WAR WITH ISIS: So far, Bashar Al-Assad Looks Like the Winner

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.

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...

English: Brasilia – The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

At War with ISIS a Week Later: What the Hell’s Going On?

English: General Martin E. Dempsey, USA, 18thC...

English: General Martin E. Dempsey, USA, 18thChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has the import of President Obama’s speech a week ago set in yet?   That we are now undertaking a lengthy campaign to “degrade and destroy” what the administration calls ISIL (and the press calls ISIS)?”

That this is not exactly a war in that we are not sending in combat troops as we did in Iraq, but it’s more than a counter insurgency effort like in Yemen because the ISIL threat is much bigger.

Amazingly, in what seems a matter of months,  ISIL has gathered a large, well trained, well financed army of fanatics whose intention is to create a new Arab empire, and they are off to a good start.

No matter what our past failures in the area, this is a danger that cannot be allowed to go unchecked, so while the Obama plan to degrade and destroy ISIL  seems chancy, I cannot conceive of a better alternative.

Whatever flaws the Obama plan has, the key thing in its favor is ISIL’s capacity for making enemies out of just about everyone.     They have been too viciously sectarian, even for Al Qaeda, which champions a more inclusive pan Muslim extremism.  As unspecified as the many national commitments to help fight ISIL are (at least publicly), including those from the 10 Arab countries whose representatives met in Saudi Arabia last week, each promising “to do its share”, the weight of these combined efforts once coordinated (an admittedly mind-boggling task which is why this work will take many months) would seem likely to degrade ISIL to the point of containment in Syria.

How to destroy them totally is  impossible to predict as long as they can maintain their ground in Syria, where any future is impossible to predict given the shattered nature of that nation and the numerous armed factions battling each other with the aid of external backers.

A particularly dicey part of the Obama strategy is the plan to equip and train 5,000 “moderate” Syrians (under the general rubric of the Free Syrian Army) for a year in Saudi Arabia then return them to fight ISIL in Syria, this at a price tag of $500,000,000.   This amounts to a cost of $100,000 per trainee.   Will there even be a spot in Syria for them to return to in a year and where will their true loyalties lie?

As Republican Senator John McCain told General Dempsey, head of the joint chiefs of staff  at a recent hearing, what is to keep these trainees from directing their attack on  the Assad regime, their main enemy, rather than ISIL?    Dempsey’s response boiled down to his having confidence they won’t, not all that convincing.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin shares McCain’s doubts that this element of the plan will work and perhaps even worse, will draw us deeply into the Syrian chaos, so today he will vote against the plan when brought up in the Senate.   It has already passed the House, by a big bi-partisan margin, albeit not an enthusiastic one.    The primary concern of the politicians up for reelection seems to be to get back to their districts and campaign.   So sure, give the President what he asks for so they can go home while not appearing unpatriotic.

While I thought General Dempsey’s response to the criticism of this training plan weak, I liked his overall performance in that he did not beat around the bush in answering questions, in contrast to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who sat next to him at the hearing.

When asked to spell out the goal of this campaign he said it was to “destroy ISIL in Iraq and to disrupt them in Syria.”   DISRUPT THEM IN SYRIA!   Not destroy them in Syria.  This seems to me the most accurate statement of what we are about and can hope for.   Syria figures to remain chaotic for years to come, and if ISIL retreats there who will know what to do with them at that point?   Certainly not send in American troops to wipe them out and leave us with another nation to rebuild.

By the way, Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense under both Bush II. and Obama I.  voiced his opinion on a talk show last Sunday that we will not be successful in crushing ISIL without some of our combat troops playing a role.   Dempsey left open the door for a request for some combat troops if needed, and that door seems still ajar despite the president’s stated refusal to do so.

Resisting putting many of our combat troops into this effort is a good idea, for the more we do the less the nations in that area will feel the need to do and they are the ones most threatened.  At least seemingly so.

Do note though that much changed in the American attitude towards this conflict after two Americans were beheaded, flipping resistance to bombing to support of it.   We must all be aware that ISIL and Al Qaeda must be hungering to attack us at home or more Americans abroad.   Al Qaeda might be more dangerous as they have lost ground internationally to their terrorist rival and would undoubtedly love to show them up.

God forbid either successfully strikes us in a dramatic fashion, but if so public opinion supporting the return of American combat troops to the Mid-East struggle might shift dramatically as well.  And with that, the president’s stance.

(If you have gotten this far you may be filled with enough of this struggle for now, but I do recommend later checking out this piece on General Dempsey at the Senate hearings, as he seems the most straight forward voice in the administration on our ISIL policy)