The Sunnis who see the Iraqi government as a terrorist organization

Lauren Bohn reports: In the past year alone, 43-year-old Omar says he’s watched hundreds die. Or as he describes it, “boom, gone, the end.”

Omar is an administrator of one of the busiest hospitals in Fallujah, in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. First, his brother nearly lost a leg in a mortar attack. Then, his neighbor’s home was destroyed in shelling. Soon after, his mother narrowly missed a bombing in their once-placid neighborhood. But it wasn’t until he watched a 5-year-old girl in a bright pink shirt take her last gasp of air outside his office, her body torn apart from shelling, that he knew he had to leave his hometown. Life in Iraq, as he puts it, has become an endless flow of “dark, dark red.”

“Every day, I saw children watching parents die and parents watching children die,” he says, recalling grim scenes from the hospital he’s worked at for years. “I couldn’t raise my children there any longer … we all have targets on our head.”

Back in January, six months before the Islamic State, then still ISIS, seized the world’s attention by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the group and its allies took the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi. It was one of the first signs that Iraq’s Sunni regions were falling into a state of open rebellion against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

The ragtag fighters saw an opening after then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered security forces to dismantle a yearlong sit-in camp near Ramadi, claiming it had become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants. Sunnis like Omar had been protesting for the release of Sunni prisoners who they said were detained arbitrarily and without trial; they deeply resented their political exclusion from the Shiite-led central government. This wasn’t the first time Anbar province had become a center of revolt: After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, the region became ground zero for a Sunni-led insurgency against the Iraqi government and U.S. troops.

Omar is one of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have fled Iraq’s largest province since fighting swept the region in January. He and his family have resettled in Shaqlawa, a mountain-ringed city near the regional capital of Erbil. There are so many displaced people from Fallujah that residents jokingly call the town “Shaqlujah.”

Many live cramped lives in converted hotels, but middle-class families like Omar have rented homes, blending into a town they once traveled to for summer holidays. Christians and Yazidis have also sought refuge from other Islamic State-controlled territories, bringing with them horror stories of mass executions and kidnappings. But as a Sunni Arab, who complains of systemic oppression by Shiites in Baghdad, Omar wasn’t fleeing the Islamic State — in fact, he believes it is necessary in what he calls a renewed fight for the survival of Iraqi Sunnis. [Continue reading...]


We can’t destroy ISIS without removing Bashar al Assad first

Fred Hof writes: On Wednesday evening, President Obama took 14 minutes to articulate, in clear and persuasive language, a counter-terrorism strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet the problem presented by an ersatz caliph and an amalgam of criminals, terrorists, executioners, and foreign fighters goes far beyond one of counter-terrorism. The Islamic State — just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq — cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president’s strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.

The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy — to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game — the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame — keeping the Islamic State in its grave — is simply incomplete.

Iraq and Syria are extreme examples of the fundamental grievances embodied by the 2011 Arab Spring. Since the 1920s, much of the Arab World has been struggling to answer one fundamental question: what is it that follows the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the source of political legitimacy? The answer suggested by protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Deraa, and elsewhere was compellingly correct: the consent of the governed. [Continue reading...]


Free Syrian Army will not join U.S.-led coalition against ISIS

Middle East Eye reports: The Free Syrian Army has announced that it will not sign up to the US-led coalition to destroy Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.

The group’s founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, stressed that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is their priority, and that they will not join forces with US-led efforts without a guarantee that the US is committed to his overthrow.

“If they want to see the Free Syrian Army on their side, they should give assurances on toppling the Assad regime and on a plan including revolutionary principles.”

The announcement appears to be reversing an earlier satement on Thursday by the National Coalition opposition, the Free Syrian Army’s political wing, which said it was ready to work with the coalition against IS.

Saying they had “long called for this action”, the coalition called on US politicians to authorise the training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army “as soon as possible”.

The Free Syrian Army, mostly composed of military personnel who have defected from Assad’s armed forces, had already been engaged in battles against IS militants. [Continue reading...]


Why Obama has picked the worst allies for his war on ISIS

Rami G Khouri writes: President Barack Obama’s bold move to lead a coalition of countries to degrade, contain and defeat the “Islamic State” group in Syria and Iraq through a combination of military and political means is sensible in principle, but it is likely to run into a serious problem — one that has plagued other such endeavors.

The combination of foreign-led military power and local Arab government partners that must anchor a successful attack to vanquish the Islamic State is the precise combination of forces that originally midwifed the birth of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s and later spawned its derivative — the Islamic State — today.

The United States and its fighting partners in the Middle East and abroad face two profound dilemmas that have no easy answer.

First, the combination of American militarism and Middle Eastern (mostly Arab) autocratic regimes can certainly contain and rattle the Islamic State in the short run, but in the long run, as recent history confirms, it is likely to generate new, more dangerous and more widely dispersed groups of militants and terrorists.

Second, there is no easy way, and few other options, in the short run to contain ISIS today before it spreads further and causes more damage to the region, so there seems to be no alternative now but to repeat the questionable patterns of the last 20 years of war against Al-Qaeda and its successors.

The biggest weakness in Obama’s coalition is its Arab members, all of whom are autocratic and paternalistic states that share several embarrassing traits:

  • They are reluctant to use their formidable military arsenals in the fight against ISIS, either from political fear or technical weaknesses;
  • They face strong problems with their own public opinions at home that are very dubious about partnering with the American military;
  • Their own mistreatment of some of their prisoners in their jails incubated the birth of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s;
  • Their sustained mismanagement of social, economic and political development in the past 40 years was the leading contributor to the mass grievances that sparked large-scale Islamism and emigration from the 1970s, the retreat of the state from some quarters of society, and the birth of militias, tribal groupings, and criminal gangs as powerful new actors in society.

The most troubling symbol of how hard it is for Arab regimes to fight the Islamic State and other such phenomena is the Arab jails in the 1980s and 90s that were the incubators for many of the early recruits and leaders of Al-Qaeda. [Continue reading...]

The Guardian reports: Secretary of state John Kerry said on Saturday that Egypt has a critical role to play in countering the ideology of Islamic State, the militant group known as Isis.

Kerry was speaking in Cairo as part of a regional tour to build support for President Barack Obama’s plan to strike both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier, defeat Isis Sunni fighters and build a coalition for a potentially complex military campaign in the heart of the Middle East.


Civilians and ISIS ship out of Raqqa ahead of U.S. airstrikes

Middle East Eye reports: Huge numbers of people have continued fleeing areas of Syria controlled by militants from the self-styled Islamic State (IS), in advance of planned US-led airstrikes on IS strongholds.

Thousands have joined a mass exodus that began on Wednesday, as US President Obama announced in a televised speech that his plan for confronting the IS threat includes launching airstrikes on its militants within Syrian territory.

Residents have been leaving towns in IS strongholds in droves, fearing that the bombardment will cause civilian casualties as well as targeting militants.

Ferat al-Wafa, head of Broadcasters Without Borders who hails from al-Raqqa province, told Anadolu that residents of the area, “who buried around 50 martyrs killed by Assad’s planes on Thursday, are living every day in a state of fear.”

“The city of Raqqa has seen an active wave of fleeing to rural areas, which they see as being safer, in order to be further from the sites where IS are amassed.”

According to Wafa this wave of flight will exacerbate an “appalling” health situation in the city, where several of the hospitals are out of service. [Continue reading...]


Qatar expels Egypt Muslim Brotherhood leaders

The Associated Press reports: Leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group and allied clerics said on Saturday that they are departing Qatar, where they had sought refuge following the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his supporters.

Their presence in Qatar had severely strained Doha’s relations with Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which view the more than 85-year-old Islamist movement as a threat. The expulsion threatens to further isolate the group, which rose to power in Egypt through a string of post-Arab Spring elections but suffered a dramatic fall from grace during Morsi’s divisive year in office.

Former minister Amr Darrag, who was also the top foreign affairs official in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and fiery cleric Wagdi Ghoneim said they are leaving Qatar following a request to do so by the Gulf monarchy. [Continue reading...]


Robert Sapolsky: Are humans just another primate?


The manufacturers of the world’s handpans don’t want to turn to mass production

Ilana E. Strauss writes: The handpan may look like a Stone Age relic, but it was actually invented about a decade ago by Swiss artists Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. The two were steelpan makers, and they came up with a new instrument, which they christened the “Hang” meaning “hand” in Bernese German.

Rohner and Schärer formed their company, PANArt, to sell their creations in 2000. Requests started pouring in, and soon they couldn’t meet demand. They received thousands of inquiries annually, but they only made a few hundred instruments each year.

The artists didn’t want to mass-produce their handpans, so they did something novel: They required prospective customers to write hand-written letters. A chosen few were then invited to the PANArt workshop in Switzerland (they had to furnish their own travel expenses), where they bought their instruments in person. While there, buyers learned about the history and use of the Hang, as well as how to care for it. [Continue reading...]


Music: Jazzamor — ‘Around’n’Around’


Syrian Kurds ally with rebel groups to fight ISIS

Vice reports: Kurdish and rebel armed groups fighting extremist militants the Islamic State (IS) in Syria have agreed to join forces against their common enemy, the latest in a complex and shifting series of battlefield allegiances.

Units affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Islamic Front (IF) and US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) will form a new coalition named Burkan al-Forat (Euphrates Volcano) after the river which flows through the region in which the agreement was formalized.

The alliance was announced via a video posted on Wednesday in which a man read a statement in front of an armed group including a number of women fighters backed by YPG pennants alongside the three-starred flag of Syrian opposition groups and others. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the news.

The man asked those who had joined IS to desert the group, called for assistance from the international community and finished by saying that the coalition wished to free all areas of Syria under IS control, including Qaraqozaq, Jarabulus, Sirin, Manbaj and Raqqa.

Syrian rebel groups have not always had a smooth relationship with Kurdish militias. The YPG, which is the main force in majority Kurdish parts of the country, has maintained an uneasy truce with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the region, leading some rebels to accuse them of colluding with the government, a charge the Kurds deny.

However, it has been instrumental in the fight against IS and has been one of the few forces to mount an effective defense against the jihadis, inflicting heavy losses against them clashes across northern Syria and stymying their efforts to extend control into Kurdish regions. Problematically for the US, the YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an organization which is on both America and the EU’s terrorist blacklist. [Continue reading...]


U.S. and Syrian opposition fighters view each other with mutual distrust

The New York Times reports: American involvement with the rebels so far has largely been through so-called operations rooms in Jordan and Turkey staffed by intelligence officials from the United States and other countries that have provided arms to limited numbers of vetted rebels. So far, the support provided has included light arms, ammunition and antitank missiles, which have helped the groups destroy government armor but have not resulted in major rebel advances or helped control the spread of ISIS.

“The United States can probably work with them to some extent, but they haven’t been hugely effective so far, which is why the Islamic State is there in the first place,” said Mr. Lund, the Syria analyst.

The support so far has been limited, leaving many rebels feeling that the aid is prolonging the war, not helping them win. And the fluidity of battlefield alliances in Syria means that even mainline rebels often end up fighting alongside the Nusra Front, whose suicide bombers are relied on by other groups to soften up government targets.

“Even the groups that the U.S. has trained tend to show up in the same trenches as the Nusra Front eventually, because they need them and they are fighting the same battles,” Mr. Lund said.

The operations rooms — known as the Military Operations Command — also have had their influence sapped by the spread of extremists.

Ahmed Naimeh, the top Syrian official in the operations room in Jordan, was captured by rebels during a visit to Syria this year, ironically while trying to unify local rebel groups. He has not been heard from since, and many suspect that the Nusra Front killed him.

An operations room in Turkey has provided support to a number of moderate groups in northern Syria, shifting the balance of power away from the Islamists, according to a report published this week by the International Crisis Group. But this, in addition to a decline in direct support from Persian Gulf states, has not strengthened the rebels, instead causing “a weakening of overall rebel capacity to halt regime gains in Aleppo and hold ISIS at bay to the east,” the report said. [Continue reading...]

McClatchy reports: In an effort to map out the ideological spectrum of Syria’s various rebel groups, Turkish and American officials used a color-coded scheme: green for trusted friends, red for clear-cut enemies and yellow for those in the middle.

That middle section turned into a point of contention when it became clear that the Turks were willing to work with groups that were anathema to the United States, including al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the hard-line Ahrar al Sham. Turkish officials seemed to be gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category.

“We said, ‘Yes, sure, OK, but a number of the groups that you’re working with, which you consider open to persuasion, we consider beyond the pale. And we will not work with them, and we’d rather you not work with them and we think they need to be blocked from transiting your borders,’ ” Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey until last month, recalled Thursday in a media call arranged by the Atlantic Council foreign policy institute, where he’s now the director of the Middle East program.

“We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” Ricciardone said.

U.S. officials haven’t publicly acknowledged previously knowing that Turkey was providing assistance to Nusra, which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in December 2012. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Now the schism with Turkey, never resolved, is resurfacing in a more public way with President Barack Obama’s pledge to build a “moderate” Syrian rebel force as he wades deeper into the Middle East’s turmoil. When the United States and Muslim partners such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia clash over the very definition of “moderate,” who gets to decide the makeup of a coalition-backed rebel force? And no matter what it’s called, is Obama ready to accept the risk of backing a movement that’s widely viewed as too small, too weak and too untrustworthy to win? [Continue reading...]

The difficulty the U.S. faces in identifying which Syrian groups are fit to view as partners, is a product primarily of the ideological straightjacket inside which Washington operates.

U.S. officials who are obsessed by their own fear of being accused of unwittingly or intentionally offering support to extremists, are asking the wrong questions.

The exact political complexion of each group is of far less consequence than their proclivity to commit war crimes, level of corruption, and commitment to create an inclusive Syria. Whether a particular group can be dubbed “moderate” gives relatively little indication of how they would rank on those counts.

The fact that officials bemoan a paucity of reliable partners among the opposition groups says as much about the Obama administration’s willful neglect of the conflict as it says about the opposition.


Sunnis in Iraq often see their government as bigger threat than ISIS

The New York Times reports: A group of Iraqi Sunni refugees had found shelter in an abandoned school, two families to a room, after fleeing fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They were gathered in the school’s courtyard last week when the Iraqi Air Force bombed them.

The bombing, in Alam District near Tikrit, may well have been a mistake. But some of the survivors believe adamantly that the pilot had to know he was bombing civilians, landing the airstrike “in the middle of all the people,” said Nimr Ghalib, whose wife, three children, sister and nephew were among at least 38 people killed, according to witnesses interviewed last week, as well as human rights workers who detailed the attack on Wednesday.

The attack fit a pattern of often indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes on Sunni areas by the armed forces of the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The strikes have added to a long and bitter list of Sunni grievances, leading many to view the government’s leaders as an enemy — and some to regard the government as an even greater threat than the Sunni extremists in ISIS.

Overcoming that mistrust is a fundamental challenge facing the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as it tries to win Sunni Iraqis over to its side in a fight against the Sunni extremists. And it is a prerequisite of President Obama’s new plan to fight the militant group.

Mr. Abadi’s admirers, including American officials, have insisted that he is an intrinsically more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whom many Sunnis accused of using the government, the security forces and the cover of law to serve narrow Shiite interests and subjugate the Sunni minority.

Many Sunni political leaders have begun responding positively to Mr. Abadi’s outreach, including plans to bring Sunni Arabs into new national guard military units, fighting ISIS under the direction of their provincial governors and with paychecks and pensions from the Iraqi government.

But the prime minister faces a far more daunting challenge outside the halls of power, in Sunni neighborhoods and provinces pummeled by years of war and shaped by a legacy of mistrust that stretches back to the sectarian political order that rose during the American occupation of Iraq.[Continue reading...]


Diane Foley: ‘Our efforts to get Jim freed were an annoyance’ to the government


Paris wants Iran to help crush ISIS

The Associated Press reports: France is prepared to invite Iran to an international conference Monday aimed at coordinating actions to knock out the Islamic State extremists in Iraq — even though that runs counter to the U.S. refusal to deal with Tehran.

The position reflects a recent shift in France’s policy toward Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation and neighbor of Iraq that joins regional states and the West in adamantly opposing the advance of the radicals. Tehran’s long-time influence in Sunni Iraq, including at times a military presence, makes it a logical partner in France’s eyes.

A French official helping plan the conference says the only hitch is agreeing with partners, but added “we are not far from a consensus.” The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named, didn’t elaborate. [Continue reading...]


Is ‘progress’ good for humanity?

Jeremy Caradonna writes: The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men — James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on — fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity — the attainment of our true potential as a species.

Sadly, this saccharine story still sweetens our societal self-image. Indeed, it is deeply ingrained in the collective identity of the industrialized world. The narrative has gotten more complex but remains à la base a triumphalist story. Consider, for instance, the closing lines of Joel Mokyr’s 2009 The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700–1850: “Material life in Britain and in the industrialized world that followed it is far better today than could have been imagined by the most wild-eyed optimistic 18th-century philosophe — and whereas this outcome may have been an unforeseen consequence, most economists, at least, would regard it as an undivided blessing.”

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too. Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: “So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?” or “you can’t stop progress!”

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above. Along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they acknowledge the objective advancement of technology, but they don’t necessarily think that it has made us more virtuous, and they don’t assume that the key values of the Industrial Revolution are beyond reproach: social inequality for the sake of private wealth; economic growth at the expense of everything, including the integrity of the environment; and the assumption that mechanized newness is always a positive thing. Above all, sustainability-minded thinkers question whether the Industrial Revolution has jeopardized humankind’s ability to live happily and sustainably upon the Earth. Have the fossil-fueled good times put future generations at risk of returning to the same misery that industrialists were in such a rush to leave behind? [Continue reading...]


Music: Pat Metheny — ‘Tell Her You Saw Me’


Confronting ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian opposition is in a rare position of power, at least internationally. In his September 10 address, President Barack Obama extended the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, into Syria. He said that the United States will lead a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. There is a wide recognition that the opposition will be key in the fight against the radical group. But the opposition does not have a strategy to seize this opportunity. And at this critical juncture Syrian rebels have even alienated some of their allies.

Until Obama’s speech, the opposition was suspicious that U.S. strikes in Syria would be carried out in collaboration with the Assad regime, despite repeated statements from Western capitals to the contrary. On Wednesday, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood rejected the international coalition against ISIS “unless the first bullet is directed at [Bashar] al-Assad’s head.” Even though the opposition’s National Coalition welcomed the American move against ISIS, the political opposition is still waiting for an invitation to play a role, rather than proactively presenting a vision for a way out for the Syrian crisis.

Away from politics, however, a fairly different situation exists among opposition fighters. Significant rebel coalitions have already been formed to help in the fight against ISIS, and preparations for the zero hour seem to be in full swing. On September 10, seven groups affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front, among them Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced a small yet symbolically significant coalition to fight ISIS in eastern Syria. On Monday, five sizable fighting groups in Idlib announced a merger, named al-Faylaq al-Khamis (The Fifth Legion), saying they would adhere to strict military discipline and use the Syrian revolutionary flag, which indicates a rejection of Islamist ideology. The Syrian Revolutionary Front, which was key to the expulsion of ISIS from much of the north earlier this year, also announced that it would send “convoys after convoys” to areas under ISIS control to defeat the jihadi group.

But even though rebels on the ground are willing and prepared to fight ISIS, the political opposition has a critical role to play. The areas tightly controlled by ISIS will require an assiduous effort to organize groups that could fill any vacuum left by ISIS as a result of the potential airstrikes. ISIS has made it much harder for armed groups from these areas, particularly Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, to regroup and make a comeback or for local forces to stage an insurrection against the jihadi group. Rebel groups from outside these areas will also find it quite difficult to navigate, much less be welcomed in, these territories. [Continue reading...]


Will the U.S. launch airstrikes in Syria?

The New York Times reports: The prospect of the first American attacks on Syrian soil during three years of brutal civil war electrified Syrians on Thursday, prompting intense debate over whether airstrikes on the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would help or harm President Bashar al-Assad, his armed Syrian opponents and war-weary civilians.

Raqqa, the northeastern city that ISIS has ruled for more than a year, was abuzz with the news. Civilians fled areas near ISIS headquarters. Anti-ISIS insurgents pronounced themselves energized by the prospect of new American aid and said Turkish officials had recently contacted them, promising new arms to fight the foreign-led Sunni group.

But even among fervent opponents of ISIS — including Syrian insurgents, some of whom stand to gain aid to battle the group — there was ambivalence over President Obama’s declaration that he would “not hesitate” to strike ISIS in Syria.

Many warned that if weakening ISIS strengthened Mr. Assad, allowing him to continue attacking opposition-held civilian areas with impunity, and was not accompanied by political enfranchisement of the Sunni majority in Syria, the strikes could backfire, driving more Sunnis to support or tolerate ISIS. Others worried that Syrian civilians could be killed in the attacks. [Continue reading...]

In his national address last night, President Obama said:

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

In terms of military strategy, it’s well understood that ISIS will not be weakened, let alone destroyed, if it is pushed back in Iraq while consolidating its strength in Syria. But when Obama says he will not hesitate to strike ISIS in Syria, he is not tying that choice to the campaign in Iraq. Instead, he appears to be making it conditional on his assessment of the threat that ISIS poses to the United States.

He also said, “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” and warned that ISIS fighters “could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

So, Obama appears not to see ISIS as posing an imminent threat to the U.S. and for as long as that remains the case, I’m doubtful that he will order airstrikes in Syria.

If the White House lawyers insist that an imminent threat is the required trigger, then identifying an imminent threat could simply be a matter of political convenience. But I really doubt that Obama is itching to launch such an attack, so I don’t think he’s actively looking for a pretext.

At the same time, if as many have argued, ISIS is trying to bait the U.S., then an adequate bait would involve nothing more than making a few phone calls (which can predictably be intercepted by the NSA) in which plotters discuss plans for attacking America.

As things stand right now, I believe that neither ISIS nor Obama are ready to see U.S. airstrikes on Raqqa.

Foreign Policy notes:

[T]here are good reasons American policymakers haven’t yet rushed to bomb Syria. “There’s a good risk of losses to the U.S. Air Force if we go into Syria without consent,” says Poss. “Syrian air defenses are among the best in the world because they have to go up against one of the best air forces in the world, the Israelis, almost daily.” Israel has managed to outwit its neighbor’s ground-to-air missile defenses a few times thanks to tactical surprise. But a concerted U.S. air campaign against IS in Syria would require multiple sorties every day. Syria’s foreign minister has already warned that the United States will need President Bashar al-Assad’s permission to carry out operations against the terrorist group — something few in Washington have the appetite for requesting. Even so, there’s a risk that bombing in Syria could open an unwanted front in the war.