.
From May 16, 2012: “Syria: Is this country headed straight to hell or what?”
I think that it is worth noting that at that time total fatalities in Syria were somewhere around 2 to 3000. They now number well over 200,000. Speaking once more of courage deficits in the Middle East, conspicuously missing in action today (as well as two years ago) are two major regional powers whose active military participation would be very useful in knocking down IS: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi money and Turkish havens have been central to IS’ success. Both of them, while engaging in extravagant public excoriations of IS, are well aware of the blowback that will result from genuine and excessively vigorous anti-IS moves.
The IS rear–both its havens in Turkey and its military front lines in northern Syria–would appear to be quite vulnerable to Turkish attack. Turkey, however, is wound up in the issue of 46 Turkish hostages seized by IS in Mosul. The Turkish government has instituted a national press blackout on discussion of the hostages, many of whom are Turkish government consular workers, but it appears likely the fear is that “heads will roll” if Turkey makes aggressive moves against IS. Even as the United States has bombed IS positions in Iraq, the Turkish government has been extremely anxious to declare the jets did not take off from the NATO base in Turkey at Incirlik.
Another interesting IS hostage is the handsome tomb of Suleyman Shah. In an interesting quirk of history and treaty-writing, Turkey claims the environs of the tomb, the “exclave,” a term with which I was previously not familiar. The original tombsite was flooded under Lake Assad when the Taqba Bam was completed in 1973; the relocated tomb lies about 20 miles over the Turkish border in Syria, and is guarded by Turkish troops.
As the anti-IS coalition groaned into life, IS threatened to destroy the tomb, which would put a dent in the neo-Ottoman pretensions to regional hegemony entertained by the current Turkish government and, I would imagine, add to Turkey’s hostage woes by seizure of the guards. (Since any situation in the Middle East cannot be addressed without recourse to irony, a phone conversation leaked in March 2014 revealed that then Turkish PM Recip Erdogan, when he was as hot to intervene in Syria as he is today keen to stay out, considered mounting a false flag attack on the tomb in order to justify a Turkish military incursion.) Per Reuters, on Turkey’s IS “predicament”:
In deference to Turkey’s predicament, Washington aims to have Ankara focus on halting the flow of foreign militants, including many from the United States and Western Europe, who have crossed its territory to join the fight in Syria. “Everybody understands that the Turks are in a special category,” said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity, alluding to the safety of Turkey’s hostages and the reluctance of one neighbor to attack another for fear of retaliation. “Turkey will be part of the coalition but what does that mean? It doesn’t cost much to get your flag up on the wall.”
Bookended with Turkish timidity is Saudi Arabia’s trademark passivity in openly and honestly confronting Wahabbist jihadi forces. As to what Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Assad, can bring to the party (excluding its military assets like its 300 combat aircraft, 315 main battle tanks, eight artillery battalions and three armored brigades), a Saudi op-ed in the New York Times tell us it is the invincible power of Saudi Arabian theological legitimacy:
Saudi Arabia is the only authority in the region with the power and legitimacy to bring ISIS down. Having effectively eradicated Al Qaeda in the kingdom, the Saudi government, with its experience fighting terrorism, is uniquely positioned to deal with ISIS, which is, after all, an Al Qaeda-aligned organization. The kingdom has built up an impressive counterterrorism program and its counterterrorism strategies are considered some of the most sophisticated and effective in the world. More importantly, the Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’ monstrous terrorist ideology. The message sent to the Muslim and Arab worlds as Saudi Arabia takes on ISIS is radically different from — and much preferable to — the message sent if the United States does so, especially given America’s recent disastrous record in the Middle East.
This op-ed seems to be saying that Saudi Arabia sees its main role in the struggle as orchestrating anti-IS invective in Friday sermons by bespoke clerics, and then it’s simply the job of the West to roll up the delegitimized, isolated, and demoralized IS terrorists. When one considers that the main tactic of Saudi Arabia in dealing with terrorism is to try to export it and its practitioners outside of the Kingdom, its ability to wrangle IS in Iraq and Syria to its knees with the irresistible power of Salafist orthodoxy is open to question.
The one fight that I believe Saudi Arabia is pursuing with immense vigor is its efforts to tar its regional rival, Qatar, with the IS-supporter accusation. When I consider that IS and Saudi Arabia share a hard-core Salafist orientation, and Qatar was supporting, both through its diplomacy and via the Al Jazeera media platform, a rival form of modernized political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia considers an existential threat to its theocratic rule and drove out of power in Libya, Egypt, and from the leadership of the Syrian opposition, I take this assertion with more than a grain of salt.
Safe to say, the anti-IS campaign will not involve acknowledging the Assad regime’s legitimacy and sovereignty over Syria, let alone the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey trying to redress the horrific regional and human consequences of their botched regime-change policy in Syria and Iraq.
Instead, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the various pilot fish that follow the Western/GCC policy will pursue a triple game of weakening IS, seeking to strengthen the FSA through US-brokered alliances and hiving support away from IS, and putting the FSA in a stronger position—buttressed by the hardened fighters it had lost to IS, and closer support and coordination—to bring down Assad.
IS will probably be “managed” i.e. it will be deemed impossible to uproot it and restore the writ of secular inclusive national governments in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria, areas that in the future may be something other than the IS Caliphate, but can be called the “Jihadi Archipelago” a neologism I am tempted to trademark. Unfortunately, the main weapons for managing IS do not appear to be unity, resolve, and “chasing to the gates of hell” brio. The tools to be employed are cupidity, cowardice, and cowardly opportunism. Even with US air, missile, and drone strikes, that’s not a sure recipe for success. I would say good luck with that, but I think that the people of Syria deserve better after two and a half years of jihadi insurrection brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia. As a final reminder of what the Syrian and Iraqi people want, it’s peace.