What Mosul could mean for Obama
By Michael YoungJune 12, 2014 12:11 AM
In his excellent book “A Line in the Sand,” on the Franco-British rivalry in the Middle East, James Barr quotes a British officer in Deir al-Zor as writing: “We must control the desert, not only for the safety of our military communications, but because who holds the desert also, in the end, holds the sown.”
That should sound familiar after the fall of Mosul this week to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and areas closer to Baghdad. With ISIS controlling the Syria- Iraq border, able to shift its men between either country, and living off oil resources in Syria, we are seeing the consolidation of a territory controlled by no state, one that may prove far more destabilizing than Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden moved there from Sudan.
In a speech at West Point in May, President Barack Obama observed, “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”
No one disagrees with the straw man Obama set up. Yet the president must admit one thing: Any solution to the ISIS problem must come from both Iraq and Syria. Obama is learning why a Syrian conflict he once recklessly qualified as “someone else’s civil war” has turned into a regional danger.
As the former U.S. envoy in Syria, Robert Ford, wrote this week in the New York Times, “We don’t have good choices on Syria anymore. But some are clearly worse than others. More hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime simply hasten the day when American forces will have to intervene against Al-Qaeda in Syria.”
Ford is right. The Obama administration’s staying out of Syria at all costs has effectively meant it allowed a situation to fester that may impose its intervention at a later stage. It’s funny how the lessons of the West’s abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal were ignored. This led to the consolidation of an unruly territory that allowed the perpetrators of 9/11 to plot their crime. But in Obama’s Washington memories are short, while the refusal to consider intervention is rarely measured against the negative consequences of such a choice.
At West Point, Obama also declared: “I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Indeed, but what is the president’s plan in Iraq, a country which he has largely ignored in the past five years, despite the high cost in American lives and money?
And what are Obama’s intentions in Syria? There are reports that the U.S. intends to train Syrian rebels, apparently to fight Al-Qaeda groups as well as President Bashar Assad’s regime. According to David Ignatius, writing on this page, the plan is to train some 9,600 rebels by the end of this year.
The only problem is that it remains unclear how realistic are American aims. If the goal is to transform Syria’s rebels into an American proxy to fight ISIS and the Nusra Front, the brains in Washington may quickly realize that the Syrians have other priorities. Their aim is, above all, to overthrow the Syrian regime, whereas the Obama administration still clings to a policy of forcing Assad to the negotiating table. This implicitly means denying the rebels an opportunity to defeat him.
Assad knows this all too well. His regime initially gave ISIS the leeway and leverage it needed to expand, knowing full well that this would so agitate Western states that they would hesitate to arm and assist the Syrian rebels. And yet Obama still refuses to dislodge a Syrian regime that will continue to defend itself by exporting instability through groups such as ISIS.
Unless the U.S. devises a strategy that encompasses both Iraq and Syria, and that addresses the complex, multifaceted nature of the Syrian and Iraqi crises, failure is probable. This is a test for Obama, one that will have a bearing on his commitments elsewhere, above all in Afghanistan. It will also be a test for ties with Iran on the region. While obstacles to a nuclear deal remain, when it comes to Iraq, the U.S. and the Islamic Republic appear to be, objectively at least, on the same side.
The problem is that the Obama administration always seems to be the last to pick up on dynamics in the Arab world. The ISIS challenge is a complicated one, involving several regional states and feeding off intricate, contending domestic ambitions inside Iraq and Syria. This is not a headache that Obama can resolve with his usual urbane detachment. He has made fighting terrorism a priority, and combating ISIS will involve a political and military commitment, even without deploying U.S. forces, that will have to be measured in years not months.
During his election campaign, Obama claimed that Al-Qaeda had been “decimated” under his watch. What is intriguing about ISIS is not so much that it has proven Obama’s statement wrong; it’s that its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seems to be challenging Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahri for the top spot. The ISIS push into Mosul was as much part of an internal struggle over leadership of the jihadist international as anything else.
By taking over Mosul, ISIS may have compelled the United States to overhaul its Syria policy. But nothing in Obama’s record makes us hopeful about his reaction. Iraq and Syria require American time and effort, which the president has been consistently unwilling to give the Middle East. The only bitter satisfaction is that a region he arrogantly thought he could ignore has just bitten a big chunk out of his leg.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.
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