In the summer of 2013, I was living out of a hotel room in the regime loyalist coastal town of Tartous, having fled the fighting in Homs and the subsequent battles in my hometown of Talkalakh.
Even though while in Tartous I wasn’t taking much of a role in the revolution, I never stopped hoping fervently that Bashar Assad and his regime would lose the conflict, be overthrown, and we’d all live happily ever after in a post-Assad utopia. How that might happen without terrible consequences first befalling my sheltered existence in Tartous wasn’t something I much liked to dwell on.
But in August of that year, I almost very nearly made the decision that however bad the regime was, it was preferable to the growing menace of the alternative. If Bashar won the war, it would be a bad Syria, an oppressive Syria, the police state to end all police states, but I’d still have a state to belong to.
What could scare me so much, someone who had seen the worst atrocities of the war to date committed on my home city of Homs by the regime that I was now starting to seriously consider, if not supporting, then definitely not undermining.
That would be ISIS, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, a hardline Islamist group founded by Al-Qaeda members, and which in 2011 had been almost extinct in the Levant, but which had by August 2013 taken over the provincial capital of Raqqa and created a state in all but name stretching from Anbar in Iraq, along the Euphrates up to the Turkish border.
At the time, the full scale of the group’s collusion with the Assad regime was not yet well known, and it was perceived as an independent Al-Qaeda group with dreams of a 21st century caliphate, which they started to impose on Raqqa.
And the stories coming out of Raqqa were very scary indeed. Hand chopping, beheadings, whiping, the banning of music and barber shops. The last straw for me was the kidnapping by ISIS of father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who had lived in Syria for decades before being expelled by the Assad regime.
Father Paolo had returned to Raqqa to try to negotiate a release of rebel prisoners from ISIS. In that group’s eyes, Father Paolo’s vocation was reason enough to condemn him to death.
Fast forward a year later to the summer of 2014, and the group’s fortunes have only improved with their conquest of much of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. With a population of almost two million people, Mosul would be the largest population center to date to fall under the control of ISIS.
An astonishing reversal of fortunes for the group in the space of just several years, blame and or credit for which ultimately lie at the feet of two men; Bashar Assad, who released ISIS leaders from regime prisons in 2011, and whose forces have always refrained from hitting the group’s headquarters or positions even as it conquered more territory.
And Barack Obama, who in addition to imposing a blanket embargo on any military aid to moderate groups who could have taken on ISIS, had adopted a “Don’t do stupid shit” foreign policy which in practical terms translated into “how much deeper can I stick my head in the sand to maintain an isolationist-at-all-cost policy towards everything in the world”.
Let’s be clear about the nature of ISIS and the scope of their ambitions. This is an organization dedicated to the establishment of a strict Islamist state wherever God created land on this planet, and by whatever means possible. It is a group whose Iraqi dominated leadership has managed to attract multitudes of foreign born Jihad-wannabes from all over the world.
Only those Jihadis don’t always end their days in Syria. The recent murder of three people at the Brussels Jewish Museum by Mehdi Nemmouche, a former ISIS Jihadi demonstrated just how utterly naive it was to ever believe that the war in Syria could be contained to Syria.
A strong sense of isolationism has been one of the primary reasons that the Obama administration has refrained from getting more involved in Syria, the idea that “this is someone else’s civil war, America doesn’t have a dog in the fight, we are broke, we can’t afford it etc etc”
Yes well, let’s see how much water that argument holds when ISIS inevitably grows to be the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan and Sinai and Cyprus and Greece. Under Obama’s watch, ISIS has grown from a group hiding in caves to one that controls major cities and large swathes of territory. Not quite sure how much more stupid “doing” could have been compared to “not doing stupid shit”.
So assuming that one accepts that ISIS is a global problem, and not one that can be contained but needs to be tackled, what should the Obama administration be doing in light of the fall of Iraq’s second largest city to the group, and the threat it continues to pose in Syria and the world at large?
When you have a task that needs to be done, you have two options; do it yourself or outsource it to someone else. Every job, problem or project since the dawn of human existence has come down to those two choices.
The first option, of America actually going into Syria and taking on ISIS, was never a realistic possibility under Barack Obama. America today is a country that has had its fighting spirit beaten out of it by its involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its military leaders’ first instinct is to come up with reasons on why any potential war is unwinnable.
Even if ISIS’ activities were to reach Europe and they managed to set fire to Buckingham Palace and all who reside in it, general public opinion in America would be that the Queen had it coming, being a descendent of empire-builders and all, and besides it wasn’t America’s problem etc etc. And instead of leading,Obama would obligingly allow himself to be led, being the living embodiment of bad leadership.
And it’s no use relying on the Assad regime to tackle ISIS. Bashar Assad is the cause of ISIS, not the solution to it. Today, the regime has an entire division holed up in its base in Raqqa, said division having done crap all while the group terrorized the city.
Regime forces have time and again been able to move supplies and reinforcements close to or through ISIS lines to other parts of Syria. The group’s positions have been spared air attacks from the regime’s airforce, even as nearby rebel hospitals and bakeries are bombed.
There is an old Ottoman saying; scare them with the possibility of death so that they look upon malaria as a blessing. Bashar Assad has taken that proverb to the extreme in his dealings with ISIS, and the group has reciprocated in kind.
ISIS prisons hold not a single regime soldier, but are overflowing with rebel activists and fighters. ISIS reserves its suicide car bombs exclusively for rebel positions, and has proven more effective than the regime in assassinating rebel commanders.
ISIS and its excesses legitimizes Assad among his core supporters. Heck, even I almost fell for it, and you can be sure Assad will milk ISIS for everything they are worth. Syria has proven to be the perfect environment for the group’s resurgence, which looks well-nigh unstoppable.
Actually, it isn’t. If you want a job done right, get people with a proven track record to do it. Since the beginning of 2014, ISIS’ aggressions have served to galvanize Syrian rebel groups against it.
In the space of a few months, ISIS was expelled from Aleppo city and much of the city’s countryside, as well as from Idlib province. ISIS has lost every border crossing it had in the north.
Kurdish groups have proven particularly adept at beating ISIS and retaking towns from it. The group that had known almost nothing but an upward trajectory had, for the first time, suffered serious reversals to its fortunes.
But there is only so much that poorly armed, disparate groups can do when fighting a war on two fronts. As ISIS has lost ground, the regime has stepped up its air attacks on rebel positions.
Towns that had been spared Scud missile attacks and barrel bombs while they were under ISIS control, found themselves brutally bombed by a vengeful regime. Assad was going to do everything he could to save his hardcore Islamist allies.
Well, if we are going to be frank, at this point we have to bring up that other extremist group. Jabhat el Nusra (JAN), Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is a group that was put on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
It is a group that has taken the lead in many battles against the regime, and so extreme were ISIS’ practices that not even JAN could stomach them. Today, both these Al-Qaeda inspired groups are at war with each other. Indeed, until recently, ISIS itself was part of Al-Qaeda, until even that organization couldn’t stomach the former’s excesses.
A cynic might view these events in nothing but a positive light; if every Jihadi in the world is flocking to Syria, and Assad’s regime is an evil one, then why don’t we just let all the bad guys kill each other in the big gladiatorial arena that is Syria. It is win-win-win for the USA. Rah rah rah.
Fine, then explain Mosul. Can’t? Of course not, no one blinded by Obamanite style-over-substance is capable of doing so. So as a Syrian who has seen his society demolish itself over three years, allow me to.
Terrorist players are not like states. ISIS may delude itself into thinking it is a state, but in fact it has none of the components or institutions of a nation, and it can never build them. States exhaust themselves in prolonged war. They are indeed like two gladiators, bloodied and weary after hours of hand to hand combat infront of Caesar.
Terrorist groups are different. Right now, Syria is attracting Jihadis from all over the world with little to no actual combat experience, skills they are picking up in the war. This is not a gladiatorial match, this is a petri dish breeding bacteria that is growing ever more resilient, until you have a strain that is immune to the most powerful medicines.
When you have deadly bacteria, you do not hope and pray that it stays within its petri dish. You flood the dish with antibiotics, and the sooner the better. Bacteria is not killed by making eloquent speeches and having Michelle Obama pose in mournful twitter hashtag pics.
The moderate Syrian rebels are the antibiotics to the disease that is ISIS, Hizbollah, Iranian influence and above all else the Assad regime. which would be happy to have the chaos it created exported to the rest of the world. The world is well within its rights to take whatever measures it deems necessary to tackle Assad’s efforts to spread his particular brand of mayhem.
The ordinary American soldier is not suited to the task of taking on groups like ISIS, nor do they have the motivation to. The USA is almost assuredly safe from ISIS for the remainder of Obama’s term of office, even if the same cannot be said for Europe.
Superpowers always have options at their disposal short of full scale war, and ways can be found to support and strengthen moderate Syrian rebels without also aiding JAN, who often share the same battlefield as more moderate groups.
Strengthen the moderates, and JAN’s influence will diminish and it will fade into obscurity at no cost whatsoever to the USA in lives or treasure.
If “dont do stupid shit” is indeed the mantra by which Obama runs his foreign policy, then by now even he has to admit that imposing a blanket embargo on military aid to the Syrian moderate groups has proven to be some very stupid shit. America’s regional allies that have wanted to support the rebels have been prevented from doing so by the Obama arms embargo.
And the EU is little better. Back in 2013, the EU lifted an arms embargo on Syrian rebels. But since then, nothing has been done by European countries to strengthen and support the moderate rebel groups.
Meantime, Al-Qaeda affiliates financed by non-state players have received all the funding and arms they needed, while their more moderate rivals were sidelined.
It seems that Iraq has little prospect of taking back Mosul short of a full scale intervention by the USA, something America has neither the military resources or level of commitment within its military that such an intervention requires. If ISIS is allowed to remain in Mosul as it has remained in Raqqa, it does not bode well for the future.
Chaos cannot be contained, oceans and distances no longer afford the protection they once did. Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ resurgence in the world is Obama’s legacy, a legacy he appears to have every intention of shoving off to his successor to deal with.
Obama is a man incapable of taking hard decisions, decisions that may not have perfect outcomes. Almost nothing in politics has a perfect outcome, and the politician who waits for the perfect set of circumstances will be perpetually paralyzed into inaction. “Dont do stupid shit” sure, but better to do shit that’s half stupid than to do nothing and have to clean up a whole lot of shit in Mosul.