Tuesday, December 22, 2015


 By Ronald T. Fox

In various Phronesis posts I have been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and particularly of our disastrous war on terrorism, which has not only failed to stem terrorism, but, as I argued, has contributed to its growth, reach and boldness.  I have been especially critical of the Washington foreign policy elite who have proven themselves time and time again to be plagued by ignorance, fanciful thinking and tunnel vision when it comes to the Middle East.  The deference of the American public to the pronouncements and confident assurances of the foreign policy establishment, despite their long history of being wrong, boggles the mind.  Chalk up the American people as being complicit in our failed policies.    

As a number of readers have pointed out, I've been mute on what I think should be done to resolve the complex Islamic extremist mess we now face.  I have not offered a comprehensive strategy because I don’t feel I have sufficient knowledge of the dynamic forces at play in the region to provide an informed recommendation.  The conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and throughout the wider Middle East are extremely complex, featuring numerous participants with conflicting political and military agendas and strategies.  Even so-called friends aren’t on the same page.  The complexities defy the simplistic solutions offered by pandering politicians who rely on uninformed and gullible Americans to buy into add-water-and-stir solutions. These complexities, along with the fact that ISIS and other extremists already have an extensive presence in several countries outside of the Middle East, means that Islamist terrorism is an ongoing problem that can, at best, be managed, not “defeated.”

Further reading about the various challenges posed by jihadi extremists has helped me get a better fix on the complexities of the various conflicts.  I realize now that my previous posts left a lot out, particularly in regard to President Obama and his senior foreign policy team's responsibility  for ISIS’ (or ISIL's) growth and success and the mushrooming jihadist danger.  While it’s undeniable that President George Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and his administration’s blundering policies in its aftermath paved the way for the emergence of ISIS, the terrorist group would not have reached its present heights without Obama's delusional policies.  As failed as his policies have been toward Syria and Iraq, he appears inescapably wedded to them.    

Although there is much I still do not understand about the various insurgencies raging in the Middle East, what I do know for certain is that they defy a purely military solution.  We’re not going to eliminate the ISIS threat through the forceful deployment of our military power; probably not even if we were to deploy tens of thousands of troops and plan for a lengthy stay.  While President Obama seems to realize this, and he is to be commended for resisting pressures from Republicans, as well as Hillary Clinton, to militarily escalate our involvement, he has failed to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with the ISIL threat; on the contrary, his “strategy” is not only incoherent, it is fraught with cross-purposes and contradictions that ensure failure.  As I’ve argued in previously posts, there is compelling evidence it has aided and abetted the Islamist insurgency.

What would a coherent strategy look like?  I can only offer a general framework.  I'll leave it to others to fill in the details.    

As a general framework, a “winning strategy will require three, interrelated objectives: diminishing ISIL’s sources of funding and weaponry, its capacity to recruit fighters, and its military effectiveness.  Without going into details, suffice it to say our current “strategy” has failed, if not been counterproductive on all three fronts.  ISIS’ black-market oil trade continues largely uninterrupted, and its deep-pocketed financiers in the Persian Gulf remain reliable sources of money and weapons for the armed rebellion against Assad.  And, worse yet, evidence points to an on-going CIA role in transferring weapons to the Syrian opposition, most of it now in the hands of extremist fighters.  (If journalist Seymour Hersh is correct, CIA sponsorship of a secret flow of arms from Libya to the Syrian opposition via Turkey helped enable an extremist takeover of the opposition movement.  (See his essay, Military to Military, in the 7 January 2016 London Review of Books.)

The failure of states in the West to provide equal political and economic opportunities for their Islamic populations, particularly the young, who suffer from high unemployment, stagnant wages and growing income inequality, has spawned pools of disaffected Muslims ripe for jihadist recruitment.  This situation has been aggravated in the West by Islamophobia and general hostility to refugees from war-torn areas. Our military activities, especially aerial bombing, with the heavy toll it’s taken on civilians, has created an even larger pool of revenge-seeking Islamists ready to fight the great American satin.  Large numbers have come to Syria from throughout the Middle East.    

The US has also failed to deliver military defeats to ISIS on the ground.  Our desultory military campaign, mostly reliant on air power to kill Islamic State fighters and support Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish fighters and selected Sunni “friendlies” on the ground, has not deterred ISIS.  The support we have earmarked for so-called moderate anti-Assad rebels, has found its way, with the complicity of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, to extremist Islamists, mainly al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) and Ahrar al-Sham. The Obama administration has tried to cover up this inconvenient truth by designating al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as part of the “moderate” contingent.       

It seems obvious to me we need to reach beyond our current ersatz fighting coalition and forge a broader coalition that includes viable partners with anti-ISIS agendas.  Taking back ISIS-held territory, containing future gains, and ultimately wearing them down will require, contrary to what our leaders and most Americans believe, coordinated military activities with Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Shia militias, Hezbullah, and, yes, and the Syrian National Army (at least initially).  I understand how politically difficult it would be to embark on such a change as most Americans would consider this fraternizing with our enemies.  Opposition notwithstanding, it offers the only hope for a more effective military campaign.   

We will also need to use leverage to exert stronger pressure on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other gulf states to end their complicity in helping sustain jihadi militias whose only virtue is their opposition to Iran, Assad and Shiite sects.  This means pressing them to end their complicity in providing weapons to Islamist groups and crack down on their wealthy nationals who are helping fund the insurgency. This may seem like a long shot, given long-standing U.S. dependency on Middle East, and especially Saudi, oil, but the recent surge in American oil production and our efforts to develop more sustainable energy sources, now places us in a stronger position to challenge actions that are harming our national interests.  The fractured leadership in Riyadh also allows new political opportunities to exert leverage, if only we had the will.

Turkish President Erdogan must be pressured to stop permitting the transport of oil north from ISIS held territories and also cease escorting Chechen, Uighur and Uzbek fighters into Syria, where they have swelled the ranks of the al-Qaeda affiliate Ahrar al-Sham. The motivation to do so would of course require a new definition by Obama of just who our friends and enemies are.  Banking on al-Qaeda affiliates as relatively benign Islamists who could potentially be less hostile to the West than the Islamic State is a foolish gamble, reminiscent of our backing the Mujahideen and other fundamentalist Islamist groups in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to see them later morph into al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  Now the so-called moderate rebels we supported in Syria have morphed into al-Qaeda affiliates, and, through cross-fertilization, ISIS.  We seem addicted to creating our own monsters.

I cannot stress enough how critically important it is that ISIS’ military effectiveness be neutralized BEFORE a political settlement in Syria and Iraq can be possible.  The recent Security Council initiative to broker a cease fire and launch a peace process is to be applauded, but it’s not likely to bear fruit as long as ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliates remain militarily potent.   A weakened Islamic State would not only lessen the fear that leads many Sunnis (and some Shiites) to cooperate with the jihadi extremists, but would also undermine the community of interests between ISIS and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose main enemies are Iran and the Kurds, respectively.  Why back the Islamic State if it can't bring down Assad or contain Iranian influence?

This means that Obama will have to drop his insistence on Assad’s removal from office as a prerequisite to a political settlement of the Syrian civil war, an insistence that has never made any sense given the likely dire consequences of toppling Assad: at best a chaotic Libya-like failed state, and, at worst an extremist takeover and more regional instability. Fortunately the Obama Administration appears to be easing up, little by little, on this insistence.  Shifting the focus away from Assad, for the moment, is also a necessary condition to forging a broader fighting coalition that would include Russia, Shia militias and the Syrian National Army, as well as insure Russian cooperation in peace negotiations.

Obviously these recommendations will require a radical change to our current approach to the ISIS/al Qaeda/jihadist problem.  Radical change is notably not an American disposition, especially when applied to foreign policy.  I am fully aware how unlikely it is Obama will change policy direction given the psychological and emotional capital he has invested in his current course of action (it has been reported that he disregarded DIA and JCS recommendations against arming the Syrian opposition) and the little time he has left as President, especially given the apoplectic reaction that would come from conservative quarters were he to propose fraternizing with our avowed enemies.  Right-wing shit would undoubtedly hit the fan. 

Admittedly the new framework I laid out is not a concrete strategic plan of action.  I must defer to more knowledgeable observers to fill in the details on what is necessary and how we should proceed.  Out of respect for Phronesis readers looking for answers-- thirsting for a more sensible approach to the ISIS danger than total disengagement, advocated by some on the left, and a full-scale military engagement with troops on the ground advocated by militants on the Right-- I will search for and post guest essays that offer well-reasoned plans of action.        

I recently came across one such essay by Michael Brenner, a Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Fellow at the John Hopkins Transatlantic Relations Center.  Brenner’s essay, titled Getting Real: An ISIL Strategy, will be posted on Phronesis tomorrow.    

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article that that illustrates the challenges faced in ending the war in Syria along with defeating ISIS. A few years ago, I asked many friends, what could be worse than the axis of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran? Within a few months, we had al-Nushra and ISIS. What help is Turkey giving to the coalition to end the bloodshed? As stated in the last paragraph, Wahhabism coming out of Saudi Arabia is the continued underlying threat. It gave us 911, is the basis of radical Islamic theory and continues to have a negative influence throughout the Islamic world.

    We need to get our priorities straight which means to defeat ISIS first with whatever partners that will help us, even the other bad guys. I personally would like to see a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq, Syria and Turkey to act as a buffer between all these warring parties along with fulfilling the dream of all Kurds to have their own country. I understand the threat this poses to Turkey, but I can always dream.


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