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September 27, 2014

Obama's Syria Gong Show Won't Resolve Islamic State

By David Stockman Contra Corner

Folks, this war is only three days old and its already a gong show. Its become at least a four-front affair—with Obama’s “broad” coalition amounting to little more than a few stealth Arab nations renting back to Washington the equipment and American trained pilots it had earlier provided them.

The President’s shock-but-not-awe campaign apparently incepted not with bombs on the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqah but via a tomahawk barrage on some Nusra Front rebels in northwestern Syria. These were anti-regime fighters of the not-so-moderate persuasion who had been recently driven there after a bloody struggle with ISIS. As explained by the WSJ:

In July, the Islamic State routed its rivals including the Nusra Front and allied Islamist rebels from eastern Syria and they are now concentrated in the western half of the country, where they are fighting the regime along with other factions.
So these folks were fighting both of Washington’s declared enemies—–the Assad regime and ISIS—but it obliterated them anyway, and some of their women and children, too. That apparently makes for a three-front war, as the WSJ further explained:

Many Islamist rebel groups are allied to the Nusra Front and these factions are the dominant force in non-Islamic State territories in Syria, wielding more power than the moderate groups backed by the U.S……. further civilian casualties or targeting of fighters affiliated with the Nusra Front could…..” turn it into a real enemy of all the other forces” such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said Mohammad al-Salloum, an activist from Idlib previously held hostage by Islamic State and currently based across the border in neighboring Turkey.
Needless to say, opening up a third front against Nusra and its Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters as the first item of business during Monday night’s bombing debut must have come as a welcome surprise to Damascus. Presumably, Bashar Assad can now redeploy the forces he had thrown up against the ferocious Nusra fighters and assign them to contend with an impending attack by “moderate rebels”—-that is, as soon as the latter are vetted by the House GOP’s defense committee in Washington and sent to the Arabian desert for six months of training in the use of lethal weapons and civilized slogans.
As a Syrian-born broadcaster with the Al Jazeera network, wrote on Twitter,

“What more can Bashar al-Assad ask for? The U.S. planes targeted first and foremost the strong factions that are fighting him”.
OK, this third front thing did complicate matters. However, the Pentagon says it was unavoidable due to an emergency—-namely, an imminent attack on the US homeland by a faction within the Nusra Front faction called Khorasan.

Or then again—-maybe not. Was the “imminent threat” just a pretext to start the Syrian air war and to “vet” the opposition rebels by means of high altitude bombers? After all, why not purge the “bad guys” before they can get their hands on the weapons Congress has already voted to give the not yet vetted “good guys” so that the latter can take on the really, really bad guys running the Islamic State?
Indeed, less than 48 hours after the fact there were plenty of hints that the “Khorasan threat” was essentially a recycling job from the Pentagon propaganda mill. In Donald Rumsfeld’s precise vernacular, the Khorasans were “known knowns”:

This is essentially the same cast of characters that we’ve had our eye on for years,” the senior US official said. “These are known operatives to us. This is more like a group of people seeking to exploit the safe haven in Syria to plot against us…..”
Thomas Joscelyn, an editor of The Long War Journal and scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says the same thing, explaining that Khorasan is not some major new threat or uniquely Syrian entity but essentially a travelling recruiter squad dispatched to the Syrian front by Al Qaeda central:

These are basically senior operational guys within Al Qaeda who are operating in Syria, and using the fertile recruiting ground of Syria to identify potential terrorist operations in the west.”
Likewise, according to Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed,

“A source that was briefed on Khorasan in June said that the counterterrorism community believes that between 10 and 20 top Al Qaeda people had gone to Syria from Waziristan “to link up in Syria and establish a new AQ affiliate in Syria that would be focused on training and deploying against the West.”
In fact, the names bandied about with respect to Khorasan are the same old, same old jihadi. Its perhaps now departed leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, is or was a 33-year old jihadist circuit preacher who has been around since 2001. His sojourns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Iran and elsewhere were well tracked by western intelligence agencies but in 15 years he has apparently given out more sermons than notable attacks. Indeed, his most recent weapon of choice was apparently Twitter:

The source says al Fadhli is trying to emulate the success of ISIS in using social media to recruit Westerners — people who could be trained and then sent home to launch terror attacks. To this end, al Fadhli has been able to recruit a member of ISIS’ media team to help with recruitment for Khorasan.
The hysteria about an attack on the US homeland relates to Khorasan operatives who may have once been apprenticed to Ibrahim al Asiri, the putative master bombmaker of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The latter operates out of Yemen, which, incidentally, the White House claims is the success model for its current bombing campaign, but it is likely that al-Asiri’s incompetence as a bomb-maker is more responsible for this claim than the CIA’s drone missiles—-which always seem to hit the wrong target such as schools and wedding parties. In any event, al-Asiri has been trying to make an underwear or deodorant stick bomb for the better part of a decade with no success—save for the underwear bomber farce of X-mas 2009 during which the perpetrator fried his own private parts.

Indeed, the Khorasan scary stories appear to be just a recycled version of the airplane bomb plots—-based on scientifically dubious explosive clothing—- that were trotted out as a pretext to launch a drone war in Yemen in 2009-2010. Likewise, this week’s warnings about a magic liquid that can turn clothes into undetectable bombs is also an old standby—a version of a similar plot that was leaked in 2013, and died almost immediately over lack of evidence.

But here’s the point. All this stuff about airplane bomber plots is old hat. What is new is that some of the wannabe terrorist perpetrators of these grizzly schemes have apparently migrated from the inhospitable, backwater redoubts of Yemen, Iran and Waziristan to the far more fertile precincts of Syria. Yet the failed, lawless state which is now host to Khorasan and countless more factions of terror was governed just 50 months ago by a stable if tyrannical regime that would have nabbed and liquidated an itinerant squad of jihadist recruiters in a heartbeat.

Yes, it is the Washington War Party which transformed the original peaceful (and essentially hopeless) Sunni uprising against the Assads into an armed rebellion and the nation into an apocalypse of brutal warfare and unspeakable sectarian violence and terror. Without Washington’s money and green light, the flow of weapons from Libya, the arms and funds from Qatar and the Saudi’s and the recruiting and transit stations for fighters and weapons along Turkey’s 560 mile border with Syria would not likely have materialized. There would have been no civil war and “fertile recruiting ground” for terrorists in the upper Euphrates valley.

Indeed, the irony is that Syria and Iraq were never real nations in the first place. They originated as set of artificial boundaries drawn on maps by British and French diplomats carving up the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, and had been held together by a succession of kings, tyrants, generals and dictators—-the last of which were nominated for “regime change” by Washington.

The outcome is self-evidently failed states and seething incubators of terrorism. Yet the War Party is incorrigible. It has now bamboozled even our “peace president” into a bombing campaign that can only compound the anarchy and intensify the inflow of terrorists to the blood-soaked territories that were once Syrian and Iraq.

Bombing is never a precision endeavor, but look at the impact already. Anticipating Obama’s bombing campaign, ISIS had already moved much of its fighting force and military assets out of Raqqah and launched a blitzkrieg campaign against the Kurdish enclaves around Kobani near the Turkish border—a lightening move that has unleashed terror and pandemonium in the region:

Kurdish leaders said that after U.S. warplanes hit Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State, the insurgents redeployed men and heavy weaponry closer to Kurdish areas. The officials said the jihadist onslaught around the Syrian city of Ayn al-Arab, known in Kurdish as Kobani, continued through Tuesday, as shells fell on the city and surrounding villages were seized.
Turkey’s government said on Tuesday that the number of refugees fleeing the jihadist advance rose to 150,000, while the United Nations relief agency warned the number could reach 400,000.
Not surprisingly, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which fights under the banner of the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, on Tuesday asked to join Barack Obama’s coalition.  That sounds like a potential ally on the ground, but here’s the problem. The YPG has close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which, in turn, is classified as a terrorist organizations by the U.S. and Turkey!

So we now have the oddity of bombing one terrorist organization (The Nusra Front) that was fighting our enemy in Damascus (Assad) while a second terrorist organization in the region and the ostensible target of the air war (ISIS) was attacking a third group of terrorist (YPG), which now wants to be our ally. Unfortunately, our former enemy turned ally (YPG) is apparently still the enemy of our former ally which has gone missing (Turkey).

Indeed, given their historic enmity toward the Turkish state, the massive flow of Kurdish refugees across the border is distinctly unwelcome:

Panic over Islamic State’s advance led to fresh clashes at the border between Turkish security forces and angry Kurdish protesters who cursed the absence of Turkey—a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member with a major U.S. air base—from the Washington-led coalition.
So call this the fourth front—the place where Turkey is fighting our friends while eschewing Obama’s call to fight the ISIS enemy. Actually, the tangle of confusion is even worse. The 50 Turkish diplomats who were being held by ISIS were miraculously set free on Tuesday—even as President Erdogan swore on a stack of Korans that he had not paid ransom to terrorists and also confirmed that they had not been freed by a daring military raid on the ISIS camp where they were being held.

It turns out it was all a “diplomatic” bargain. That is, another of the anti-Assad terrorist groups aligned with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood had taken 50 ISIS fighters hostage during the internecine battles among the radicals this summer. So in a grand swap, Turkey recovered its diplomats and ISIS got its fighters back.

After three days Syria is thus riven.  After three days the two nation’s with the most at stake and the greatest capability to contain and defeat the Islamic State—-Turkey and Iran—-are  still on the sidelines. After three days  Obama’s “broad” coalition remains a joke, consisting of Qataris who went along for the ride, the CIA’s wholly owned subsidiary in Jordan, locals from the giant US base in Bahrain and a few American war planes and American trained pilots who notionally fly under the flags of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

These five participants take the notion of a “coalition of the willing” to a new extreme in Washington orchestrated incredulity. None of them even publicly acknowledged that they participated in the attacks! As the WSJ noted,

The five Arab states who participated in Tuesday’s early morning strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria remained muted about their roles in the attacks, underlining the political sensitivities of being seen to ally with the U.S. or Syrian regimes.
Three of the five involved countries issued perfunctory, vague public statements about the strikes, none of which carried any mention of the target country of Syria or the U.S., which led the attacks.
So don’t expect any boots on the ground from this coalition. Even Jordan which sits on the border of the Syrian chaos could only muster an awkward allusion to “targets in the northeast of our borders.”
At the end of the day, the Islamic State is first and foremost a sectarian threat to the Shiite Crescent of Iran, the Assad-Alawite regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rather than train “moderates” to topple Assad, strangle Iran with brutal economic sanctions and ostracize the dominant political force in Lebanon, Obama needs to call back his bombers and get the American war machine out of the way. Let the age old Sunni/Shiite schism be handled the way it always has been—-by the tribes and confessions that are party to the theological dispute.

Moreover, if ISIS can even manage to govern by means of the sword and the harsh precepts of Sharia law its principle threat would be to its neighbors, not the citizen of Lincoln NE and Springfield MA. Sooner or latter, 200 million Turks, Syrians, Jordanians, Iranians, Iraqi, Saudis etc. will find ways to contain and eliminate a few thousand medievalist butchers.

The only thing the current White House strategy can do is turn Syria into a barbaric honey pot for terrorists and a cauldron of resentment and blowback plots of revenge against the West. The first three days of Obama’s Syrian gong show have already proven that in spades.

Courtesy David Stockman's Contra Corner (EconMatters Archive Here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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