There is an Alice Through the Looking Glass quality to the current response to the Islamic State. Everything about it seems inside out. Many people who would normally oppose US air strikes in other countries have reluctantly endorsed the bombing of IS positions in Iraq and Syria – not because they think air power alone will defeat IS (clearly it won’t) but because it will slow it down, and impede its ability to function. Doing nothing isn’t really an option, even though Simon Jenkins does try hard to make a case for it in the Guardian and the effort leads Jenkins into some casual brutalities of his own e.g. “ The caliphate is an implausible construct. These horrors pass.” Try telling that to the Yazidis.
The weirdly inverted aspects of the US response kick in when it comes to the “What next?” question. By general consensus, air power would need to be complemented by troops on the ground if the Islamic State is to be militarily defeated, and President Barack Obama has made it clear that only a nominal share of those boots on the ground (1,600 currently) will be American ones. Thus, and almost entirely for US domestic political reasons, Obama has conjured up a phantom army of “moderate” Syrian rebels who will be trained and used to defeat IS under the cover of US air power. This is almost entirely a fantasy. Syrian moderates barely exist on the battlefront in Syria, and thanks to IS, they’re getting fewer by the day.
Moreover, the efficacy of US ‘training’ involves a generous amount of wishful thinking. After ten years of such efforts, the US-trained Iraq army still melted away overnight when IS came over the horizon, and even the Kurdish peshmerga fighters (a formidable force when properly armed) have made it clear that their role is primarily defensive, and solely of their own territory.
So who exactly is going to provide the ground troops to fight IS in Syria? Currently and for the foreseeable future, we know who is carrying out that particular duty: the Assad army, al-Qaeda (via its franchisee, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front) the Iranians, Hezbollah, and the Kurdish PKK ‘terrorist’ group’ who – as Patrick Cockburn points out in the Independent – have been spearheading the fighting in the last 48 hours for the Kurdish town of Kobani, near the border with Turkey. Cockburn also makes the Lewis Carroll analogy:
US policy has an Alice in Wonderland absurdity about it, everything being the opposite of what it appears to be. The so-called “coalition of the willing” is, in practice, very unwilling to fight IS, while those hitherto excluded, such as Iran, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the PKK, are the ones actually fighting. A truce between the government and moderate rebels in Syria would enable both to devote their resources to fighting IS, as they need to do quickly if they are to avoid defeat.
The way that Cockburn uses the term, the “moderates” who might benefit from such a truce would probably include Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda franchisee, whose distinguishing feature has been its readiness to co-operate with other rebel factions in the common cause of defeating Assad. Right now, as Cockburn points out, all the Syrian rebel forces are engaged on two fronts – fighting Assad, and fighting IS. A truce with Assad would enable all of them to focus on the threat from IS.
In the longer term, some observers have suggested that the immediate beneficiaries of the US air campaign would be (a) the Assad regime and (b) al Qaeda, given that the bombing will assist Jabhat al-Nusra to win back the ground it lost in its own lethal struggle with IS that began in January. Again, it is deeply ironic that the only quasi-ecumenical alternative to Assad in Syria happens to be an al Qaeda band of operatives, who may ultimately be best positioned to replace Assad in the long run. Perhaps for that reason, there was a certain “ equal opportunity” aspect to the first rounds of US bombing. The US primarily targeted IS, but it also hit a few Jabhat al-Nusra positions as well, along with a strike against the headquarters of the Khorosan Group, a shadowy organisation that is supposedly intent on recruiting the foreign jihadis currently in Syria for attacks on the US mainland and in Europe, once they go home.
Much as Obama would deny he is helping Assad by attacking IS, that’s not how it is being seen in Damascus. Reportedly, not only did the US tip off the Syrian ambassador in London that the air strikes were imminent, but the Syrian press has been exultant about the US action, as Juan Cole points out:
The newspaper “al-Watan” (The Nation), which is close to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, quoted Syrian diplomatic sources as saying that “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria and on its eastern and southeastern borders.” This is true, the Syrian diplomats said, even though Washington and Damascus cannot acknowledge the cooperation for internal political reasons. They added that “the Syrian Army will certainly benefit from the American air strikes, especially since it is the strongest force on the ground, possessing both power and flexibility in the way it moves around in the field. It is the one that will benefit from the air strikes.”
It is a hideously difficult strategy for Obama. He has to try to stem the IS advance, and at best he can only achieve a limited victory with air power alone – there will be no Mission Accomplished! moments this time around, much as the Republicans will be calling for them – while the only effective forces on the ground who are enemies of his IS enemy happen to be a virtual roll call of other enemies that the Obama administration cannot overtly recognise as his de facto allies : namely Assad, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and the PKK. Yet arguably, this is still far better than doing nothing. If we need further evidence of the need for a military response, the genocidal actions of IS against the minority groups in northern Iraq and eastern Syria surely provide it. Among other atrocities, these have included the wholesale kidnappings of Yazidi women, on a scale that eclipses the far more highly publicised schoolgirl abductions in Nigeria by Boko Haram.
Finally, there is the curious case of the captured Islamic State computer, aka the Terror Laptop of Doom. The story of the finding of this computer is here:
The information on the laptop makes clear that its owner is a Tunisian national named Muhammed S. who joined ISIS in Syria and who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia’s northeast. Even more disturbing is how he planned to use that education:
The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals. The ISIS laptop contains a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals. “The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document states.
Naturally, these IS plans for weaponising bubonic plague also came with an explanatory fatwa that sought to justify their use, on theological grounds:
“If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir [unbelievers] in a different way, it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction,” states the fatwa by Saudi jihadi cleric Nasir al-Fahd, who is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. “Even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth.”
(As Foreign Policy says, nothing suggests that IS has yet got its hands on such weapons.) Meanwhile, the stream of thousands of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon etc continues, driven by the terror that IS uses as a deliberate military tactic. This array of photos is a compelling historical record of what was happening on the Turkish border, on the same weekend that New Zealand was going to the polls.