He was referring to the more recent depredations of the Islamic State (ISIS), which, fewer than 72 hours prior, the United States, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar, began bombing in four provinces in Syria, dropping a greater collective payload in the first 24 hours than has been dropped on Iraq in the last six weeks. The president left no doubt as to how ISIS must be confronted. Its militants, he said, had “terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria” and therefore “must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed.” Even inveterate critics of his foreign policy gave him high marks for what they saw as the overdue emergence of Churchillian leadership, or at least the oratory preceding it. Here was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, ever wary of exercising American military power abroad, corralling Sunni-led nations and their F-16s into urgent American-led action.
However, it remains a disconcerting fact of this speech, and indeed of the enormous blind-spot in Obama’s so-called strategy for the Middle East, that every atrocity he listed for ISIS has also been committed by either the regime of Bashar al-Assad or by the consortium of Shiite militias operating in Syria and Iraq, under the tutelage and patronage of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not a sentence or paragraph was reserved for them, apart from a fleeting reference to the “brutality” of the regime. Terrorism is no longer state-sponsored, you see, and apart from the president’s noble claims about the humanistic principles of all faiths and there being no “clash of civilizations,” it only ever comes from one sect of Islam.
The contrast is made even starker if one re-reads Obama’s 2013 General Assembly speech. Almost a year ago to the day, the president was in New York to rise to a different geopolitical occasion, from which he clearly, almost visibly, preferred to shrink: the lethal gassing of 1,500 people by Assad in a capital city. Note the rhetorical downiness with which he dealt with that event:
“Now, the crisis in Syria, and the destabilization of the region, goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront. How should we respond to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa — conflicts between countries, but also conflicts within them? How do we address the choice of standing callously by while children are subjected to nerve gas, or embroiling ourselves in someone else’s civil war? What is the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct?”
Dropping sarin gas on children was a “crisis” that was further “de-stabilizing” the region, a “challenge.” Getting involved in Syria amounted to interfering in “someone else’s civil war.” Assad had not “terrorized” all he came across. Forget about degrading and destroying his regime; force could only be rendered as a philosophical quandary. To use or not to use — that was the question, and it was one ultimately decided for Obama in the negative by Vladimir Putin and a deeply ambivalent US Congress.
The president’s priorities have not really changed, although it’s become easier to believe that they have now that the United States has got itself embroiled in someone else’s civil war, after all. It’s four days into what will be a long conflict, orchestrated by a famously war-averse president, and already we know quite a lot about what America intends for Syria.
First, somewhat undercutting Obama’s claim that the Syrian opposition was one of his “partners,” it was revealed that there was no coordination between the United States and the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Coalition, both of which were only informed about the impending attacks on ISIS over the weekend. The Daily Beast noted that US-trained and -armed rebels were “not given specific information that would have allowed them to capitalize on the strikes by moving into areas where [ISIS] was hit.” McClatchy added that “rebel commanders said they’d played no role in selecting the targets or planning for the aftermath.” As partners, they were spectators to decision-making that didn’t concern them.
The opposition’s expectation, as ever, is that this will all change as time goes on, and as the United States gets more deeply involved in Syria. Hadi al-Bahra, the Coalition president, who was enlisted to ask for intervention just as ISIS was setting upon the Kurds of Kobani, once again put forth his recommendation of a no-fly zone. Ankara, which recently secured the release of 49 Turkish hostages from ISIS’s grip, — possibly following a swap for ISIS prisoners held by the Aleppo-based rebel group Liwa al-Tawhid — seems hesitant to join in any military campaign in Syria that fails to treats the cancer of the regime. Whatever happens, it may not be until 2016, just in time for Obama’s final Turtle Bay performance, to see the United States returning the FSA’s phone calls. That’s how long it will take before the 5,000-strong rebel contingent the Pentagon is preparing to train and arm is ready to deploy to Syria on a strictly counterterrorism basis. When asked by Senator John McCain last week if these rebels should also be expected to do battle with the regime and its ancillaries, as is their raison de guerre, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “We do not have to deal with it now.” A year is a long way off, and the priority, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put it, is ISIS.
As to another pressing question of Obama’s grand plan, namely whether US warplanes ever intend to protect this $500 million proxy army from its greatest annihilating threat — regime bombardment — well, that’s still up in the air, too, and not in the way it needs to be. According to Foreign Policy, “The United States may provide vital air support and cover” for the rebels “but it’s unclear how closely that operation will be dictated by the White House.” Actually, it’s a lot clearer once you consider that air cover would likely entail hitting regime air defense systems and possibly a few Syrian jets or helicopters that got in the way of F-18s and F-22s. Here, the Wall Street Journal offers more definitive insight: “U.S. officials say the administration has no intention of bombing Mr. Assad’s forces.”
Was the United States coordinating its bombardment with the regime? That depends on your definition of “coordinating.” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was adamant on Tuesday that her government “did not request the regime’s permission”, “did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level” and “did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government.” But it appears that US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power did pay a courtesy call on her Syrian counterpart Bashar Jaafari on Monday, telling him, however vaguely, that attacks were imminent and not to interfere. (In fairness, the Israelis did the same thing before they bombed Al-Kibar in 2007, offering Assad the choice between losing his covert nuclear program or his state in one night.)
Message accepted. After some initial hemming and hawing about “sovereignty” and acts of “aggression,” Assad professed himself quite pleased with how Obama’s strategy is being implemented.
Syria’s Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haidar, told Reuters on Wednesday: “I say that what has happened so far is proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations and not targeting civilians.” “Right direction” is the exact phrase Jaafari used to characterize Obama’s “good” General Assembly speech, the only hiccups of which, the envoy noted, was all that nonsense about training Syrian rebels and working with the true terrorist states of the Gulf. However, Jaafari didn’t seem overly concerned with those bits.
While it may be true that US Central Command is not ringing up Syria’s Air Force every time it dispatches aircraft into Raqqa or Deir Ezzor, it remains the case that shortly following the first airstrikes, Iraq’s National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad met with Assad to discuss the multinational strategy to contain ISIS. US diplomats and military and intelligence personnel share the details of their war-plans with Iraqi counterparts, who pass on those details to their Iranian and Syrian colleagues. As Foreign Policy observed, US officials “privately […] concede that they are coordinating airstrikes with Iranian militias by using Iraqi security forces as intermediaries.” Many of those militias operated, and continue to operate, in both Syria and Iraq. Not surprisingly, then, Assad told Fayyad: “Syria supports any international counterterrorism effort.”
The bonhomie and smiles coming from once-defiant Baathists this week invites the question of whether or not the United States is actively helping its putative adversary, a mass murdering dictator whom Obama asked to “step aside” in 2011 and whom he still hopes a “political solution” will coax gently into the night once ISIS is no more. “I wouldn’t characterize the effects we had last night as benefiting Assad,” Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Staff, said at a news briefing. Unfortunately, the Syrian rebels characterize it exactly that way.
Dani al-Qappani, an FSA spokesman in Moadamiyah, a district of Damascus which had first been hit with sarin gas last summer and was then subjected to a months-long terror-famine, told me: “I don’t approve of these airstrikes if they only target ISIS. The criminal Assad army has been slaughtering us for more than three years, which means a long time before ISIS slaughtered the US journalists [James Foley and Steven Sotloff].” Al-Qappani added that in the absence of any attacks on the regime, “the Syrian people may again begin to sympathize with ISIS.” Harakat al-Hazm, a rebel group to which the CIA has allowed the passage of about 20 TOW anti-tank missiles, and which had previously been told to support strikes on ISIS if it knew what was good for it, suddenly sounded very anxious on social media Monday night. Airstrikes constituted “an attack on national sovereignty that undermines the Syrian revolution,” the brigade posted to Twitter. “The sole beneficiary of this foreign interference in Syria is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of any real strategy to topple him.” (Former US Ambassador to Syria Fred Hof agrees with at least the latter assessment.)
Moreover, Syrians who had been prepared to risk whatever they had left for US intervention now think they made a terrible mistake. NOW’s Fidaa Itani noted that the dozen civilians killed (so far) in the coalition airstrikes are deemed lives wasted. “If the raids had targeted the regime and a large number people had been killed by mistake, we would have said they were a sacrifice for our salvation,” Itani quoted one rebel. Incidentally, the 12 innocents killed — among them five women and five children, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights — were not even sacrificed in the declared war on ISIS but in the unannounced, by-the-way war waged on Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Was hitting Nusra and ISIS simultaneously a tactical necessity or strategic folly? Lately the group, whose thunder has been stolen internationally by ISIS, has been acting rather strangely. It asked the United Nations, for instance, to de-list it as a terrorist organization in exchange for releasing UN personnel it captured in late August in the Golan Heights. A Nusra higher-up even told BuzzFeed that the organization was never spoiling for a fight with America but that now America would get one. However disingenuous or risible such claims are, coming from a branch of Al-Qaeda, the more immediate trouble for Washington is that Syrians, including those not ideologically oriented toward Salafi-jihadism in any way, are now rallying behind this “common enemy” of the regime. Nusra rank-and-file, meanwhile, are exchanging messages of solidarity and hopes for rapprochement with members of ISIS, whom they’d been killing alongside mainstream rebels since January.
A merger between Nusra and ISIS would not only alter the nature of America’s air war, expanding strike sites into Daraa and elsewhere, but it would also affect the viability of its imminent ground war. Inter-rebel dynamics would no doubt deteriorate even further; local populations would turn against those seen to be hirelings or agents of Western intelligence services, and through them, the regime. (Anticipation of this outcome seemed to be the catalyst for Harakat al-Hazm’s condemnation of the airstrikes.) Furthermore, the $500 million arm-and-train policy would now have its cost really put to the test since those 5,000 FSA militants would be asked to fight two formidable jihadist movements at once.
To confuse matters further, the White House’s justification for hitting Nusra was that it was actually hitting someone else entirely, the semi-autonomous cell within the Al-Qaeda franchise known as the Khorasan Group. As US intelligence has been telegraphing for a week via various media outlets, the Khorasan Group was planning a major terrorist attack against American targets and represented a more significant national security threat than ISIS. The Obama administration said that the Group may have been looking to blow up a commercial airliner with bombs made out of toothpaste tubes or clothes. Unfortunately, the schemers “went dark” just as the spooks were closing in on them; so they had to be powdered swiftly.
These ex-post facto disclosures about an “imminent” attack has prompted some healthy skepticism. A senior Senate aide told BuzzFeed: “I think the [US government] is blowing them [Khorasan] way out of proportion. They need a good story right now and saying they subverted a terrorist plot against America is good press.” Antiwar types and pro-war cynics wonder if the Group wasn’t perhaps bundled into the list of Syrian targets in order to bolster a flimsy legal case for going to war against ISIS since the US can globally target Al-Qaeda, which split from ISIS earlier this year, under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
In the media’s rush to discover who and what the Khorasan Group is, and to determine just how exigent this airliner bomb plot really was, a few crucial details have been hurried passed, if not altogether buried.
The first came from the Associated Press, which reported that US intelligence had been watching the Group in Syria “for years. But Obama had resisted taking military action in Syria to avoid inadvertently helping President Bashar Assad, a leader the U.S. would like to see gone.” Does that mean that the United States is now inadvertently helping him? Also, how did the Khorasan Group get to Syria “years” ago?
Its leader, who may or may not have been killed in one of the airstrikes already, is 33-year-old Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti national. According to one security source cited by CNN, he arrived in Syria in April 2013 (presumably joining other pre-placed assets if this claim matches up with AP’s reporting) and embedded immediately with Nusra. But then Fadhli fell out with the Syrian affiliate owing to its perception of him as an agent of Iran. Fadhli was indeed Al-Qaeda’s most senior operative stationed in the Islamic Republic, which harbored him — excuse me, held him under “house arrest” — for several years following his disappearance in the mid-2000s from Kuwait, where he’d planned terrorist operations against the American garrison there. He was also a “major facilitator,” according to the US government, for Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the forerunner of ISIS, and its notorious leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2005, George W. Bush singled Fadhli out by name in a speech about the continuing menace of Al-Qaeda.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me: “As to how Fadhli got into Syria: Iran seems to have simply let it happen. As the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism in 2014 noted, Fadhli was able to ‘operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran’ during his time in Iran.”
So how did US officials first learn of Fadhli’s whereabouts or his reorientation away from targeting US servicemen in the Middle East to cooking up “external operations,” as CNN’s unnamed security source called it? His new mission in life, that source alleged, was “revealed by one of his bodyguards, named as Abu Rama, who was recently arrested by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
In other words, Assad’s closest ally — Iran — let its most senior Al-Qaeda operative out of the country so that he could travel to Syria, where he’d already been dispatching jihadists and money for years. One of his associates, Abu Rama, was captured by Assad’s mukhabarat, whereupon he conveniently disclosed that Fadhli was seeking to carry out spectacular attacks against Western targets. One wonders if US officials came by the same information independently, through, say, intercepts of communications between Waziristan and Idlib, or if Abu Rama’s intelligence was shared or coordinated between the Assad regime and those officials through an intermediary such as the Iraqi Security Forces or a European country’s spy service? Finally, how did themukhabarat “recently” capture Abu Rama?
These are questions that might be put to the White House in the coming days. For now, though, Assad has good reason to be happy. The United States hasn’t got any serious quarrel with him or his security guarantor, the IRGC, both of which it appears eager to reassure, even as they appear to be up to their old tricks of moving terrorist networks into Arab countries, only to then wind up those networks in order leverage sensitive intelligence with Washington. In Assad’s case, the goal is to purchase insurance on his continued legitimacy and survival. In Iran’s, well, this doesn’t require much speculation at all. Just listen to Hassan Rouhani: “Without a doubt, reaching a final nuclear deal will expand our cooperation, and we can cooperate in various fields including restoring regional peace and stability and fighting against terrorism,” the cuddly, smiling reformist Iranian president said in New York on Tuesday. “America cannot deny Iran’s role in the fight against terrorism.”
(Source / 25.09.2014)