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Can the Islamic State be stopped militarily?

A look a few trusted sources reveals the holes in the current (yet ever-changing) U.S. plan to deal with the Islamic State. Peter Lee writes in today’s Asia Times that action is needed, but he doesn’t think anything effective is being contemplated. “It looks like what we’re getting is a collection of ineffectual half-measures justified by hyped-up ‘threat to the homeland’ agitation whose main purpose is to exploit the crisis in order to enhance US clout in the region.”

Lee says that “IS took root in Iraq and Syria, in large part because of the Obama administration’s willingness to enable a jihadi solution to its dump-Assad problem and the bad decision of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to support the operation.” He thinks the current plan is essentially more of the same. “Instead of cooperating with the only Middle Eastern state willing to field an army against IS – Syria – the US will train and equip an anti-Assad and anti-IS force, reportedly in Saudi Arabia, that is less of a US-backed militia of venal ‘insurgents’ and more of a controlled and disciplined military strike force created, controlled, and deployed by the CIA and, unlike our most famous previous experiment in this vein, the Bay of Pigs invasion, this force will have lots and lots of airpower. The idea, presumably, is that as IS is pummeled by drones and air strikes and retreats, a US-backed force will advance and occupy the vacated territories before Assad can.

Assad, Russia, and IS are, of course, not going to stand idly by as this clever plan is implemented. My prediction is that the US will experience its usual success in the counterinsurgency nuts and bolts of clearing territory, and its usual difficulty in the complicated political task of holding it. My expectation is for several more years of inconclusive and expensive bloodshed as the people of Syria and Iraq suffer through (and the US security/military/think tank complex profit from) another overoptimistic US geostrategic experiment.

Westerners mock the Islamic State’s pretensions, but it seems to strike a chord among quite a few Muslims as an effort to reestablish theocratic rule in the Umayyad/Abbasid caliphate heartland, turn the page on a disastrous century of colonial/postcolonial rule, and replace fragmented/corrupt states with united Islamic power.”

Pepe Escobar, another writer for Asia Times, wrote an article about ISIS and U.S. foreign policy on 6-20-14 in which he said (under the subtitle “Slouching towards Hardcore Sunnistan”), “It’s all extremely fishy about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aka Abu Dua, born in Samarra in 1971, a Saddam ‘remnant’ but – crucially – a former prisoner of the US government in Camp Bocca from 2005 to 2009, as well as a former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s no secret in the Levant that ISIS Men in Black were trained in 2012 by US instructors at a secret base in Safawi, in the northern desert of that fiction disguised as a country, Jordan, so they could later fight as Western-approved ‘rebels’ in Syria.

It was al-Baghdadi who sent a batch of Men in Black to set up Jabhat al-Nusra (‘good terrorists,’ remember?) in Syria. He split from Jabhat in late 2013, and is now in charge of a vast desert wasteland from northern Syria to western Iraq. He’s the new Osama bin Laden (the gift that keeps on giving), the all but certain emir of an Islamically correct desert caliphate in the heart of the Levant.

A hardcore Sunnistan between Iraq’s Kurdish north and the Shi’te south, swimming in oil, extending all the way to Aleppo, Rakka and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, between the Tiger and the Euphrates with Mosul as capital, back to its ancestral role of pivot between the twin rivers and the Mediterranean. Sykes-Picot, eat your heart out. [This is a reference to the 1916 secret agreement between Britain and France dividing the Middle East into postwar spheres of influence].

The ISIS-Ba’athist coalition of the willing was brokered by none other than Bandar Bush [Saudi Prince Bandar, ambassador to the U.S. 1983-2005 and a close ally of the Bush family] while he was still in action, with crucial, lateral input from Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.”

Meanwhile, Escobar notes, Iraq’s dismemberment is complete, a Kurdish state in the north all but official, and Shia militias being organized from Baghdad south (according to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s declared jihad) by “the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, who’s resurrected their formidable paramilitary, the Badr Corps, and Muqtada al-Sadr, who’s launching ‘peace brigades’ to protect the Shi’te holy cities and Christian churches.”

On a more constructive and less sarcastic note, Chelsea Manning wrote in an op-ed piece for the Guardian UK yesterday that the US should let the Islamic State “fall on its own sword, because bombs will only backfire.” Manning believes that “if properly contained, ISIS will not be able to sustain itself, and will begin to fracture internally,” adding that based on her experience as “an all-source analyst in Iraq during the organization’s infancy…ISIS is fueled by the operational and tactical successes of European and American military force…The Islamic State’s center of gravity is, in many ways, the United States, the United Kingdom, and those aligned with them in the region.

When it comes to regional insurgency with global implications, ISIS leaders are canny strategists with a solid and complete understanding of the strengths and, more importantly, the weaknesses of the West. They know how we tick in America and Europe – and they know what pushes us toward intervention and overreach. This understanding is particularly clear considering the Islamic State’s astonishing success in recruiting numbers of Americans, Britons, Belgians, Danes and other Europeans in their call to arms.

When the West fights fire with fire, we feed into a cycle of outrage, recruitment, organizing, and even more fighting that goes back decades. This is what happened in Iraq during the height of a civil war in 2006 and 2007, and it can only be expected to occur again.

Avoiding direct action with ISIS can be successful. For instance, in 2009 and 2010, forerunners to the ISIS group attacked civilians in suicide and car bombings in Baghdad to try and provoke American intervention and sectarian unrest. But they were often not effective in their recruiting efforts when American and Iraqi forces refused (or were unable) to respond, because the barbarity and brutality of their attacks worked against them. When we did respond, however, the attacks were sold to the Sunni minority in Iraq as a justified response to an occupying government favoring the Shia government led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Based on my intelligence work in Iraq during that period, I believe that only a very focused and consistent strategy of containment can be effective in reducing the growth and effectiveness of ISIS as a threat. So far, Western states seem to have adopted that strategy. With very public humanitarian disasters, however, like the ones on Mount Sinjar and Irbil in northern Iraq, and the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, this discipline gets tested and can begin to fray.”

Manning suggests countering ISIS propaganda, especially as it’s used in recruiting disaffected youth; preventing the group “from maintaining stable and reliable sources of income;” and letting it “succeed in setting up a failed ‘state’ in a contained area and over a long enough period of time to prove itself unpopular and unable to govern. This might begin to discredit the leadership and ideology of Isis for good.”

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, appeared on Democracy Now! on 9-15-14, explaining why she’s opposed to the U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria. Bennis told the show’s host Amy Goodman that President Obama’s plan “is almost entirely military, even when he himself is saying there is no military solution. What we need is a diplomatically based solution. The U.S. should be engaging in a much more direct, open and public way with Iran on the question of persuading the Iraqi government to move towards a more inclusive kind of government.” It should also, Bennis says, be cooperating with Russia on Syria, despite tensions over Ukraine. (Iran and Russia are key allies of the Syrian government.)

“We need a broader diplomatic mobilization going back to what was tried at the UN for real regional and global mobilization diplomatically to end the war in Syria,” Bennis says, along with “a massive campaign towards disarming the area. We need an arms embargo, and that’s only going to happen if it happens on all sides. So the U.S. and its allies need to stop arming these massive numbers of opposition forces in Syria. That will give them a better position to be able to pressure Russia and Iran to stop arming the Syrian regime.”

“Finally,” Bennis says, there needs to be “a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian support that the U.S. is providing. That kind of a policy is what we should have heard from Obama the other night. Unfortunately, what we heard was a four-part military strategy, which is absolutely not going to work.”

When Nermeen Shaikh, Democracy Now’s co-host, asked Bennis why she thinks Obama didn’t consider diplomatic options, Bennis said, “Unfortunately, much of this is politically driven.” She added that our leaders often fail to offer all the options in their public statements, so that often it’s either “go to war” or do nothing. “This time around, we saw an immediate response, partly around the humanitarian crisis that was happening on Mount Sinjar, although we were told a story that turned out not to be true. There weren’t 30,000 people starving on the mountain; there were about 3,000, and most had already been safely escorted off the mountain, not because of U.S. airstrikes, but because of the work of the Syrian Kurds who escorted people down the mountain, through Syria, and back into Iraq. Then we had the political response to the horrific crime of ISIS when they beheaded two American journalists. This was a horrifying act, that allowed the politics of revenge – very much like 9/11 – to take over. There was this fear in Washington, I think, of looking like we weren’t doing anything, because ‘anything’ is always described as military.

The press coverage hyped the horror of this, as if it was the only time that such horrific acts had taken place. The New York Times was the only mainstream media outlet that reported in late August, for example, that the Free Syrian Army, the so-called moderate part of the Syrian rebels, who the U.S. wants now to increase aid to, had itself beheaded six captives. This is a war in which war crimes, acts of utter brutality, are taking place on all sides. Responding militarily to these kinds of horrific criminal acts isn’t going to work any better than it did back in 2001.”

At this point, Amy Goodman pointed out that it was the same “moderate” Syrian rebels who “sold Steven Sotloff [one of the beheaded journalists] to ISIS.”

[I would point out that the only brutal murders and dismemberments that get attention in the Western press are those of Westerners at the hands of jihadis. Non-Westerners, including those Sunni Muslims killed and dismembered by American and Israeli bombs and drones, are unnamed and unnoticed.]

Bennis then said that “there’s actually been a truce signed between ISIS and a major component of the Syrian opposition, agreeing that as long as the Assad regime is in power in Damascus, they won’t fight each other. So, this notion that somehow the Syrian opposition is going to fight ISIS is false. It also means that the U.S. weapons and training sent to at least those parts of the Syrian opposition” could easily end up in ISIS’s hands

Bennis added that, in addition to Iran and Russia, we need to be negotiating directly with the Assad regime in Syria, including talking with them about what to do about ISIS. “Two years ago, when the UN began trying to put talks together to deal with the emerging civil war in Syria, the United States said Iran can’t be a participant. And somehow, everybody else went along with that. And not surprisingly, if you don’t have everyone at the table, diplomacy fails. The same thing is likely to happen this time. It’s objectively in the interest of the Syrian government to have ISIS be the target. Interestingly, we didn’t hear in the president’s speech a repeat of his constant call for that regime to be destroyed. Clearly there is some agreement between the U.S. and the Syrian regime that right now the target is going to be ISIS.”

Bennis added that “when the U.S. goes after ISIS, the perception among Sunnis in Iraq is: Here’s the U.S. acting as the air force for the Shia and the Kurds against us. Ordinary Iraqi Sunnis are pretty secular people. They’re not trying to go back to the 7th century, like ISIS is. But despite all of that, they’re prepared to ally with ISIS because the repression they face from the Iraqi government has been so profound that they’ll ally with anyone who’s prepared to fight it.”

Finally, in response to a question from Amy Goodman, Bennis pointed out that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is a key funder, privately and perhaps governmentally, of Islamic fundamentalist movements like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, “the official franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria. Some of it probably comes from the government, although that’s never been confirmed. But this is a very tightly controlled society, where if there was an interest by the government in stopping its own citizens from funding these organizations, it could be contained. The Saudi government has been very eager to keep ISIS out of Saudi Arabia. The fact that the U.S. has an enormous base in the region makes it very vulnerable for those who see the U.S. role as something to be opposed. The Saudis don’t want to talk about that alliance with the United States. But there is $60 billion worth of arms that they’ve been engaged in buying from the United States over the last two years, and many of those arms are the ones ending up in the hands of ISIS. It’s U.S. arms and it’s Saudi arms that are ending up there. Whether it’s individuals or whether it’s part of the government, that money is coming to a large degree from Saudi Arabia, and from other parts of the region, as well – from Qatar, from Kuwait, and from the UAE, but Saudi Arabia is very much at the center of this. And the U.S.-Saudi alliance is such that if the U.S. chose to challenge the arms sellers in this country who are making a killing on this new war, and thus challenge the Saudi government, there could be a real effort to put a stop to the funding and arming of these terrible organizations like ISIS.”

Sadly, the latest news today is that General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that U.S. ground troops may be needed in Iraq as part of the Obama administration’s offensive against the Islamic State. Dempsey’s remarks came less than a week after President Obama told the nation, “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” Obama is expected to visit U.S. Central Command headquarters today to discuss strategy in Iraq and Syria. The House meanwhile is expected to vote today on a request from Obama for authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing was repeatedly interrupted by peace activists from CodePink, who rose to protest U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria. CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin, addressing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said “U.S. intervention will only make matters worse. We know that there is no military solution. It is counterproductive. Look at the last 13 years of war. What is the product? The U.S. intervention that opened the way for ISIL. The U.S. military will not be a solution. It’s counterproductive. Don’t drag us into another war. We’ve had 13 years of war already.”

Déja vu all over again, as John Fogerty would say (check out his great song with that title).

Let me know what you think.