I was beginning to think of President Obama’s vision of a large coalition of countries to fight ISIS as the Coalition of the Loitering, but more and more nations have stepped up and made public commitments of one form or another. For example, the British parliament is about to vote as to their commitment and my guess is it will pass.
Perhaps most significant was the involvement of five predominantly Sunni Arab states in bombing raids against ISIS in recent days, significant because ISIS is composed of radical Sunnis and, given the general schism between Shia and Sunni in the region, it is noteworthy when members of either sect publicly go against “their own”, so to speak. The fact that nobody thinks of ISIS as their own opens up a new dynamic.
But I agree with commentators who remind us that the United States is likely more committed to destroying ISIS than are our Mid-East Arab allies, who have a tendency of playing both ends against the middle guided by their own priorities not ours.
Once ISIS is degraded significantly and fear of them is reduced, who knows which Arab nations will still be there for the long haul?
For example, Saudi Arabia has a large military, but this has been developed primarily out of the fear of possible conflicts with Iran and now a Shia dominated Iraq. They want to save their ground troops if needed against Shia.
That is an underlying fear that may take precedent again once ISIS is weakened. On the other hand, the Iraqi Shias probably wouldn’t welcome Sunni Saudi Arabian troops on their soil, even if there to fight ISIS. This is but one small example of the gargantuan complexity of this situation.
And in thinking about this complexity, I think of Bashar Al-Assad, who remains dictator of a good chunk of Syria and how he seems to be benefiting from all of this. I am generally sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy as I believe he inherited an unraveling international order, especially in the Greater Middle East (*1). Other presidents have faced huge problems, but the path forward for each seemed clearer than the various dilemmas Obama is facing.
Having said that, I think Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake was when he insisted that Bashar Al-Assad had to go early in the Syrian civil war. In doing so he miscalculated the international support for that to happen, while also underestimating Russia’s (Putin’s) determination for it not to happen.
Also, in trying to gather international support and sounding so adamant about the removal of Assad, he encouraged rebels to believe they would get more support than they did. In short, though I don’t feel happy about saying this, the world may have been better off allowing Assad to brutally put down the resistance as his ancestors had so successfully done. Far fewer would have died or been displaced.
The more I think about the Middle East, the more it seems that the choice is usually between dictators who govern brutally and lands that become ungovernable. I will write more about that in a future post.
Of course, that goes against both our humanitarian and democratic values and Obama was likely pumped up by the success of toppling Ghadafi in Algeria months before, but I think there is no question he overreached and in the process set up the present dilemma in finding an end game to wipe out ISIS. By painting Assad as evil incarnate, he made it impossible to deal with him as a political partner, even against a force even more evil.
Right now as ISIS in Syria is weakened by our bombings, Assad’s hand becomes stronger. While he might complain about a lack of coordination of American air strikes, his air defenses do nothing to prevent them. The more we degrade ISIS the better for him. As I type, I imagine him doing a happy dance.
Also, the belated dubious plan to train 5,000 Syrian moderates includes the notion that once trained in Saudi Arabia they will return somewhere in Syria to fight ISIS, more good news for Assad, assuming it works that way. Critics of the plan suggest those fighters are more likely to turn their guns back on Assad, their primary enemy, but who knows? Also, these well trained fighters will not return for maybe 18 months or so, and by then who knows what strength their counterparts remaining in Syria will still have? Will they even have a place to come back to?
All of this suggests to me that if we really want to crush ISIS in the end, we will have to make some sort of deal with Assad. Most commentators assert that this situation cannot be decided militarily alone. It requires a political solution. At this point, I see no political solution in Syria that does not include Assad. And no end to ISIS without one.
I know it is a tough pill to swallow Mr. President, but think about it. It may boil down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.
(*1) The Greater Middle East is a term concocted during the G. W. Bush presidency to cover an expansive region stretching roughly from Morocco to Pakistan, which at times seems more useful in discussing upheaval in the Muslim world than the traditional notion of the Middle East stretching from Egypt to Iran. Wikipedia offers more details and a map.