The horrendous murder of James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) is more than just another display of jihadist savagery, reminiscent of the death of Daniel Pearl in 2002. Its strategic purpose is to provoke a wave of indignation at home, and to get the United States directly involved in yet another unwinnable Middle Eastern war.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” Sun Tzu wrote two and a half millennia ago. The Greater Middle East is in a state of chaos, largely – but by no means exclusively – due to the incoherence of U.S. policies of the past decade and a half. There are no obvious “opportunities” at the moment, and it would be dangerous and self-defeating to invent them. It would be outright disastrous to act upon such inventions as the basis of further invention.
This is exactly what the pundits will recommend in the days to come. A blueprint is offered by an article in The New York Daily News (“Where the ISIS Fight Should Go From Here,” August 20) which recommends a number of specific policy options, all of them bad. They deserve to be considered one by one, as they are certain to resurface in various forms in the days to come:
“Obama has made military assistance to Iraq a function of the state of the Iraqi government, encouraging the Iraqi parliament to change leaders to find someone who will be more inclusive of all the major groups, as opposed to the sectarian, Shia-dominated government and military that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had cultivated since U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011.”
That “someone” does not exist. The new Iraqi government under the Iran-approved leader al-Abadi will be as “sectarian, Shia-dominated” as Nouri al-Maliki’s had been. There are no Sunni or Kurd politicians of any stature willing to give him a benefit of the doubt, even if he was a new “Nelson Mandela” – which he deucedly is not. Looking for a figure “who will be more inclusive of all the major groups” is as futile as looking for a “Yugoslav” leader to unite Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Muslims etc. and prevent the ongoing disintegration of the rickety Balkan edifice in the summer of 1991.
The first step, according to the Daily News pundit, is to attack known ISIS positions whenever possible: “Even if its weapons are American-made, reducing ISIS military hardware will make it less able to wage war. Air strikes on ISIS should create a ‘no-vehicle zone’: If we see enemy combat vehicles or convoys, they will be destroyed.” The inserted proviso is unclear: “even if”?! Of course they are “American-made,” the result of the Shia-controlled Iraqi army abandoning hundreds of brand-new vehicles, rocket launchers, artillery pieces, thousands of light arms and millions of rounds without a fight.
If the indiscriminate U.S. air strikes on anything that moves are a good idea, it should not matter where the targeted ordnance and weaponry comes from. But they are not. In a territory the size of Montana, inhabited by over ten million people, hundreds of trucks are bound to move every day, transporting food, water, fuel and other daily necessities. The IS would take advantage of that fact to enhance the narrative of America’s all-out war against Muslims-as-such, and to bring thousands of new angry recruits into its ranks. The “no-vehicle zone” would require 24-7 air patrols destroying the lifeline of cities and villages under IS control. The resulting “collateral damage” would be huge, and detrimental to U.S. objectives.
“Second, Obama can pressure the Iraqi government to quickly create a more inclusive government and reach out to Sunnis, who will be instrumental if there is any hope for defeating ISIS and ejecting it from the areas of Iraq it has taken over.”
There is no such hope, period (see above). Obama’s means of pressure are limited. The Shia leadership in Baghdad is more interested in what Teheran says than in what Obama says. The United States should step aside and let the process unfold. Once the key players chart their territorial domains and make their strategies known, Washington should engage them with what they expect: “it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” (Sun Tzu)
“The third step is to help our allies quickly determine which Iraqi military units are prepared to fight,” we are told, “and immediately send them northward to aid existing peshmerga forces.” Who are “our allies” who can determine that, “quickly” or otherwise? Saudi Arabia? Turkey? They have absolutely no say in the Shiite proceedings in Baghdad and Teheran. The new government in Baghdad is a sworn enemy of the peshmerga, which seeks an independent Kurdish state, and has conquered Kirkuk’s vital oil fields to keep them for good. The notion that some mystical “Iraqi military units” will fight side-by-side with the Kurds is utterly fantastical. The Kurds are using the IS advance as a means of extending the territory and oil resources under their control, and they are hell-bent on keeping them.
Continuing in an advisory capacity, Obama should direct U.S. trainers in Iraq to access and train Iraqi security forces who have been deemed ineffective. When the President says “no boots on the ground,” he really means no large-scale troop deployments. The troops we already have in Iraq must continue to assess the situation and call for the right resources.
There is no ongoing “advisory capacity” for Obama and his trainers. Those same Iraqi security forces “who [sic!] have been deemed ineffective” – an understatement par excellence – had received billions of dollars in U.S. arms, equipment and training. When confronted with the IS they ran for their lives (all too often ineffectively) without a fight, because they did not regard the Sunni-inhabited areas as their own. There are no other government forces to rely upon, period; and there will be none in the months and years to come.
The policy recommendations finally enter the surreal zone: “Fourth, we need other countries in the region (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey) involved to ensure a united front against ISIS. We are already working with Britain, Italy, Canada and other allies on the humanitarian front; now that circle must be widened to include regional players who are threatened by ISIS.” Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar and Turkey (not to forget Kuwait!) have been the sponsors and bankrollers of the ISIS (as the Islamic State was formerly known), and they still regard those IS jihadists in western Iraq and northwestern Syria as a welcome buffer against the Shia crescent extending from Iran to the Lebanese coast. Getting them “involved” entails an unrealistic expectation that they will discard their investment in money, arms, logistics, and political support for the sake of an imagined ”humanitarian alliance” (“Britain, Italy, Canada and other allies”). This is no analysis, this is a caricature of it.
The worst piece of advice is yet to come: “”The last step is to recognize that ISIS emerged out of the situation in Syria. The President needs to develop a plan to arm the moderate rebels there, because radical forces retreating to a failed state is not a long-term solution.” This is the poisoned chalice that must not be taken. Even The Washington Post, long a bastion of Syrian hawkishness, has seen the light (“No, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend”). A long quote is well warranted:
“In recent years, President Obama, his European friends, and even some Middle Eastern allies, have supported ‘rebel groups’ in Libya and Syria. Some received training, financial and military support to overthrow Muammar Gadhafi and battle Bashar al Assad. It’s a strategy that follows the old saying, The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and it has been the American and allied approach for decades in deciding whether to support opposition groups and movements.
The problem, the article admits, is that it is completely unreliable, and often far worse than other strategies. Every year there are more cases in which this approach backfires. The most glaring failure was in Afghanistan, where some of the groups taught (and supplied) to fight the Soviet Army later became stridently anti-Western. In that environment, Al Qaeda flourished and established the camps where perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were trained. Yet instead of learning from its mistakes, the United States keeps making them:
Washington and its allies empowered groups whose members had either begun with anti-American or anti-Western views or found themselves lured to those ideas in the process of fighting. According to interviews with members of militant groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s Al Nusra Front (which is aligned with al Qaeda), that is exactly what happened with some of the fighters in Libya and even with factions of the Free Syrian Army.
“In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer. All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State,” says Abu Yusaf, a high-level security commander of the Islamic State, whom The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola wrote about last week.
The Islamic State is the most successful group for now, controlling the main areas of Syrian oil and gas fields. It has also acquired large amounts of cash, gold (from banks in the areas they control) and weapons in its fight against the armies in Syria and Iraq. “When the Iraqi Army fled from Mosul and the other areas, they left behind all the good equipment the Americans had given them,” Abu Yusaf says.
“From IS to the Mahdi army you see groups that basically are not our friends but who became more powerful because we have handled the situations wrong,” says a senior U.S. security official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.
Some European and Arab intelligence officials also voiced their worries and frustration about what they call the mistakes the United States has made in handling the uprisings in Arab states. “We had, in the early stages, information that radical groups had used the vacuum of the Arab Spring, and that some of the people the U.S. and their allies had trained to fight for ‘democracy’ in Libya and Syria had a jihadist agenda — already or later, [when they] joined al Nusra or the Islamic State,” a senior Arab intelligence official said in a recent interview. He said that often his U.S. counterparts would say things like, “We know you are right, but our president in Washington and his advisers don’t believe that.” Those groups, say Western security officials, are threats not only in the Middle East, but also in the United States and Europe, where they have members and sympathizers.
The official’s account has been corroborated by members of the Islamic State in and outside the Middle East, including Abu Yusaf, the military commander. In several interviews conducted in the last two months, they described how the collapse of security during Arab Spring uprisings helped them recruit, regroup and use the Western strategy – to support and train groups that fight dictators — for their own benefits. “There had [also] been … some British and Americans who had trained us during the Arab Spring times in Libya,” said a man who calls himself Abu Saleh and who only agreed to be interviewed if his real identity remained secret.
Abu Saleh, who is originally from a town close to Benghazi, said he and a group of other Libyans received training and support in their country from French, British, and American military and intelligence personnel — before they joined the Al Nusra Front or the Islamic State. Western and Arab military sources interviewed for this article, confirmed Abu Saleh’s account that “training” and “equipment” were given to rebels in Libya during the fight against the Gadhafi regime.
Abu Saleh left Libya in 2012 for Turkey and then crossed into Syria. “First I fought under what people call the ‘Free Syrian Army’ but then switched to Al Nusra. And I have already decided I will join the Islamic State when my wounds are healed,” the 28-year-old said from a hospital in Turkey, where he is receiving medical treatment. He had been injured during a battle with the Syrian Army, he said, and was brought to Turkey with false documents. “Some of the Syrian people who they trained have joined the Islamic State and others jabhat al Nusra,” he said, smiling. He added, “Sometimes I joke around and say that I am a fighter made by America.”
For a long time, Western and Arab states supported the Free Syrian Army not only with training but also with weapons and other materiel. The Islamic State commander, Abu Yusaf, added that members of the Free Syrian Army who had received training — from the United States, Turkey and Arab military officers at an American base in Southern Turkey — have now joined the Islamic State. “Now many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us,” he said, smiling.
These militants are preparing for the day that Western governments catch on. “We do know the U.S. will go after the Islamic State at some stage, and we are ready for it. But they should not underestimate the answer they will get,” said an IS sympathizer in Europe who goes by the name Abu Farouk. He added that the “unconditional support” of the United States toward the government of outgoing premier Nuri al-Maliki, which he says has oppressed Iraqi Sunnis, and America’s “pampering Iran,” which is mainly Shia, made the Islamic State a more attractive alternative for some Sunnis who felt angry about double standards:
“Thanks to the Arab spring and the West fighting all these rulers for us, we had enough time to grow and recruit in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S,” Abu Farouk said. Then he paused for some seconds and smiled. “Actually, we should say, thank you, Mr. President.”
Thank you, indeed. The American strategy should start with the axiomatic premise that there are no friends or allies in the Middle East, and that it is a region best left to its own devices. The time for disengagement is now.