Obama’s emerging de facto alliance with Assad

The Daily Beast reports: There’s a battle raging inside the Obama administration about whether the United States ought to push away from its goal of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and into a de facto alliance with the Damascus regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.

As President Obama slowly but surely increases the U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq, his administration is grappling with the immediate need to stop the ISIS advance and push for a political solution in Baghdad. The 3 1/2-year grinding civil war is Syria has been put on a back burner for now. Some officials inside the administration are proposing that the drive to remove Assad from power, which Obama announced as U.S. policy in 2012, be set aside, too. The focus, these officials argue, should instead be on the region’s security and stability. Governments fighting for survival against extremists should be shored up, not undermined.

“Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq,” one senior Obama administration official who works on Iraq policy told The Daily Beast.

In effect, the American government has been in a limited partnership with the Assad regime for almost a year. The U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments made a deal last September to destroy Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons—and relied on Damascus to account for and transport those weapons, in effect legitimizing his claim to continued power.

As far back as last December, top White House officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, have suggested that the rising threat of extremism was creating a “convergence of interests” between the U.S., Russia, and its allies in the Iranian and the Syrian governments to come to a political deal before the Islamists became too powerful.

“The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups,” Blinken said at the time. “Many of Syria’s neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future.”

But the view that Assad can somehow be a partner of any kind is vigorously disputed by other senior U.S. officials, especially those who work or have worked on Syria policy. They say the problem of extremism in the region can only be solved by removing Assad from power. Not only is the Assad regime a magnet for terrorism, they argue, but Assad and the extremists inside Syria are working together.

“The people who think Bashar al Assad’s regime is the answer to containing and eventually eliminating the Islamic-based threat do not understand the historic relationship between the regime and ISIS. [They] don’t understand the current relationship between Assad and ISIS and how they are working on the ground together directly and indirectly inside Syria,” Robert Ford, the recently departed U.S. ambassador to Syria, told The Daily Beast. “The people who think Assad’s regime survival is essential have not explained how his survival would solve the problem of extremism in Syria.” [Continue reading...]

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Iraqi Kurd officials lobbying for independence in Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports: Senior officials from the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan are in Washington laying the groundwork for a formal bid for independence, despite opposition from the Obama administration.

Key aides to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have met staff from the State Department, White House and Congress over the past two days, describing what the Kurds say is the “new reality” in Iraq. Numerous territories in the west of the country have fallen in recent weeks to the militant group Islamic State, which recently changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Mr. Barzani is moving to hold a referendum among Iraq’s Kurdish population, after which the government in the Kurdish capital of Erbil could seek to formally secede, his top aides told a gathering of reporters Thursday.

“If we can’t live together, we will go for divorce,” said Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, who met Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “It is now about a new reality.”

A move toward Kurdish independence would represent a repudiation of Obama administration policy, which seeks to maintain a united Iraq. U.S. officials worry that Kurdish independence could fuel secessionist bids by Kurdish territories in other parts of the Middle East, particularly Turkey and Syria. [Continue reading...]

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The ISIS threat: How great is it, who should respond, and how?

The crisis in Iraq can be resolved quite easily. All we have to do is master time-travel.

There are differences of opinion on whether or not history has to be reversed back to 2003 or 1914, but either way, the ability to go back into the past is key.

If time-travel can be accomplished through an act of will, we can remain hopeful that this great challenge will soon be surmounted. After all, there is a growing movement of people who clearly want to re-live the past, so maybe we can all soon get back there, reverse the mistakes which were made and reset history on a more reliable course.

Meanwhile, just in case the time-travel solution happens not to bear fruit, it might be worth considering some kind of Plan B.

Among young Americans — those whose interest in the future can be assumed to be far greater than their interest in the past — the World Cup is apparently almost twice as interesting as events in Iraq. Maybe the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a game-changer on the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe the assessment that the danger posed to America by ISIS is now greater than that posed by Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001 is an overstatement. After all, while Al Qaeda’s focus was on provoking and challenging American power, ISIS is much more intent on establishing and expanding its caliphate than in seeking military engagement with the U.S..

The fact that ISIS has already drawn the support of hundreds of Westerners flooding initially to Syria, does not necessarily mean many of these individuals will be returning to their countries of origin to engage in terrorism. After all, one of their favorite ways of declaring their commitment to their Islamic state is to destroy their passports. With a measure of realism, they seem to be showing that they have already arrived in the place where they expect to fight and die.

Among critics of the war in Iraq there seems to be far greater concern about the danger of the U.S. once again becoming militarily engaged in Iraq, than there is concern about ISIS. Indeed, few seem to want to say much about the group other than assert that it wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. True. But the invasion did happen and ISIS does now exist and is growing in strength — and the clock cannot be turned back.

Claims that ISIS poses a threat to the world may be viewed with some justified skepticism, but when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that the group now threatens every state in the region, that sounds to me like an accurate assessment.

Iraq is a state on the brink of collapse. The Kurds are already constructing their own borders and there are no indications that a unifying government can be formed in Baghdad.

Military intervention by Russia and Iran might save Maliki yet destroy Iraq.

That an Iranian general has already promised to use “the same winning strategy used in Syria” sends a chilling message to Iraq’s Sunni population as a whole.

Americans who imagine that so long as our borders are secure, we can ignore what happens elsewhere in the world are living in denial about the interconnected planet on which we live.

Anti-interventionists who imagine that the only issue that matters in relation to Iraq is that the U.S. not get sucked in, are unwilling to confront the fact that ISIS will have to be confronted.

If you want to place your confidence in Russia and Iran, then remember Grozny and Aleppo and picture what might become of Mosul.

ISIS could not have advanced this far without the support of a wider Sunni insurgency and rather than the Russians, Iranians, Maliki’s security forces, Shia militias, or the U.S., it is the Sunnis who need expose the fact that this newly constructed Islamic state has no real foundations. But this isn’t going to happen without Iraq’s Sunni population receiving a tangible reward. The longer that takes to materialize, the less chance there is that it’s going to happen.

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U.S. reluctance to intervene in Iraq may have unintended consequences for Israel

A week ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to like the idea of a conflict between ISIS and Iran — a conflict in which the United States should refrain from becoming aligned with Tehran.

“Don’t strengthen either of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu said.

He may have imagined his anti-interventionism would resonate with several constituencies in the U.S.. But he couldn’t have imagined what might happen next.

With the U.S. reluctant to intervene on behalf of Maliki, he has turned to both Iran and Russia both of which have stepped up to provide military support. Iran may have already conducted air strikes in Iraq.

Now comes a twist which — if the reporting is accurate — will shock the Israelis: a significant boost to Iran’s air force.

David Cenciotti, a highly respected aviation blogger, reports:

On Jul. 1, all the seven operational Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes operated by the Pasdaran (informal name of the IRGC – the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) have completed their deployment to Imam Ali Airbase where they will join the ex-Russian Air Force Su-25s already delivered to Iraq in the air war against ISIS (Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The aircraft (three Su-25UBKM and four Su-25KM jets, according to ACIG.org sources) will be operated by four Iraqi pilots and 10 Iranian pilots.

The aircraft and support to fly them would be part of a military contract (backed by the U.S.) according to which Iran’s IRGC Air Force will receive six Su-30K multirole jets destined to Iraq.

The Su-30K is one of the best Russian combat jets available and would present a significant extra layer of defense for Iran in the event that Israel ever considers attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

Meanwhile, a Bloomberg report on Obama’s lack of options in Iraq alongside Russia and Iran’s growing involvement, notes:

The swift action by two of America’s adversaries has prompted Obama’s critics in Washington — and even some members of his administration — to argue that the U.S. must act quickly to avert an extremist takeover of a country it invaded and occupied for more than eight years.

Obama’s ability to influence events in Iraq is limited, though, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

Two U.S. administrations have inspired distrust among both Shiites and Sunnis by invading in 2003, then failing to stabilize the country or compel Maliki to stop his revenge campaign against Sunnis, and finally withdrawing and leaving a polarized state at the end of 2011, the official said.

Now, the administration is exploring a three-pronged strategy, according to U.S. officials involved in the effort. It consists of providing Maliki’s government with limited military aid, pressing him to step down or agree to a more inclusive government and trying with Saudi Arabian assistance to pry Sunni tribesmen away from their de facto alliance with the Islamic State.

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The hawks’ playbook for opposing an Obama nuclear deal with Iran

Foreign Policy reports: Though the United States has yet to secure a final deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, an influential pair of hawks in Washington have already devised a way for Congress to unravel any potential agreement after the ink is dry.

The plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation. Some of those topics haven’t been part of the ongoing U.S.-led talks with Tehran, which means that linking sanctions relief to those conditions after a deal is made would likely drive the Iranians off the wall, say experts. Tehran would likely see any such measures as moving the goalposts and as evidence that the United States wasn’t genuinely interested in backing up its end of the deal.

The two authors of the plan — Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk — each played pivotal roles in shaping the Iran sanctions debate in the past year. Rather than blowing up an historic agreement, they both insist the paper is simply a guide for how to keep sanctions in place that will deter and punish Iran if it doesn’t comply with a final deal.

Whatever their motivations, the detailed strategy document is of keen interest to advocates on both sides of the Iran debate given the immense political clout its authors enjoy on Capitol Hill and the significant role Congress will have in approving, modifying, or rejecting a final deal.

“This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case.” [Continue reading...]

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Syrian rebels can play role in Iraq, says Kerry

AFP reports: The top US diplomat, who landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in the afternoon, also met Saudi King Abdullah a day after hosting urgent talks in Paris with the Saudi, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers on the widening crisis in Iraq and Syria.

King Abdullah has consistently called for greater US military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Sunni Gulf kingdom has long backed.

Following several signals in recent weeks by US President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House said Thursday it intends to “ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition”.

The request is part of a $1.5-billion Regional Stabilisation Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.

Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed the huge US boost to his forces, battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The situation is very grave and there are sectarian leaders ruling the country so we have to have greater efforts on the part of the US and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq,” Jarba said.

Kerry said “the moderate opposition in Syria… has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ISIL’s presence… not just in Syria, but also in Iraq”.

“Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. has armed drones over Baghdad, official says

CNN reports: The U.S. military began flying armed drones over Baghdad in the last 24 hours, a U.S. official confirmed to CNN on Friday.

Until Friday, U.S. officials had said all drone reconnaissance flights over Iraq were unarmed.

The Baghdad drones are not to be used for offensive airstrikes against fighters with the insurgent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they are to provide additional protection for 180 U.S. military advisers in the area, the official said.

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Obama’s use of drones for killings risks a war without end

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into perpetual war and sets a dangerous precedent for lethal operations that other countries might adopt in the future, according to a report by a bipartisan panel that includes several former senior intelligence and military officials.

The group found that more than a decade into the era of armed drones, the American government has yet to carry out a thorough analysis of whether the costs of routine secret killing operations outweigh the benefits. The report urges the administration to conduct such an analysis and to give a public accounting of both militants and civilians killed in drone strikes.

The findings amount to a sort of report card — one that delivers middling grades — a year after President Obama gave a speech promising new guidelines for drone strikes and greater transparency about the killing operations. The report is especially critical of the secrecy that continues to envelop drone operations and questions whether they might be creating terrorists even as they are killing them.

“There is no indication that a U.S. strategy to destroy Al Qaeda has curbed the rise of Sunni Islamic extremism, deterred the establishment of Shia Islamic extremist groups or advanced long-term U.S. security interests,” the report concludes. [Continue reading...]

The complete report, “Recommendations and Report of the Stimson Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy,” can be read here.

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Maliki welcomes Syrian air strikes on Iraq

The Guardian reports: The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on Thursday followed US officials in confirming that Syrian warplanes had bombed Sunni militant positions in Iraq.

The cross-border raids have deepened fears that the insurgency now spanning Syria and Iraq could become an even wider regional conflict. Maliki told the BBC he had not requested the air strikes but welcomed them.

The Syrian warplanes struck near the border crossing in the town of Qaim on Tuesday, US military officials told the Associated Press, hitting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across the Syria-Iraq border.

The White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said Washington had “no reason to dispute” the reports. Details are, however, sketchy. For its part, Syria’s state news agency denied that Damascus had carried out the attacks. It said its source “refuted allegations made by malicious media outlets who claimed that the Syrian air force shelled areas within the borders of Iraq”.

Syrian opposition activists have claimed that the al-Qaim strikes missed Isis’s main bases and killed 30 civilians. [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: Online backers of the Sunni Islamist militants who seized swaths of Iraq this month have said that any U.S. air strikes on the fighters will lead to attacks on Americans.

U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq to help halt the advance by militants from al Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Washington has so far held off granting a request by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government for air strikes.

A Twitter account with 21,000 followers naming itself the “League of Supporters” called for ISIL sympathizers to post messages online on Friday warning the U.S. not to carry out any strikes.

“This campaign reflects the messages sent by all the Sunni people all over the world to the American people … (It’s) a threat to every American in the event of an American strike on Iraq,” the message read.

Among hundreds of supportive responses, one user posted, “As our martyred sheikh Osama bin Laden said, you need not consult anyone about killing Americans.”

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Judge upholds order demanding release of CIA torture accounts

The Guardian reports: A military judge has rejected the US government’s attempts to keep accounts of the CIA’s torture of a detainee secret, setting up a fateful choice for the Obama administration in staunching the fallout from its predecessor’s brutal interrogations.

In a currently-sealed 24 June ruling at Guantánamo Bay – described to the Guardian – Judge James Pohl upheld his April order demanding the government produce details of the detentions and interrogations of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri during his years in CIA custody. The Miami Herald also reported on the ruling, citing three sources who had seen it.

Among those details are the locations of the “black site” secret prisons in which Nashiri was held until his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo; the names and communications of CIA personnel there; training and other procedures for guards and interrogators; and discussions of the application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s ‘Yemen model’ doesn’t work in Yemen — it’s unlikely to work in Iraq

PRI reports: President Barack Obama sees success against al-Qaeda in Yemen, and wants to use the same model to overcome ISIS in Iraq.

Middle East watcher Gregory Johnsen thinks that’s a bad idea; he’s not even sure what Obama is seeing in Yemen should be called success.

“It just seems that the US doesn’t have a very good grasp of what’s happening on the ground in Yemen or what’s happening on the ground in Iraq, or how to solve either of these problems,” he says.

Johnsen says the US military strategy used to hunt al-Qaeda members in Yemen has been ineffective, or even counterproductive.

“About four-and-a-half years ago, when the US started this program of drone strikes, special forces advisors on the ground, al-Qaeda in Yemen numbered about 200 to 300 people. Now today, there are several thousand people. So what the US is doing in Yemen isn’t working.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. and Iran each operating surveillance drones over Iraq

The New York Times reports: The United States has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq since ISIS swept across the north of the country, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day. The American flights include F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.

Iran has mounted a parallel effort, according to American officials. It has set up a special control center at Al Rashid airfield in Baghdad, and is flying its own small fleet of Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq, said one American official.

An Iranian signals intelligence unit has been deployed at the same airfield to intercept electronic communications between ISIS fighters and commanders, said a second American official, who also declined to be named because he was discussing classified information.

While Iran has not sent large numbers of troops into Iraq, as many as 10 divisions of Iranian military and Quds Force troops are massed on the border, ready to come to Mr. Maliki’s aid if the Iraqi capital is imperiled or Shiite shrines in cities like Samarra are seriously threatened, American officials say.

“Iran is likely to be playing somewhat of an overarching command role within the central Iraqi military apparatus, with an emphasis on maintaining cohesiveness in Baghdad and the Shia south and managing the reconstitution of Shia militias,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

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Obama’s disastrous Iraq policy

Peter Beinart writes: Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister’s Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust. [Continue reading...]

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Kurds tell Kerry: ‘We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq’

Rudaw reports: When the US delegation that was arriving in Baghdad asked Iraqi Kurdistan’s top leaders to be there to meet with them, the Kurds reportedly refused.

In that rejection, and the reception they gave to Kerry in their own capital of Erbil on Tuesday, the Iraqi Kurds showcased their newfound confidence, strength and unity.

Knowing full well this was the last thing Washington’s top diplomat wanted to hear, the autonomous Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani brought up what his people wanted to talk about: independence.

Kerry was in Erbil to urge the Kurds to back the formation of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, as insurgents that include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rack up stunning military victories against the Iraqi army and threaten to splinter Iraq.

Barzani told Kerry it could no longer be business as usual. “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.”

And while he did not reject Kerry’s request that the Kurds be part of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, Barzani insisted that would have to be on Erbil’s terms. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public. Now show us the library of secret law

Jameel Jaffer writes: A federal appellate court’s publication on Monday of the so-called “drone memo” finally allows the American public to evaluate the legal theories that were the basis for one of the Obama administration’s most controversial acts – the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.

Authored three years ago by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the 41-page memo contends that the president has broad power to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, even in geographic areas far removed from conventional battlefields.

The publication of the memo is a victory for transparency – the result of hard-fought litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. (I argued the ACLU’s case before the appellate court.) It is a very rare thing for a federal court in the United States to order the release of information that the government contends is properly classified. In transparency litigation in the national-security sphere, the courts almost invariably defer. That the court declined to defer here suggests that it found the arguments from the Obama administration to be not simply unpersuasive but wholly without foundation.

But despite the release of the drone memo, the American public still does not have the information it needs in order to evaluate the lawfulness and wisdom of its government’s policies. Indeed, to read through the memo is to be reminded of how successful the Obama administration has been at rationing even the most basic information. [Continue reading...]

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The beginning of the disintegration of the state of Iraq?

The Washington Post reports: The 300 U.S. advisers authorized to assist the Iraqi security forces will find an army in crisis mode, so lacking in equipment and shaken by desertions that it may not be able to win back significant chunks of territory from al-Qaeda renegades for months or even years, analysts and officials say.

After tens of thousands of desertions, the Iraqi military is reeling from what one U.S. official described as “psychological collapse” in the face of the offensive from militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The desperation has reached such a level that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is relying on volunteers, who are in some cases receiving as little as a week’s military training, to protect his ever-shrinking orbit of control.

“Over time, what’s occurred is that the Iraqi army has no ability to defend itself,” said Rick Brennan, a Rand Corp. analyst and former adviser to U.S. forces in Iraq. “If we’re unable to find ways to make a meaningful difference to the Iraqi army as they fight this, I think what we’re looking at is the beginning of the disintegration of the state of Iraq.” [Continue reading...]

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