A Dog In This Fight?

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals some of the complexities of American policies in the Middle East.[1] In August 2011 President Obama stated that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to leave power. Assad thought different. He fought on, helped by Russia and Iran. The view of one Middle Eastern researcher[2] is summarized in the article. “Having declared that the Assad regime had to go, [the White House] found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al-Qaeda.”

In 2012 many senior defense, diplomatic, and intelligence officials urged President Obama to provide arms and training to “moderate” groups within the anti-Assad rebellion. However, voices of caution warned that any American arms provided to the “moderates” could well end up in the hands of “extremists.”   This wasn’t a foolish concern. The “moderates” regarded the “extremists” as valuable allies in the fight against Assad. The “extremists” could have acquired—either taking them from unresisting “moderates” or actually being given to them–American weapons provided to the “moderates.”

The American government began keeping an eye on the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) when it established a strong position in Syria in 2012. They were aware that thousands of foreign fighters traveled to join ISIL through Turkey. They were aware that ISIL intended to use a base in Syria to rejoin the fight in Iraq. They were aware that Iraqi forces weren’t up to the job of defeating ISIL. In August 2013, some American diplomats in the Baghdad embassy urged that US drone strikes be launched against ISIL bases in eastern Syria.

In February 2014, a State Department official told a Congressional committee that ISIL’s operations “are calculated, coordinated, and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of government control in western Iraq and Syria.” The official explained that the “Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance.”

However, American assistance was not forthcoming. Why not? For one thing, the Americans wanted something from the al-Maliki government in return for their help. They wanted him to close the air-corridor across Iran by means of which the government of Iran was sending arms to the Assad regime. Prime Minister al-Maliki refused. In the view of the State Department, “it is … legitimate to question Iraq’s independence given Iran’s ongoing use of Iraqi airspace to resupply the Assad regime.” Four months later, ISIL forces seized the Iraqi city of Mosul. Soon they advanced toward Baghdad. Both Iran and the United States sent aid.

Lessons learned:

First, President Obama declared that Assad had to go before he explored the nuts-and-bolts of how that would come about. See: “the Cambridge Police were stupid.”

Second, Americans regard Iraq as “independent” when it follows American instructions instead of following a foreign policy of its own. See: Germany and the Ukraine crisis.

Third, Syrian Alawites-Iraqi Shi’ites-Iranian Shi’ites are lining up against Syrian Sunnis-Iraqi Sunnis-“extremist” foreign fighters. Does the United States actually have a dog in this fight?

[1] Jonathan S. Landay, “U.S. knew of jihadis’ goals,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 July 2014: A16.


[2] Phillip Smyth. See: http://docs.house.gov/meetings/fa/fa18/20131120/101513/hhrg-113-fa18-wstate-smythp-20131120.pdf

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