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.)