The Saudi-Israeli alliance and U.S. neocons have pressured President Obama into continuing U.S. hostility toward the secular Syrian government despite major military gains by the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, leading to an emerging catastrophe in the Mideast, as Daniel Lazare explains.
President Barack Obama and his foreign policy staff are not having a very merry month of May. The Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, Iraq, on May 15 was one of the greatest U.S. military embarrassments since Vietnam, but the fall of Palmyra, Syria, just five days later made it even worse. This is an administration that, until recently, claimed to have turned the corner on Islamic State.
In March, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, assured the House Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL or Daesh) was in a “defensive crouch” and unable to conduct major operations, while Vice President Joe Biden declared in early April that “ISIL’s momentum in Iraq has halted, and in many places, has been flat-out reversed.”
A couple of weeks later, the President proved equally upbeat following a meeting with Iraqi leader Haider al-Abadi: “We are making serious progress in pushing back ISIL out of Iraqi territory. About a quarter of the territory fallen under Daesh control has been recovered. Thousands of strikes have not only taken ISIL fighters off the war theater, but their infrastructure has been deteriorated and decayed. And under Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership, the Iraqi security forces have been rebuilt and are getting re-equipped, retrained, and strategically deployed across the country.”
But that was so last month. Post-Ramadi, conservatives like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, have lost no time in labeling such views out of touch and “delusional.” And, indeed, Obama sounded strangely detached on Tuesday when he told The Atlantic that ISIS’s advance was not a defeat.
“No, I don’t think we’re losing,” he said, adding: “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.” It was rather like the captain of the Titanic telling passengers that the gash below the waterline was a minor opening that would soon be repaired.
Not that the rightwing view is any less hallucinatory. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, faults Obama for not doing more to topple the Assad regime in Damascus, as if removing the one effective force against ISIS would be greeted with anything less than glee by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his hordes.
“We don’t have a strategy,” House Speaker John Boehner complained on Tuesday. “For over two years now, I’ve been calling on the President to develop an overarching strategy to deal with this growing terrorist threat. We don’t have one, and the fact is that the threat is growing than what we and our allies can do to stop it.” But when asked what a winning strategy might be, the House Speaker could only reply, “It’s the President’s responsibility.” In other words, Boehner is as clueless as anyone else.
In fact, the entire foreign-policy establishment is clueless, just as it was in 2003 when it all but unanimously backed President George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Both Republicans and Democrats are caught in a disastrous feedback loop in which journalists and aides tell them what they want to hear and resolutely screen out everything to the contrary. But facts have a way of asserting themselves whether Washington wants them to or not.
The Whys of Failure
With that in mind, here are the real reasons why the U.S. is doing so badly and ISIS is seemingly going from strength to strength.
Reason #1: Obama can’t decide who the real enemy is – ISIS or President Bashar al-Assad.
Even though the White House says it wants to smash the Islamic State, U.S. policy is in fact torn. Obama wants to defeat ISIS in Iraq. But he is unsure what to do on the other side of the border, where he seems to regard it as a potentially useful asset against the Assad regime in Damascus.
This is one of those policy assumptions that no “responsible” journalist dares question. Thus, The Wall Street Journal reported in January that “U.S. strategy is … constrained by a reluctance to tip the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” while The New York Times added on Wednesday that the U.S. has purposely bombed ISIS targets in “areas far outside government control to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”
As long as ISIS limits itself to battling Assad, in other words, the U.S. will hold off. It is only when it sets its sights on other targets that it sees fit to intervene. But there are any number of things wrong with this strategy. One is that it is breathtakingly cynical. Hundreds of thousands of deaths don’t seem to count as the U.S. sets about toppling a regime that has somehow come within its crosshairs.
But another is that it is militarily self-defeating. Allowing ISIS free reign in portions of Syria means allowing it to take root and grow. Harassing the Assad with trumped-up charges about weapons of mass destruction encourages ISIS to expand all the more. As a result, Syria is now “a place where it’s easier for them [i.e. Islamic State] to organize, plan and seek shelter than it is in Iraq,” as an unnamed senior defense official told the Journal.
Perhaps, but the result is that ISIS is able to rest and regroup and prepare for fresh assaults on the other side of the border. Not unlike Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. thinks it can manipulate and control fundamentalist jihadis at will. But as 9/11 demonstrated, it couldn’t be more mistaken.
“In the Middle East the conventional wisdom remains that Islamic State will not be defeated until Assad is,” The Guardian declared on Thursday. Why such conventional wisdom should be accorded more respect than any of the other nonsense that Washington regularly dishes out is not explained. If Assad goes, the likeliest upshot is that ISIS will march into Damascus, its black flags flying. Why this is any sense a positive development is also not explained.
Reason #2: The anti-ISIS coalition is a fraud.
The allies that Obama has recruited in the struggle against ISIS couldn’t be more unreliable. Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag when he told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School last October: “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria … the Saudis, the emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” [Quote at 53:20 of clip.]
The Saudis and the other Arab gulf states thus financed ISIS, armed it, and then cheered it on as it launched itself into a genocidal campaign against Shi‘ites and other minorities. Although Washington claims that the gulf states are allies in the fight against Al-Qaeda, Biden’s statement reveals that they are in fact playing both sides of the net, battling ISIS at times but also funding it when it suits their interests.
To be sure, the gulf states had a change of heart when al-Baghdadi began threatening the House of Saud. As Biden put it: “Now all of a sudden, I don’t want to be too facetious, but they have seen the lord. … Saudi Arabia has stopped funding. Saudi Arabia is allowing training on its soil … the Qataris have cut off their support for the most extreme elements of terrorist organizations, and the Turks … [are] trying to seal their border.”
But if the Saudis have cut off funding for ISIS, they have upped their support for the Al Nusra Front, the so-called “good” Al-Qaeda that has hawks like Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest and Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut burbling with excitement.
But the distinction that conservatives draw between Al Nusra and ISIS is much exaggerated. While the two groups are currently on the outs, that is a comparatively recent development. Just a few months ago, they were friendly enough to launch a joint push into Lebanon and then to team up for an assault on the Yarmouk refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus.
In a few months, they will undoubtedly make up and conduct fresh new assaults as well. The Salafists who have flooded into Syria since 2011 are a fissiparous lot, forever combining, splitting up, and combining again, which is why there are currently more factions than types of coffee at Starbucks.
Moreover, it is far from clear that the Saudis have entirely cut off aid. Financial controls in Saudi Arabia are lax, while corruption, according to former Wall Street Journal editor Karen Elliott House, “is rampant, entrapping almost every Saudi in a web of favors and bribes large and small.”
One scholar estimated that as much as 30 to 40 percent of oil revenue disappears into private hands. [See As’ad Abukhalil, The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power (New York: Seven Stories, 2004), p. 88]
Moreover, Saudi religious organizations like the International Islamic Relief Organization, the Muslim World League, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth are a law unto themselves. Although the Saudis have repeatedly promised to rein in terrorist funding by such outfits, Hillary Clinton complained in a secret States Department memo that they had still not done so as of late 2009 – and it is unlikely that they have taken action since.
So promises that the money flow has stopped are less than reassuring. Indeed, the Saudis have a long history of hedging their bets. They turned against Osama bin Laden after Al-Qaeda began bombing Saudi targets in 2003. But they most likely continued to maintain back-channel communications while leading members of the royal family, according to testimony by Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker,” funneled money to the group in the years leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center. If Saudi money reached Al-Qaeda then, it is likely that it is still reaching ISIS now, despite Saudi claims to the contrary.
Ignoring Sectarian War
Reason #3: The real problem is a growing sectarian war that the U.S. has done nothing to constrain.
ISIS is merely the forward striking arm of a growing Sunni offensive that is causing turmoil throughout the Middle East. Saudis used to talk about a “Shi‘ite crescent” stretching from Damascus to Baghdad and Tehran. But since Shi‘ite Houthis began taking up arms in Yemen, they have been raging about “a full Shia moon” encompassing Sana’a as well.
As its paranoia shoots through the roof, Saudi Arabia has responded by pounding Yemen with nightly air assaults, funding Sunni terrorists in Syria, sending troops into Bahrain to crush a democratic revolt – Bahrain is approximately 70 percent Shi’ite, but the royal family is Sunni – and engaging in a dangerous war of words with Iran
Saudi Arabia has also stepped up pressure on its own 15 percent Shi‘ite minority, largely concentrated in the kingdom’s vast Eastern Province, home to the bulk of its oil industry. On Friday, ISIS claimed credit for a suicide bombing that killed at least 21 people at a Shi‘ite mosque in Qatif governate, located just a few miles from the Bahrain causeway. But hundreds of Wahhabist websites calling for the total elimination of Shi‘ism undoubtedly egged the bombers on. [Click here, see page 152]
The result is a growing sectarian rift that makes secularism all but impossible. While the U.S. pushes Baghdad for even-handed treatment of Shi‘ites and Sunnis, its long-term alliance with the war party in Riyadh suggests the opposite, i.e. that such pleas are a smokescreen for policies that are frankly and openly pro-Sunni.
Given Biden’s statement at the Kennedy School that Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies were “determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war,” one might think that the U.S. would step back and refuse to have anything to do with a war of extermination against Syria’s religious minorities. Instead, it went along.
But now, Biden went on, Obama has succeeded in persuading the Saudis to cease funding ISIS and undertake the task of toppling Assad themselves. He has “put together a coalition of our Sunni neighbors,” the vice president went on, “because America can’t once again go into a Muslim nation and be aggressive. It has to be led by Sunnis.”
Only Sunnis have the moral authority, evidently, to launch a war of aggression against a Shi‘ite-led government.
Rather than tamping down religious conflict, America’s grossly lop-sided policies have thus done everything to encourage it. The results are a godsend for ISIS and Al-Nusra and equal and opposite Shi‘ite militias as well. No matter how many bombs the U.S. and its allies drop, ISIS can only grow stronger the more the political climate deteriorates.
The Oil Card
Reason #4: Oil.
Saudi Arabia is a growing political liability. Its policies have become so toxic that even old allies are abandoning it. Pakistan has refused to supply troops for the kingdom’s insane assault on Yemen despite being a long-term recipient of Saudi aid while Egypt has also balked at sending in forces.
Given a regime that is increasingly isolated and suspicious of the outside world, the obvious solution for the U.S. would be to loosen its ties with Riyadh, refuse to have anything to do with a religious war against Assad, and try to reach an accommodation with Damascus just as it is doing with Tehran.
But the U.S. can’t. Saudi Arabia is not just any country, but America’s oldest partner in the Middle East. It sits on top of one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the dominant partner in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which accounts for another 20 percent of global oil reserves and 23 percent of the world’s proven gas reserves.
The kingdom has nearly $700 billion in foreign-currency reserves and is also the world’s biggest importer of military hardware, overwhelmingly from the U.S. It is thus a country that Washington feels it cannot do without, which is why, in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the U.S. these days is increasingly following the Saudi Arabia lead in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere as well.
The consequences have been all too predictable. Indeed, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned nearly three years ago that Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Qaeda were the dominant force in the anti-Assad movement and that their backers in Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states were seeking to establish a Salafist stronghold in eastern Syria.
In an August 2012 report, the DIA observed that the implications for Iraq were ominous., noting Al-Qaeda’s growing strength in Syria “creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters [i.e. the Shi‘ites].
“ISI [Islamic State of Iraq, forerunner of ISIS] could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”
Military intelligence, it seems, is not always an oxymoron. Nonetheless, the White House pressed ahead. Overstretched, beleaguered, and increasingly dependent on its Saudi allies, the American empire felt it had no alternative but to follow Riyadh down the rabbit hole, hoping against hope that the consequences would not prove too dire. It was wrong.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).