By Harry C. Blaney III
“Earlier this month, I outlined for the American people our strategy to confront the threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIL. I made clear that as part of this campaign the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria so that these terrorists can’t find safe haven anywhere. I also made clear that America would act as part of a broad coalition. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.” – President Obama’s Statements on the Air Strikes in Syria (September 23, 2014)
With new air strikes over Syria against ISIS, by not only America, but a coalition of countries that included Islamic nations like Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, a new stage in the struggle against ISIS has started. The significant element is the participation of key Arab states. This is an entirely new stage of the struggle against the ISIS threat with its own risks and also new opportunities to make a real difference in the protection of people on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border that have fallen under the bloody assault of a newly armed, mobile, and well equipped and resourced terrorist group, the likes of which has not been seen before.
“We were joined in this action by our friends and partners — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar. America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security.”
People are also asking rightly if this is a new level of escalation or a moderated and defined effort which will not see at least active American combat troops on the ground. President Obama still seems intent to prevent that sort of commitment, but clearly he desires to degrade and destroy ISIS with an increased use of military tools, but still keeping the direct military operations limited.
One country outside this group is a key player, namely Turkey, a NATO member, which has been permitting new outside recruits to enter Syria to join ISIS. It has also recently closed its border to new refugees who are fleeing slaughter from the advance of ISIS fighters even though they had previously allowed in a large number of Kurds who were in danger of being killed. Within NATO the strikes have included France which will only participate in strikes inside Iraq.
The Pentagon has confirmed that these strikes are part of a sustained campaign which will continue and likely increase over time. President Obama made a statement on Tuesday which underlined this new broadly backed “coalition of the willing” strategy. This multi-targeted attack and strategy was intelligently not signaled in advance, which would have given ISIS time to disperse its forces and headquarters.
As proof that the new attack has a strategic and thought out plan, the DoD said that in addition to taking out ISIS targets, it had mounted eight separate strikes overnight “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans,” which is known as “the Khorasan group.” The strikes against Khorasan, which had built a base in Syria to plot attacks, build roadside bombs, and recruit Westerners to fight, Pentagon said, caused the military to target the group’s training camps, explosives production facility, communication building, and command and control facilities.
The question which many are also asking is whether the attack includes strikes on ISIS forces that are threatening Kobani (Avan al-Arab) in Syria where thousands of Kurds are under imminent threat. In any case some believe that acting alone the Syrian Kurds will lose, and with Turkey preventing Kurdish fighters in that nation from helping their fellow Kurds across the border in nearby Kobani, the burden rests on the other allies to consider acting and preventing a new bloodbath.
Some shallow news outlets and commentators have criticized the president for waiting so long to attack ISIS forces in Syria. But these same right-wing neo-cons who got us into a needless war and supported its stupid management without criticism, for some reason now forget that caution, asking hard questions, advanced planning, and intelligence gathering takes time and are vital for any successful military plan. Also the fact that President Obama and Secretary Kerry were able to obtain the active participation of key Arab states in this campaign which took some time, which will help deconstruct the argument that this is purely a Western assault, but one that has the full backing of key Muslim nations.
There is an on-going debate about whether air strikes alone can defeat ISIS. The right-wing hawks want either boots on the ground and/or undefined direct “military support” and say that only in this way can ISIS be defeated. They also point to the need to attack Assad’s regime. This is shallow thinking and bad policy at this moment. The allies have their first priority in defeating of the more dangerous threats: ISIS. This is a proper and intelligent strategy when there is a chaotic and complex environment in Syria that needs a more differentiated approach and long-term strategy.
But the problem of ISIS and Assad’s brutal regime has not been forgotten. Further, there are arguments which have some validity in this new battlefield context that air strikes can and will be effective since they are combined with assistance and training of Iraqi forces and assistance by U.S. and other nations in helping with intelligence, logistics and air power. But most importantly Iraq has to maintain a unified and inclusive government. It is important that Sunni factions keep a united front and provide the needed “boots on the ground” in Eastern and Western Iraq while Syrian moderate forces are trained and given sufficient weapons and air support. This could provide a classic pinscher assault against the ISIS controlled territory in both Syria and Iraq. Although one still needs to keep a measure of skepticism for any risky and still not fully understood environment that is constantly shifting.
In a larger perspective, beyond these attacks there is a need for a long-term, non-military strategy to deal not only with the immediate threat of ISIS but also with the overall varied terrorist risks and their fundamental causes. This approach will take time and it will take much more resources than we have been able to commit to this sector of diplomacy and preventive actions.
As we have pointed out before, the long term and key goal is to try to get the fighting Sunni and Shia groups and nations to stop the centuries long, self-defeating inter-communal struggle, and to unite against, not only a common and savage enemy, but to try to bring them together in a cooperative and unified way and to see common cause in mutual security, economic development, and yes, a new level of peaceful dialogue and unity. This means the most difficult of all efforts, bringing Iran, the key Shia state, and Saudi Arabia, the key Sunni state, to at least the point of seeking some measure of detente.
As part of this larger effort to bring a measure of peace to the Middle East there is a fundamental need to jointly develop a new “macro and long range strategy of putting in place a major development plan, not too different than the Marshall Plan after World war II, with the Middle East largely financed by the oil rich states of the region with help from North America and Europe and some states in Asia that have a stake in peace in the region. That plan must address education of disadvantaged groups, providing good jobs to the youth and unemployed and modernization of the economy and society in general. Further, finding at last a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians needs to be a high priority as is helping the struggling nations of the Arab Spring” find at last a measure of peace, economic development, and responsible governance. These are all large tasks which will take decades but need soon a collective effort by all of these nations in and outside the region.
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