This week, radical extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made clear its intention to lure U.S. President Barack Obama to get involved more directly in a battle with ISIS, by defiantly demanding that he stop air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq or face retaliation, including by carrying out more appalling executions of Americans after the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had been kidnapped at an earlier time.
There are many reasons behind this strategy, including some that fall within the category of boasting of being part of a war with the United States, which can help mobilize more Western volunteers, who have been significantly increasing in number, into ISIS ranks.
Other reasons have to do with wagering on the weakness of President Obama, and his lack of both the personal capacity and the popular mandate to be firm and decisive with ISIS in Iraq or in Syria – at least according to the conclusion that ISIS reached and upon which it has based its strategy.
Clearly, the American and British leaderships, represented by Barack Obama and David Cameron, are facing more than one predicament. The Anglo-American alliance has a bad reputation and legacy in Iraq, as its intervention under previous administrations and governments in the two countries claimed the lives of nearly a million Iraqis since it began in the 1990s.
The Anglo-American duo is accused of devising a strategy and plans to lure American and British terrorists to Iraq and Syria to keep them away from American cities and bog them down in the battlefield at a cost borne by Syrians and Iraqis, rather than the Americans and the British.
At the same time, the Russian leadership consents to this approach, because President Vladimir Putin, too, wants to keep Russian, Chechen, and other terrorists from neighboring countries away from his geographical backyard, and is determined to keep them busy fighting in Syria. All this has helped ISIS grow stronger, with contribution from the intelligence services of these countries and others in the Middle East. Today, Barack Obama regrets the mistakes he and his European allies made in Libya, he is befuddled over which option to take in Iraq, and feels guilty vis-à-vis Syria. Today, David Cameron feigns having a clear policy, and talks about a strategy of action together with the Iraqi government politically, and Kurdistan militarily, to defeat ISIS. Today, heads of states are scrambling to hold conferences, issue decisions, and preside over sessions to discuss whether or not to intervene, while some leaders, such as French President Francois Hollande, speaks about their intention to put forward proposals to “fight” ISIS because it is no longer an al-Qaeda style terrorist organization, but a “quasi-terrorist state.”
President Obama does not admit to his guilt or the misplaced policy he adopted in Syria based on repudiation and self-distancing, while refusing to act to support the moderate opposition two or three years ago, which actually led to the growth of extremist factions like ISIS.
Francois Hollande, in an interview with Le Monde, said the international community bore a "heavy responsibility" for what is happening in Syria, with its knock-on effects in Iraq. He added, “If, two years ago, we had acted to ensure a transition, we wouldn't have had [the] Islamic State.” But what kind of ideas and initiatives will Hollande put forward, beyond the traditional debate of whether or not to intervene, and what features will the strategy of “fighting” the extremist group have?
The two prongs of this strategy in Iraq in particular are fighting terrorism through Sunni tribal “Awakening” groups; and fighting terrorism by arming the Kurds. Another element involves pushing forward the political process in Iraq, and working with the new prime minister to launch the work program of the cabinet away from the damage inflicted by the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Iraq with Iran’s backing, especially from the faction led by the Revolutionary Guards there. To be sure, it is sectarianism and the exclusion of Sunnis that has helped ISIS become the monster it has become, and that has allowed it to find roots in the same nurturing environment that had previously cast it off – and that would cast ISIS off again if the needed guarantees are put in place and exclusionary policies are ended.
Today, the so-called international community wants to wage another war in Iraq, using not its soldiers this time but local soldiers – be they Kurds or Sunni tribesmen – and also by means of an alliance with Iran and the Revolutionary Guard, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has hinted at in his statements.
President Obama, in a remarkable interview with veteran journalist Thomas Friedman, said he refused to act as Iraq’s air force, as he put it, whether on behalf the Iraqi government, the Kurds, the Shiites, or the Sunnis in Iraq. He also said that he did not initiate air strikes against ISIS earlier with Maliki still in office, because if he had done so, he would have pulled the pressure on Maliki and encouraged him to hunker down and cling on to power, and to reject compromises, and would have also encouraged him to believe that the United States was behind him and that he did not need to reflect on his actions and mistakes. This is true.
On Syria, Barack Obama is in denial mode. He refuses to be blamedRaghida Dergham
Interestingly, the main pillar in Obama’s approach to the crisis these days is the formula of “neither victor nor vanquished.” Barack Obama has even added a philosophical dimension to this principle, saying that communities disintegrate when they adopt “maximalist” positions, that is, when they stick to their views and claim they are the absolute truth. Barack Obama wants, as he has always wanted, to stand in the middle. He wants compromise. He wants to disprove the theory that the victor has the right to win everything, and that victory guarantees one the right to dominate and dictate.
What the U.S. president does not recognize, however, is that it was he who had rushed to withdraw from Iraq, thereby creating an opportunity for the partners created by the U.S. war in Iraq to fill the vacuum the U.S. had left behind. Nor does he recognize that it was those partners who filled the vacuum with theft and monopoly based on the principle that holds that “the victor has the right to absolute control” over decision-making, resources, and, and to monopoly and exclusion. Today, the U.S. president is confident that American military capabilities are so superior that ISIS can be eliminated with air strikes alone, but he is equally confident that ISIS cannot be defeated once and for all as long as the partners on the ground are scattered because of sectarianism and bad alliances.
Interestingly as well, Barack Obama is speaking today with a language that reflects American accommodation of the demands of the “Sunni minority” in Iraq and the “Sunni majority in Syria.” He said, “Unfortunately, there was a period of time where the Shiite majority in Iraq didn’t fully understand” that failing to heed the legitimate aspirations of the Sunnis would create major problems, allowing ISIS to fill in the vacuum. This is remarkable because his predecessor George W. Bush had entered the Iraq war in defense of the rights of the Shiites and ultimately gave Iraq to Iran, while Barack Obama now is talking about the rights of the Sunni as a minority, seemingly oblivious to the assault on the rights of the Kurds, who are Sunni as well.
On Syria, Barack Obama is in denial mode. He refuses to be blamed and considers his policies and decisions to have been right. He says that what is being said about arming the rebels at the start of the Syrian war would have led to a different outcome from the one we see today is “a fantasy.” He said an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth could not have prevailed in a battle with not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, and by a battle-hardened Hezbollah. For this reason, according to Obama, “it was never on the cards” that arming the Syrian opposition with light weapons would have led to victory against the regime and its partners. This, in Obama’s view, justifies his rejection of arming the opposition, leaving it stumped and bare without weapons in the battle.
President Obama stubbornly refuses admitting that his policy in Syria helped terrorism grow and ISIS rise to a position where it could defy him directly into a battle. The U.S. president would never admit such a grave mistake, particularly since ISIS, according to some reports, might have sleeper cells within the United States. The nightmare haunting the U.S. president would be for terrorism to return to American soil, for which he would be blamed because of his shortsighted policies in Syria and Iraq. For this reason, Barack Obama is unlikely to admit to his mistakes in Iraq and Syria, which have contributed to the growth of terrorism.
The U.S. president admits to his guilt and mistakes on Libya. He does not regret having deposed Muammar Qaddafi, but he regrets failing to realize, along with his European allies, something that was as obvious as the midday sun, namely, the need to rush to help Libya build its state and its institutions. Everyone rushed to leave Libya except for the oil companies. Everybody boasted of their “achievements” in Libya, especially those who danced at the U.N. corridors, embraced one another, and wept with joy.
Today, Barack Obama bemoans what happened in Libya, which has become a magnet for terrorism and ISIS-like projects. Today, the U.S. president speaks about hard lessons and “rebuilding communities” in the wake of military intervention. He said, “That’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?”
The U.S. president’s problem is just not self-dissociation or the shirking of responsibility. His problem is that he is now being lured against his will to a battle with ISIS, by a decision from ISIS, rather than his own decision.
The strategy to export American, British, Russian, and other terrorists to gather them in Syria – after Bush gathered them in Iraq and succeeded in keeping them away from American soil – has proven its failure, in addition to being a morally bankrupt strategy that disregards the lives of Syrian and Iraqi children, and that sees the destruction and fragmentation of both states as something acceptable in practice.
If international leaders are determined to make a quantum leap in the confrontation with ISIS, they must first possess the courage to make a qualitative shift in their misguided thinking and policies.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 22, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.