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Can Obama fight a smart war in Syria?

It is a public relations war too. Much will depend on what does ISIS does as a riposte to the U.S.-led campaign

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

Three years and one month after President Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to step aside and one year after nearly attacking Syria because of chemical weapons use, the United States is leading bombing strikes on ISIS in Syria. Obama had held out even against the advice of his National Security Council for an age, watched as Assad warplanes pounded Aleppo and other cities with barrel bombs and seen ISIS and other extremist groups take power in the north and the east of the country. As the man who warned of a “dumb war” in Iraq, who spent the last five years trying to exit military engagement in the Middle East, are these strikes smart or dumb, wise or foolish?

The U.S. and its five Arab allies in these strikes would, of course, not have had to engage ISIS at all if a coherent effective Syria policy had been developed over the last three and a half years. In that sense Obama has failed even before he has started this latest stage of the war.

Obama’s strategy depends on success in the military, intelligence, political, financial and public relations fields. Aside from the first, the Americans have a chequered recent record.

Intelligence is key. However effectively the U.S. and its supporting cast bomb from the air, it cannot defeat ISIS at 2,000 feet in a boots-on-the-ground-free operation

Chris Doyle

Intelligence is key. However effectively the U.S. and its supporting cast bomb from the air, it cannot defeat ISIS at 2,000 feet in a boots-on-the-ground-free operation. Targeting requires trained personnel in site and high-level intelligence. Thus far there has been precious sign of this. ISIS grew into a major force with no reaction. The acknowledged U.S. attempt to rescue the journalist James Foley failed. The CIA was compelled this month to reassess its estimate of ISIS fighter numbers up from 10,000 to 31,000 a tripling of numbers in only a matter of months, an increase that can only partly be attributed to ISIS recruitment.

Intelligence is key

The whole experience of combatting al-Qaeda has shown that whilst military action has played a role, successful intelligence operations were the most effective. Picking up major al-Qaeda operatives such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah provided a treasure trove of detail via water-boarding. Military power is a blunt instrument in dealing with such groups, which more often than not, has acted as a recruiting sergeant the moment civilian casualties mount. Years from now the U.S. will be tracking ISIS supporters and their funding long after the bombing has finished.

It begs the question of how much the U.S. and its allies truly know about ISIS; who leads it, where they are and where it gets is funding from.

The ISIS coffers are overflowing. Though oil sales, racketeering and kidnapping it can afford to pay its fighters and operatives a handsome sum. Questions must be asked about how the oil is so successfully sold via Turkey and how come so many states seem to have paid ransoms. Stifling the cash flow has to be a prime coalition aim.

The major hole in the American planning is the absence of a political strategy in Syria. In Iraq, Washington has a sketch of a plan involving supporting a more inclusive Iraqi government in Baghdad and close cooperation with the Kurdish regional government. All the major regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, are being cooperative.

A world apart

Cross the border into Syria and it is a world apart. There is no political process to resolve the Syrian conflict, none since the end of Geneva II conference in February. The international and regional powers are all still engaged in a dangerous proxy war backing rival parties to the conflict. Obama has always said that he wants the Assad regime to go yet Syrians are confused, asking if he still holds to that view?

Whatever the crimes of ISIS, do they compare to a regime that has overseen a conflict that has killed nearly 200,000, has seen a once peaceful country torn apart and is held responsible for using chemical weapons. ISIS crucified and buried people alive but the regime tortured thousands to death. These are the issues Syrians are wrestling with. Syrians are largely confused. Many ask what happens once ISIS is contained or defeated, is the regime left in place or even strengthened?

It seems the U.S. administration warned the Syrian authorities of the strikes. The latter have barely raised an objection, triggering widespread Syrians fears of a tacit deal that allows for the regime’s survival. Russia has also been relatively quiet which begs questions.

That said, the Syria regime is once again looking, for the moment at least, powerless. The Syrian ambassador to the U.N. said: “They [the U.S.] played by the rules. They informed us first.” It must be a new rulebook because the Syrian regime’s attachment to its sacred sovereignty had always been paramount, even if successive Israeli strikes inside Syria had shown how hollow the regime’s threats were. So can the Obama plan be described as successful if Bashar al-Assad is till lording it over Damascus at the end of the U.S. leader’s presidency?

PR war

It is a public relations war too. Much will depend on what does ISIS does as a riposte. We need to be prepared for more Jihadi John YouTube beheadings. ISIS may venture beyond its domain to mount attacks on vulnerable neighbours not least in Jordan and Lebanon. ISIS supporters are now posing somehow as victims and great humanitarians. This does not wash at all. The same Twitter feeds were carrying and celebrating pictures of beheaded Muslims. Their brutality and callous disregard for human life denies them any right to victimhood. Muslims across the globe need to be constantly reminded of this.

In many ways, it is a war where the party that kills fewer civilians wins the PR battle. But are the Americans now capable of competing in a contest for “hearts and minds” that for decades they have lost and lost badly? Can they persuade Muslims in Iraq, Syria and further afield that they are truly on their side against these extremists?

The jury is out. Obama has started an intervention with no clear indication as to when it ends, as to what defines success. Ten years ago, the United States fell way short of the winning post. Obama is studiously trying to avoid a rerun of that war but as he gets sucked in, has he worked out a way to avoid this? Perhaps not, but to his credit he has built up diplomatic support to share the load. To achieve victory, he will need to do more than just defeat ISIS. He will have to address the power vacuum that allowed this monster to rise and find a genuine political settlement for both Iraq and Syria that empowers both peoples. As he starts this war, let us hope Obama knows what peace looks like. That would be smart.

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Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

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