September 11, 2014 by Michael Weiss
A freshet of recent news items and the contents of President Obama’s long-awaited speech on his long-awaited strategy for, as he puts it, “degrad[ing] and ultimately destroy[ing]” the Islamic State (ISIS), have more or less encapsulated how he plans to address a three-year-old crisis in Syria. What many are calling a dramatic about-face in his foreign policy is in fact a continuation of his original prescription, albeit packaged in more grandiose, twilight-struggle terms for sale to a suddenly more hawkish, yet still somehow war-weary, American electorate.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime “terrorizes” its own people, Obama said last night, and has lost all “legitimacy” and therefore will not be either an overt or covert American partner in what are certain to be forthcoming American airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria. Such aircraft, both manned and unmanned, joined quite possibly by Tomahawk missiles launchedfrom warships in the Mediterranean, will penetrate Syrian airspace without a by-your-leave from the Assad regime and against its direct warnings not to violate its “sovereignty.”
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which the CIA has languidly armed and trained for two years in Jordan and Qatar, and which continues to represent the truest enemy to Assad’s rule, will now be fortified by an accelerated arming and training program run by the Pentagon from Saudi Arabia – but only if Congress passes a 2015 defense appropriations bill before it adjourns for mid-election season next week. This bill includes the $500 million Obama staked out in his West Point speech in May for Syrian rebels, but also the encompassing $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund for confronting ISIS as a whole. Four billion dollars of that money will go to the Pentagon, while the remaining $1 billion will go to the State Department. The Daily Beast reported yesterday that “the administration has given Congress zero details about the proposed fund and consultations have been next to nonexistent,” a fact which sits well only with Democrats who are likely to lose control of the senate in November. Republicans, meanwhile, appear less keen to cut the president a blank check for reasons ranging from ideological to sincerely skeptical.
It was only a month ago, after all, that Obama told the New York Times’Thomas Friedman that earlier arguments to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, whom he again derided as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” was a “fantasy.” Now White House aides claim that Obama was referring only to the rebels of 2012, not the ones who have “developed a lot since then,” to cite the Times’ Peter Baker’sparaphrase from earlier this week. (This risible revision is no doubt a complement to White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest’s insistence that by dismissing the threat posed by the “jayvee squad” of terrorists in a January interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, Obama was not referring to ISIS.)
The rebel fortification program will be for the purpose of combating ISIS on the ground in Syria, not for confronting the FSA’s more exigent menace, the regime; its actual war-planner, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani; and his manifold, Iranian-trained sectarian proxies, from Hezbollah to the National Defense Forces. Obama made this point clear in his speech last night when he said: “[W]e must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like [ISIS].” But not a counterweight to extremists like Assad.
There is confusion and trouble ahead, as the Syrian opposition faces yet another disappointment. Obama’s singular ISIS focus came as a surprise to Hadi al-Bahra, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, whowrote on Facebook: “We…welcome the commitment to intensify the train and equip program to enable the Free Syrian Army, to eradicate [ISIS] and other forms of terror in Syria, including the Assad regime.” [Italics added.]
From everything the administration has said and leaked to the press, we know that it will not offer the FSA any meaningful protection from the Syrian Air Force’s punishing aerial assaults, either in the form of a no-fly zone or shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. This means that the same rebels who, as Col. Derek Harvey told me a few weeks ago, were already fighting six different enemies in Syria will only be equipped to carry on fighting one. So what happens if Assad continues to bomb America’s half-a-billion-dollar counterterrorism proxy force?
And what are we going to provide the FSA? So far, the most sophisticated armament has been TOW anti-tank missiles, of which, according to FSA spokesman Hussam al-Marie, “a couple of dozen [were sent] to Harakat al-Hazm and other brigades in northern Syrian and southern Syria. But the thing is, they’re not miraculous weapons. We had anti-tank missiles; we were buying them from the black market already.”
Moreover, in spite of the regime’s belated efforts to pretend that it represents a credible deterrent to IS – efforts which include powdering a bakery and killing only civilians in Raqqa – there are still indications that what analysts have rightly dubbed its “tacit alliance” with ISIS persists in certain areas. “A couple of weeks ago I was in Maraa and saw how ISIS is using American tanks and Humvees, the weapons they captured from Iraq,” al-Marie told me. “At the same time, ISIS were shelling from the ground and regime aircraft were launching missiles from the air – on FSA locations. The theory about the regime and ISIS is still totally true.” But please don’t tell this to the Obama administration. In a valuable article on Iran’s own implausibly deniable boots-on-the-ground strategy in Iraq,Foreign Policy magazine noted that “U.S. officials have privately welcomed the Syrian leader’s ongoing airstrikes against Islamic State targets within his borders.” Let us hope the FSA is too busy being trained and armed to read that.
Critics and apologists of the president have classified him as minimalist in his objectives. Not so. Not only will he stick it to ISIS in two borderless countries at once, but his attention span is large enough to concurrently pursue “the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all” – presumably with the same regime which has lost all legitimacy. That old chestnut, it bears recalling, was first introduced in 2011, when ISIS did not exist.
It doesn’t bode well for a man who professes to be lousy at the occasional bits of “theater” required of his office – such as appearing heartfelt and concerned for the plight of others – that Obama made no mention last night of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ finding that chlorine bombs were used “systematically and repeatedly” in three villages in northern Syria, and were almost certainly dropped from high-flying helicopters only one party in the country possesses. True, he referred to the regime’s depredations (once), but his priorities were never more transparent or cynically relayed to the very people he is now asking to help secure US interests in the Middle East and ultimately protect the American homeland. For the Sunnis of Syria, their slaughter is now only compelling or geopolitically expedient to Washington when it is in the service of confronting jihadism. This isn’t a conspiracy theory any longer; it is established reality.
Conspicuously, the word “Iran” did not escape Obama’s lips at all last night, but hardly needed to have done. The US Air Force recently struck its own tacit alliance with IRGC proxy Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Amerli – a conjuncture celebrated by a smiling Suleimani and by his dancing sidekick Abu Mahdi al Muhandis – amid formal US denials that the war against ISIS in Iraq was in any way being coordinated between Washington and Tehran, if only indirectly via Baghdad. It plainly mattered not that Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a US-designated terrorist entity – as is the IRGC itself – and was, as The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio writes, “at the forefront in using EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, the deadly landmines that can penetrate US armored vehicles. Hundreds of US soldiers were killed in EFP attacks.” Water under the bridge, says the Supreme Leader, who has endorsed US-Iranian cooperation in confronting ISIS, as even Shiite politicians in Iraq claim that, courtesy of Iran, “[w]e are in the process of creating Shia al-Qaida radical groups equal in their radicalization to the Sunni Qaida.”
Some terrorists are better than other terrorists, it seems. But the president will need more than prime-time promises to dispel a gathering consensus among the world’s majority Muslim sect. My friend Hassan Hassan put it succinctly on Twitter: “Obama’s speech in a nutshell: Shiites are my wife, and Sunnis are my bitches.” The unintended consequences of this widespread perception are yet to be fully appreciated, much less experienced.