Gordon Campbell on the US foreign policy somersaults over Syria and Iran

Amidst the day-to-day reports about the military advances of the Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, one remarkable aspect of this war has barely been mentioned. Namely, the complete 180 degree turn of US foreign policy whereby its former enemies – the Assad regime in Syria, the Sh’ite regime in Iran – are now US allies and their main bulwarks in stemming the tide of Sunni fundamentalism in the region.

Only a year ago, in the wake of reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the US was on the brink of a bombing campaign against the Assad regime. It was only the last minute intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin that talked the Americans down off the ledge and enabled a deal to be brokered that now seems to have successfully eliminated Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

This week, the Americans are again talking about a bombing campaign in Syria – but this time it would be to prop up the Assad regime, and to inhibit the advance of the Islamic State rebels. In testimony late last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey made it clear that to be effective, the current US bombing missions in Iraq would have to be extended to Syria:

On Thursday, Dempsey said that to deter the group, it will require addressing “the part of the organization that resides in Syria.”

Dempsey said he uses the name ISIS for the group because it reminds him that its long-term vision is “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait.”

“If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways,” Dempsey said.

In his testimony Dempsey added: “Can they [IS] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border,” As Foreign Policy magazine noted, Dempsey’s testimony has been part of a noticeable escalation in rhetoric by the Obama administration.

On Tuesday, in response to the [James] Foley {execution] video, Secretary of State John Kerry said “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed.” President Obama, speaking Wednesday in response to Foley’s death, said, “From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.”

One of the other interesting things about this switcheroo is that the US perception of the threat posed by the Islamic State fighters has changed dramatically in a very, very short period of time. The US may have a global surveillance system of unimaginable sophistication, but its leaders don’t seem able to comprehend what the intelligence is telling them. In an interview with New Yorker magazine only seven months ago, US President Barack Obama was blithely dismissing the Islamic State and its successes – at the time, IS was already flying its flag over the conquered Iraqi town of Fallujah – as being no big deal at all:

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a Bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

Right. Yet now, only seven months down the track, we had the exact opposite analysis of IS last week, from US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – who painted IS as a bigger threat than al Qaeda:

The group “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” Hagel said in response to a question about whether the Islamic State posed a similar threat to the United States as al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001.

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

The good news for the Americans is that at least there was one guy writing in the New York Times who was reading this situation accurately all along. The bad news is that the guy concerned was Vladimir Putin. In a New York Times op ed published on 9/11 last year, Putin argued against the US throwing its military might behind the Syrian rebellion, lest that result in something worse:

Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government……Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

Even leaving aside Putin’s mealy-mouthed concerns about the sanctity of international law, that’s far closer to what is now the US perception of the situation. Belatedly, the US has awoken to the threat poised by the Islamic State. It may be too late. Within Syria, the Islamic State continues to advance, having – only yesterday – finally won the battle for a large Syrian government air base of Tabqa near the border with Turkey. It is a victory that will give IS control of the entire province of Raqqa, and access to planes, helicopters and a huge cache of munitions.

It may take more than a bombing campaign to turn the tide. After all, the Assad regime has enjoyed air superiority, too. Yet it doesn’t seem to have made any impact on the ability of IS to control, and more recently to administer, the territory that it continues to win.

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