U.S. Should Bomb ISIS ... and Assad
Last summer, as President Obama was strolling along the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, contemplating airstrikes on the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta district of Damascus, everyone who until then had professed confusion or ignorance as to the complicated nature of the Syria conflict became an expert on the subject overnight. A special focus was on the anti-Assad rebels’ perceived shortcomings and alleged extremist orientation. If America was to have another war in the Middle East, our media establishment would be damned if it was to be on “slam-dunk” pretenses or in the service of inscrutable beneficiaries. Articles were duly produced attempting to link the nominally US-backed Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to terrorists – no matter if the timeline or the evidence got a bit fudged in the rush to press. Questions both hard- and tender-headed were asked, not least by congressmen with tetchy constituencies. If we further armed these proxies, wouldn’t the weapons fall into the hands of terrorists? Why wasn’t the poorly-armed and poorly-trained FSA waging a multi-front effort against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, now IS), the regime, Hezbollah, the shabiha, Iranian-built National Defense Forces, and Iranian-built Iraqi Shia militias? If we weakened Assad, would the rebels take Damascus – and if so, then what? Could we afford to see “another Benghazi” occur in a country where we no longer had an embassy or consulate? How could we weaken Assad, even in an “unbelievably small” manner and if only once to teach him a lesson, when he had “formidable” air defense systems capable of downing American aircraft?
The very arguments trotted out against the Obama administration’s seemingly imminent intervention were in fact the very inventions of his administration, which had spent two years drumming them in to a more complacent and accommodating press, then eager to justify the standing policy of non-intervention. But as the policy appeared to change, so too did the urgency of the facts – or, at any rate, the information. Luckily, Vladimir Putin came along with a deal to save everyone from themselves. Not a single shot was fired. This is why there have been more chemical attacks, Assad’s chemical production facilities are still intact, and no one really knows for sure if all of his sarin or tabun stockpiles have been destroyed.
Well, summer is once again drawing to a close, Syria’s death toll has about doubled, and Obama is once again strolling the White House grounds in deep, photo-opped thought with McDonough. Only this time, the prospective war on their minds is against the IS, which, in the intervening year, has made a staggering conquest of territory, "slightly larger" than the United Kingdom, running from the Levant to Mesopotamia.
The IS is the most well-financed and successful terrorist organization in history; it operates, according to military experts, more as a terrorist army run by a functioning terrorist state. Its fighters range between 10,000 and 80,000 in number, depending on who’s counting – and everyone is. It commands a corps of foreign volunteers drawn collectively from a host of nations, including the United States, Britain, France and Belgium, the domestic security services of which are said to be stretched trying to monitor them all. Assuming that these foreign-born jihadists have not destroyed their passports, and assuming that Turkey’s border control is as lax as I remember it, there is every expectation that a few will return to their countries of origin and continue their holy war at home. In fact, they don’t even have to return from Syria to make the IS’s presence felt in the West: this new, too-extreme-for-al-Qaeda franchise can easily inspire or radicalize “lone wolves” sympathetic to the revolutionary romanticism it claims to espouse. YouTube sermons of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the latest takfiri hurrahs on Twitter may be all that is needed to have a disaffected teenager, whom everyone will later remember as the pleasant, fun-loving sort, decide to set something off in his native city. Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell said that he “would not be surprised” if an “ISIS member showed up in a mall in the United States tomorrow with an AK-47 and killed a number of Americans.” I would not be surprised if Baghdadi already relishes that idea.
Officials have deemed the IS more of a menace to US national security than al-Qaeda was before 9/11. The threat quotient was upped dramatically last week with the gruesome videoed beheading of James Foley, and the promised sequel performance with another captive US journalist, Steven Sotloff. A female American aid worker is also being held by the group.
So now Obama finds himself in a wholly new predicament. He has reluctantly reactivated one war, the end of which he heralded, to forestall genocide against the Yazidis and to protect Kurdistan, the one relative success story of US intervention in Iraq. His actions have conceded that he was quite premature in dismissing the ISIS threat last January as the “jayvee team” against Osama bin Laden’s Kobe Bryant. American interests are now decidedly “involved” in Syria. Obama appears increasingly likely to expand the war against the IS to the stateless remains of that country, a campaign which will undoubtedly be of longer duration than last year’s proposed one-off airstrikes. (It may even eventually lead to what State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf once said any intervention in Syria would entail: dispatching 18-year-olds from Ohio to Damascus.) Unmentioned by his National Security Council or his surrogates in the think tank world is the awkward fact that a commander-in-chief who told the United Nations in 2011 that the “tide of war is receding” may well leave office with the United States embroiled in more simultaneous military conflicts in the Middle East than his reviled predecessor did. History has its lurid sense of humor. And suddenly everyone has become an expert again.
For the better part of three years it had been apparent that Assad’s propaganda was aimed at luring the West into a sordid compact with his regime founded on supposedly shared counterterrorism principles. According to this narrative, his victims, some of them as young as a few months old, were suicide bombers and head-loppers, akin to the fanatics who brought down the World Trade Center and left a crater in the side of the Pentagon. If United States learned just one lesson from a decade of fighting sacred terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should be that “secular” Syria was its true ally against Gulf-abetted Sunni fundamentalism. (It mattered not at all that this elaborate courtship ritual competed with the more workaday premise out of Syrian state media organs that Washington was a grand conspirator working with Riyadh and Jerusalem in trying to fell the last great citadel of Arab anti-imperialism.)
Assad’s propaganda didn’t do quite so well at first because peaceful protestors preceded armed combatants as his opponents and because horrifying atrocities captured on film or in NGO reports eclipsed self-evident nonsense. But now that the IS monster looms large in the American imagination, his argument is beginning to find purchase. Events from 2011 until now are being forgotten and forgiven; for all intents and purposes, Syrian history began for many when Foley’s head was sawed from his body. So what if Assad is a war criminal who gassed 1,500 people in a capital city and continues to drop barrel and chlorine bombs on many thousands more? Who cares if evidence has come to light of the regime’s industry of torture and murder, the scale and barbarity of which invoke the Holocaust (to use one State Department official’s historical reference point)? Assad’s well-documented record of harboring and dispatching al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq to blow up American soldiers? Well, that was six years ago – a millennium in geopolitical terms. Can the US really contain or defeat Sunni terrorism by seconding Shiite and Alawite military power? Hey, it’s a worth a shot. The period of condemning him or planning Assad’s “transition” from power is at an end, we are told. The only recourse is to hold our noses and face the harsh reality that he and his security master, Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, are our only credible partners in confronting the IS. After all, they’ve been confronting it for two years, haven’t they?
This thesis has been regurgitated lately by a number of people who should know better and by a number of people constitutionally incapable of knowing better. Room-temperature establishment elders Richard Haas and Leslie Gelb have advanced it, prompting whispers and nudges in the Beltway that this “unthinkable” policy option has indeed been thought on and entertained at the highest levels in the White House. Based on a few suspect and anonymously sourced news articles, it may now even be a reality.
Already there are allegations of indirect US-Assad intelligence sharing on the IS appearing in Britain’s Independent and Agence France-Presse, albeit written by journalists whose accommodationist posture toward Damascus is an open secret among journalists. The State Department vehemently denies that these reports have any merit whatsoever, but even if that’s true, the allegations are plausible enough to help further the regime’s self-congratulatory plot-line that America has at last come around to agreeing with its own – not to mention Russia and Iran’s – original prescription.
Precisely because this rapprochement argument is gaining ground in many policy and analysis circles, and because it objectively furthers a case for a different kind of US intervention in Syria, editors are now willing to commission articles proving that an alliance with Assad out of pragmatism or necessity is wrongheaded or at least highly suspect – confirming, however joylessly, what many prior interventionists and Syrian opposition figures have been saying all along. Namely:
-- Assad never really made war against the IS a priority until recently, as one of his own advisors (in the Ministry of Reconciliation, no less) has just felt confident enough to admit to the New York Times. In fact, Assad financed ISIS through oil sales and let many of its mid- or top-ranking figures out of Sednaya prison in 2011, knowing full well they’d go back to jihad, and largely left it alone to establish a command center in Raqqa, where it runs military training camps and administers a totalitarian form of government, replete with the brainwashing of Arab youth. Only after the IS sacked Mosul on June 10 – and probably only because Suleimani ordered it – did a Syrian Air Force campaign against the terrorists begin in earnest, ending what Ambassador Fred Hof has called the “de facto collaboration” between Assad and the IS.
-- Unlike the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which helped expel it from Idlib last February (and which is even now turning on Jabhat al-Nusra), and unlike the Islamic Front, which helped expel it from most of Aleppo, the regime is quite lousy at fighting the IS. In the past few weeks, IS militants overran the Shaer gas field in Palmyra in July, killing or executing close to 300 regime forces and/or militiamen from the Quds Force-trained National Defense Forces. The IS suffered only a fraction of those losses before the field was ultimately retaken. Syrian regulars have fared no better at the Division 17 installation or Tabqa air base, which the IS seized last week, giving them total control over the entire province of Raqqa and a straight shot to the putatively no-go Alawite coast. Severed heads of regime troops and militiamen from Division 17 have been stuck on pikes and paraded on social media in another clear endorsement of the kind of deal many are advocating Washington make with an incompetent devil.
-- Assad’s belated interest in combating the IS and his piss-poor performance has been so conspicuous that even his supporters have begun to notice. “The jihadist offensive has prompted some panicked supporters of the Syrian government to sharply criticize the leadership,” the New York Times’ Beirut correspondent Anne Barnard wrote last week, “questioning why it appeared to allow ISIS to build a base in the northern Syria province of Raqqa over the last year while claiming the Syrian Army was fighting terrorism.” Some loyalists have blamed the regime in general for not sending the necessary reinforcements into Raqqa, and the Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Freij in particular for ensuring that his own “sons are safe in Damascus.” Assad’s propaganda has boomeranged; the stooges have at last begun to sound like dissidents.
-- The IS’s dominance in non-regime Syria owes plenty to ideology, sophisticated recruitment efforts, and confiscated materiel, but also to resources that no Western or allied regional powers has ever even tried to match. The International Business Times reported this week that a 5,000-strong moderate rebel faction of the FSA which has been taking the fight to the IS in Aleppo pays its fighters $100 a month in salary, which is $300 less than the IS pays its own. Roughly the same ratio applies to the number of bullets each group respectively doles out. The name of the faction, now in talks with Washington for real support, was withheld by the State Department for “security reasons,” indicating a level of trust and protectiveness that probably rules these Syrians out as head-loppers.
-- The US military can penetrate Syrian airspace with ease, and without the world even knowing about it. News leaked by the Defense Department to preempt noisy reporting that in early July, dozens of Special Operations forces landed in Raqqa via helicopter, and were given air cover by drones and manned fighter jets, confirmed that not only is the White House not at all concerned about Syria’s “sovereignty,” but, contra much of its own past rhetoric, it knows exactly where and how to enter Syrian territory when it wants to. Jeffrey White and Maj. Chandler Atwood of the US Air Force noted back in May that since the civil war began, Assad’s air defenses in the north and south of the country have been degraded to such a degree that the rest could be destroyed “with relatively limited risk.” Such operations, moreover, could be prelude for a much-needed no-fly zone over opposition-held territory in Idlib and Aleppo (which is what the rebels asked for long before they asked for firepower), or for surgical airstrikes against the IS and regime positions in contested territory. The rebels America claims to support could then breathe a little easier and also work to keep the IS at bay and away from the Syrian-Turkish border, which is the jihadists’ vital entry point for receiving more foreign fighters. (If anything, White and Atwood’s assessment has only improved with time, as attrition, hardware neglect and continued regime losses in the north and south have taken a further toll on air defenses.) A tandem attack strategy would also foreclose on the possibility that the IS’s loss would translate into an Assad gain, and also signal to Syria’s embattled Sunni population, without which the jihadists will never been contained or defeated, that its two main oppressors are now declared and targeted enemies of the United States.
It’s a curious feature of American journalism that a story is not deemed newsworthy until the U.S. government behaves in such a way as to make it so. It’s also an irony of recent history that just as Assad’s lies are beginning to find an influential audience abroad, they are also exposing and overtaking him at home. Obama is now in search of a viable war plan for Syria. One can only hope that, as a result of his lack of one hitherto, he realizes that Assad was never an asset in the fight against ISIS, but rather the ultimately liability.