Syria Op-Ed: The Problem with Obama’s “Grand Strategy” vs. Islamic State

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Just before President Obama delivered his speech last week announcing a strategy to “degrade and eventually destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the blogger NotGeorgeSabra posted a column expressing caution, given the past three years of US policy on the Syrian conflict.

His concern still holds after the speech, with a lack of clarity as to what the US will do next in Syria: “The US…[has] provided rebel forces with just enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win.”


Obama [has announced] a grand strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) one year after he sold Syria’s rebels down the river and betrayed his own self-imposed “red line.”

This strategy will be billed as comprehensive, encompassing all elements of American imperialism’s tremendous national power — military, economic, diplomatic, political — but there are unresolved contradictions with the Syrian aspect of this grand strategy that, taken together, will add up to the kind of strategic and political incoherence that Daesh will surely exploit to survive and persist in their Syrian safe haven for years, a safe haven created by Obama’s do-nothing-but-stupid-shit policies.

The central problem with Washington’s policy from the standpoint of ending Daesh is the U.S. goal of a negotiated settlement between the revolution and the counter-revolution in Syria, one that removes Bashar al-Assad from the presidency but preserves the state he and his father built intact.

Why is this a problem? Judge a policy by its results — a ruinous, intractable war that has resulted in the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the century, a weak and divided rebel movement starving for weapons and money, Western passports!

How did America’s preference for a negotiated, peaceful settlement in Syria lead to endless war and bloodshed?

Simple: the U.S. (tandem with its regional allies) provided rebel forces with just enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win.

Engineer a military stalemate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Assad’s forces and eventually, the thinking went, both sides will realize they can’t win and sue for peace. Here’s how this policy shaped U.S. actions from 2011-2014:

  • When the rebels were winning in 2011-2012, the U.S. and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) imposed a blockade on heavy weapons shipped in from abroad to check rebel momentum.
  • When that worked and the rebels lost their momentum, the regime regrouped (with massive Iranian intervention) and went on the offensive in 2013, the U.S. and its allies allowed  some heavy weapons to get through to FSA. However, anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADS continued to be blocked and they are the only type of weapon that might stop the regime’s barrel bombing campaigns and even they are no substitute for a no-fly zone since planes and helicopters can fly even higher out of range from ground missile fire.
  • In 2014, (after some slick politicking by Syrian opposition coalition president Ahmed Jarba) the U.S. and its allies began directly and steadily supplying select factions of FSA with heavy weapons, some 40,000 men or so in Idlib and Daraa governates, after U.S. efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement at Geneva 2 ended in miserable failure.

Hobbling the rebels is what allowed Daesh to smash the rebels and expel them the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor in the first place, allowing Daesh to set up the world’s first completely self-financed terrorist state.

Keeping the rebels starved for weapons and cash is the best way to make sure they keep working alongside Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whose vehicle-born suicide bombers act as a replacement for the heavy artillery and close air support that warfare against a well-armed enemy like the Assad regime requires.

Pushing for a “half-way” revolution has led the U.S. into a strategic impasse in Syria and narrowed the range of options available to American policymakers to choices that are either really really bad or really really REALLY bad.

SYRIA MAP

Yes, there’s a lot of excited talk about U.S. airstrikes in Syria but look at a map — where can the U.S. attack Daesh where 1) it won’t benefit the regime and amount to collaboration and 2) won’t run the risk of triggering the regime’s air defenses?

  • Attacking Daesh positions in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor will relieve pressure from the few regime bases that are holding out there after the rebels were defeated and expelled by Daesh.
  • Attacking Daesh’s advance on Aleppo on the rebels’ flanks as the regime encircles the rebels risks Damascus shooting down an American plane either with Russian surface-to-air missiles or with MiGs (yes, it’s a long shot given the regime’s total inability to hit any of the Israeli jets that have attacked Syria with impunity on at least four occasions since 2011, but the regime could get lucky and they have announced that the U.S. needs to ask permission before flying over the country).
  • Attacking Daesh’s capital, al-Raqqa, is strategically worthless since there are no FSA boots on the ground to coordinate offensives with. Besides, the regime is already engaging in these strategically useless operations by bombing targets in al-Raqqa in an effort to quell anger among its Alawite base of support.

Thus, America’s pursuit of a negotiated settlement in Syria has made such a settlement impossible by creating the conditions for Daesh to flourish and expand. They will never accept such a settlement given their global expansionist ambitions and aggressive nature and Obama himself has acknowledged that a containment policy will never work and therefore they must be defeated.

Vanquishing Daesh in Syria totally and permanently requires a well-armed, well-supported FSA as Syria’s only hope to establish the kind of stable, democratic, and inclusive governance that extremism cannot gain any traction in on a mass basis. Only a strong, united FSA and a competent, functioning interim government operating securing therevolution’s rear can put an end to masked and unmasked fascism.

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36 COMMENTS

  1. But there is no FSA and doubtfully there can be one. There is an Alawi army and there is the Sunni IS army, and in between there are few local Sunni “warlordships” / gangs, with local interests, that are unwilling and unable to unite. So Obama has to work with what he has in reality on the ground, and not with fantastic wishful thoughts.

    • Infact nowadays only very few rebel groups can be trusted by the west. And these groups are so small that even if u arm them and give them training it wouldent change much at all. So i am 100% with Obama to not provide manpads or other forms of lethal aid. Arming the rebelion could have worked in 2012 now its pointless with a quagmire of fragmented rebel groups either to radical or to weak to rappresent a credible alternative. Syria’s mess will be a much harder task than iraq is for the west.

  2. What a U.S. Strike on Syria Would Mean for Assad

    Syria Deeply
    On Wednesday, President Obama said the U.S. would strike ISIS targets in Syria, a widening of his military action against the group in Iraqi Kurdistan.

    In the buildup to the announcement, the administration had been concerned that strikes on ISIS would be misinterpreted as signifying that they were collaborating with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    We asked Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Steven Heydemann, vice president for applied research on conflict at the U.S. Institute of Peace, for their analysis on a potential strike and its impact on the Assad government
    http://www.syriadeeply.org/articles/2014/09/6091/u-s-strike-syria-assad/

    • Landis says:
      “”My sense is that we’re seeing posturing along the lines we would expect. But I also look at the situation now and don’t see it as one in which either Russia or the Assad regime have a strong incentive to escalate further once the U.S. does begin military activity in Syria””.

      Logic is something else:
      If IS should be by whatever forced to vacate territory — FSA and Assad is increasingly fighting each other to occupy this area.
      Of course this would escalate the fight.

  3. Richard N. Haass, President, US Council on Foreign Relations

    “” I don’t see the Syrian government (Assad) playing a role beyond the area dominated by Alawites.””

    “”The goal cannot be to liberate territory from ISIS only to hand it over to the Assad government. We should liberate land from ISIS and hand it over to some sort of a Sunni entity that is willing to govern and treat the people there on terms that we can accept.””

    “”And I wouldn’t assume that Russia and Iran are totally hostile to everything we might want to do in Syria or Iraq””

    Translated, this means the division of the Syrian territory in consultation with Russia and Iran.

    But if Russia continues to support Assad – and if Iran continues to support him, too – and if Hezbollah continues to fight against the FSA and against the Islamic Front – what will change?

    Nothing because if IS would be defeated – then there would be quickly an another extreme Sunni group which continues to fight.

    Who ever wants to fight IS must stop the sectarian clashes on both sides.

    IS is one side – the other side of the intolerable violenceone is Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

      • Right. But that’s not the point. The problem is how the violence can be stopped.
        I see no difference whether Assad or Iran tortures and murders or whether IS is someone chopping off the head.

        A strengthening of civil society would be necessary. But a civil society isn`t desired by Iran nor Russia – and is not desired by IS, JAN and others. IS, Assad, Iran and Russia are therefore closer in realizing their political goals than that is currently being discussed.

  4. OBAMA’S GUILT IS ON NUREMBERG LEVELS. HE’D HAVE MADE A GREAT AUCHWITZ COMMANDANT

    The man responsible for the “stalemate strategy—this aideer and abettor of genocide–deserves a Nurembeg-Style trial and a hanging much like Keitel, Jodl, Eichman, etc.

    Obama could have been commandant at Auchwitz.
    The “let’s keep the genocide going plan via stalemate until both sides can’t take it anymore” is a criminally irresponsible strategy deserving of a Nurenberg style trial. Obama is every bit as guilt as Eichman or Assad,or Putin or Khaminei and the long run repercussions of this criminal policy could be as serious as Hitler’s.

    Aside from being criminal, this “statemate policy aiming at a forced political settlement by mass murder is cowardly, stupid, unworkable and radicalizing–a concept as sure to cause trouble as the Versailles Treaty if ever carried out.

    Obama’s arrogance, dogmatism, insolence, inflexibility and laziness makles his easiy the worst president on over 200 years the US has existence. HIs lusy historical reputation is assured. HIs only real accomplishment was to become the first black president then F##k up and thereby shaft the Amerian people, the Syrians, our allies and everyone in the Middle East–helping only Putin and Iran.

    The term “grand strategy” is a joke. Obama ignores the near unanimous advice of his generals as he ignored the great advice of Hillary and Petreus back then in return for scumbags like McDough, Crocker and Blinken.

    The idea that the rebels would acccept a deal allowing the Genocide Regime is insane. The Criminal has done everything hje coud think of to make sure this war will go on forever—a guarantee of permanent instability that provides for no justice and in no way benefits US and allied security. Even the peace he seeks would involve no justice every and provoke a never ending quest for vegence by other means–a quest for which extremists like ISIS are best suited.

    It would be also another big “gift” from the scumbag Obama to the murderous Putin and Khamenei who started all these crimes and who he constantly aid.

    • Rude Tomatoes
      I enjoy your comments and look forward to reading them every day, BUT it would help if you run your comments through a word processor to eliminate spelling mistakes, repeated words, non words etc. It still would not pick up your glaring errors of often writing the exact opposite to what you really mean and only us regular readers can translate your meaning.
      You constant rants about Ol’bummer also get boring. You have obviously worked out that he is pro-Shiite. Did you know that his middle name is Hussein which is a popular Shiite name. If you search the web you will find suggestions that he is actually Shiite (also that he is Sunni) but there is much to suggest that he was brought up as a Muslim. He is also obviously of Indonesian decent. He was brought up there and is an absolute dead wringer for an Indonesian that I know and detest. Please keep writing but give us a break and make the reading easier!

      • Willy Wonka – I read RedTornadoes comments each day and never have trouble picking up his message. So he writes a lot down and makes a few spelling errors. You must be the life of the party if that’s all you can write. Except if we’re playing Scrabble. You might be more fun at that game as you can tell everyone their words don’t count as they aren’t using real words. I’ve got a comeback name for anyone who bullies RedTornadoes.

        • I am glad to see he is not calling for IS to bomb the US anymore.Now the rebels need to join IS in some sectarian cleansing.Or something like that.

    • The article relies on the dubious and disproven assumption that Assad is a viable alternative for governing Syria. The results of his fourteen years of misrule are visible for all to see. And yet, some people still think we should befriend him.

    • A lot of questions are asked about what if the rebels win. What happens to Syria then and the pro-Assad argument is that Syria descends into an extremeist state with no room for minorities. Fine. Everyone is entitled to that opinion. Although I give the Syrian people more credit than that and think that they have the capability to run their country with a government that is more representative of the people who live there.

      Let’s ask the other question. What if Assad wins and the US makes a deal with Assad. Let’s say that the US helps Assad kick ISIS out and the rebels are suppressed. Assad is left with a country where he has bombed the populace over years of time. Do you think the communities that have been bombed by Assad will go back to trusting Assad? Do you think Sunni extremeism will go away or decline in Syria with a Shia dictator who won’t leave power? Are western countries going to lift the sanctions they have placed on Assad to help the country rebuild? Please someone answer these questions and then tell me Assad staying in power is the best long-term option for Syria.

        • Pak – Not exactly the root of my question. I’m somewhat familiar with Alawites and it’s related to Shia Islam but not equivalent. The point really being that he is proping up a minority group in Syria. I’d prefer a direct answer to the questions I posted though.

      • if assad wins 10% of the extremist population will be permanently displaced in MB supporting countries like Turkey, Jordan and parts of Lebanon.

        if IS wins 30% of the population gets displaced or murdered on the spot from the get go, not to mention probably 50% of the remaining population.

        if anyone still thinks the rebels can win, i can only advise you to lay off the crack pipe

        • of course the rebels can win. They started from nothing just 3 years ago. IS in Syria started from nothing relatively recently. Events can change quickly. Right now it’s unclear who will win but in the long run how can you say noone will win.

        • If you think Assad will merely ‘displace’ those he perceives to be against him, rather than torture and murder them, as he has done so far, perhaps it’s your turn to lay off the pipe.

      • Well Libya is a good example of what happens when moderate rebels gain power.Lets try something other than that scenario.Anything but that.

        • As if Libya has millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead not to mention the completely destroyed infrastructure of Syria or the Ghost towns now occupied by Shiite militias from Lebanon (Hezbollah) or Sunni militias from Iraq (ISIS)… Libya living political turmoil and minor civil war after removing the warlord of the past 40 years, but Libya post Qaddafi is heaven on Earth compared to Syria

          Mainly Libya is fine as are all post revolution countries compared to Syria, because we don’t have Iran near us.

          Wherever Iran is near, somehow blood just flows

        • Syria right now is a good example of what happens when moderate rebels don’t gain power. All and all, I’d say Libya is better off.

          • before they had persecution of islamic radicals, now they have persecution of black people, non islamic radical people, everyone that could be considered normal, citizen of the world, civilized has left or getting the money to leave.

            • Oh, I think the persecution extended beyond just Islamic radicals and included anyone opposed to Gadaffi’s one-man rule. And in fact, Assad let Syria’s Islamic radicals out of prison. The people who have disappeared into the bowels of his torture chambers are anyone opposing his misrule.

              And, by the way, I don’t think normal people are flocking to Assad’s Syria right now.

            • Of course what you said abt Libyans leaving is true because of the obvious evidence of Refugee camps for Libyans in surrounding countries of Egypt Tunis and Algeria.. oh wait… Libyans don’t have refugee camps, the number of dead is not in the hundreds of thousands, and there are no destroyed cities like in Syria

              Please lay off the iranian crack pipe buddy

              Libya is heaven compared to Syria, and we all know Assadis hate hearing that. Some syrians even flock to Libya hoping for easy passage to Europe, many drown, but we all know no one would dare drive anywhere through Syria.

              • hehe depends for who dear friend, those black people being kept in a zoo probably dont agree with you.
                the erased town south of the belowed islamist hell hole misrata also doesnt seem to concur with you.

                the 200-500 weekly drowned immigrants of the shores of Libya also might have some complaints.

                One difference, you can actually fly to the capital of Syria, but it would be a problem to fly to the capital of Libya, because the airport is held by an islamist milita, that also destroyed about a dozen civilian aircraft.

                etc.

                libya was obviously a better place to live under gaddafi then now.

                only exception are obviously bearded “pro democracy” islamists in Derna, Misrata and similar locations.

              • “libya was obviously a better place to live under gaddafi then now.”

                That would also depend on who you ask. The people his security forces killed or tortured might disagree with you.

                But the questions isn’t “was” vs. “is”. The correct question is, would life in Libya be better now if Qaddafi had prevailed.

                The answer: He wouldn’t have showered roses on those who rose up against him.

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