3 Years War? Obama to Bomb Syria in fight against ISIL

By Juan Cole

Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura at WaPo report on a Monday evening dinner at the White House attended by foreign policy experts, in which President Obama expressed confidence that he had the authority to bomb ISIL positions in Syria.

In other reports, Obama officials have leaked that they think this is a 3 years war. (Ronald Reagan began vastly increasing the aid to Afghan rebels against the then Communist government in Kabul in 1982, and US counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in that country is still going on in 2014, 32 years later; so three years have a way of becoming multiplied by 10).

Everyone should just understand that the social science literature finds that external interventions typically extend, not shorten, civil wars, as Marc Lynch has pointed out.

At the same time, Obama appears to envisage arming and training the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army, who have consistently been pushed to the margins by al-Qaeda offshoots and affiliates. Private billionaires in the Gulf will continue to support ISIL or its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda). Strengthening yet another guerrilla group will, again, likely prolong the fighting. Moreover, in the past two years, Free Syrian Army moderate groups have gone radical and joined Nusrah or ISIL at an alarming rate. Defectors or defeated groups from the FSA will take their skills and arms with them into the al-Qaeda offshoots.

In Iraq, while giving the Kurds and the Iraqi army close air support against ISIL has already borne fruit when the local forces were defending their ethnic enclaves, it hasn’t helped either largely Kurdish forces or the (largely Shiite) Iraqi army take Sunni Arab territory. Several campaigns against Tikrit have failed. The only thing worse than this failure might be success.

Success would mean smart phone video making its way to YouTube showing US bombing urban residential buildings full of Sunni Arab families in support for a motley crew of Kurdish (non-Arab) fighters and Shiite troops and militiamen. Helping such forces take Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, would make for a very bad image in the Sunni world.

US hopes of enlisting Sunni “tribes” led by people like Ahmad Abu Risha are probably not very realistic. Sunni notables in the cities and ex-Baath officers need to be convinced to break with ISIL. One might ask where all the Iraq oil money has gone. With Brent crude mostly over $100 a barrel in recent years, and Iraq exporting 3 mn barrels a day or so, the government should be enormously wealthy. But Sunni Arabs complain of poverty, unemployment and no services or electricity. What’s wrong with this picture? Inefficiency and corruption are part of the story of the disaffection of the Sunnis in Iraq; and those faults are in the main US ally!

Giving close air support to Middle Eastern groups requires US special forces on the ground, to paint lasers on the targets. And if the campaign isn’t finished in 3 years, there will be pressure from Washington hawks to commit troops (there already is). Governments don’t like to be seen failing, and sometimes will double down in a gamble.


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22 Responses

  1. When I arrived in Vietnam in August 1967, with four busloads of other nervous GIs, the Brass gave me a little comic book in which a fetching young woman in her fetching cheongsam explained the country’s culture in some 50 or 60 vignettes, along with why we were going to kill or maybe die there. I don’t recall the reason any more.

    This linked article has some of the same advice for this generation of heavily armed, earnest idiots, advice and understanding that the rest of us might wish that the Brass and their Bosses might internalize and comprehend before forcing us to punch this next Tarbaby:

    “Bullets, bombs and etiquette: Tips for Canada’s advisers in Iraq”. link to m.theglobeandmail.com

    Oh, well. The huge head of ” We must ACT NOW WITH ALL OUR MIGHT” pressure just has to be relieved… A tip, guys, especially, this time: Don’t mess with their women, while you are relieving your personal pressure over there.

  2. Apart from the quixotic idea of using air power to rebuild two collapsed states (one of whom is ruled by a tyrant whom “we don’t like”), another depressing aspect to this whole thing is Obama’s conviction that he can make a decision for open-ended war unilaterally, without any constitutional constraints. We seem to have stumbled into a world of permanent warfare, with no political accountability at all. And we did this to ourselves.

  3. Your analyses are often marked with expressions of sympathy with Sunni rejectionism whether on the Iraqi or the Syrian sides of the border. It is noteworthy that in spite of centuries of brutal disenfranchisement, neither the Alawites nor the Shias of Iraq went on mad dog rampages to eliminate minorities, sell women into slavery, and behead innocents by the scores. Isn’t that curious?

    • Assigning blame is one approach, very satisfactory to the gut. Some folks try to figure out what comes next, and how anyone can learn to live with people who killed or were busily trying to kill one’s family and friends and tribe. :

      “Living Together After Ethnic Killing: Exploring the Chaim Kaufman Argument”

      “I have argued that in some intense commmunal conflicts a stable end to the killling can only be attained by separating the warring population into defensible territories, that in such cases efforts to keep warring ethnic communities together in mixed settlements, or to put them back together after they have become separated in the course of the war, are misguidied and actually dangerous; and that in such circumstances demands for very loose regional autonomy or even for partition of sovereignty should not be resisted.
      This is nearly the opposite of what was for many decades a virtually unexamined consensus — that separation of populations and partition of sovereignty should never be encouraged, accepted or even tolerated. The United Nations Charter favors states over non-state groups or individuals in almost all circumstances.” link to books.google.com

      Recognizing that there are nominal Shi’a killers too just acknowledges the nature of humanity. Some of us get off on that “liberating” sensation that comes with dealing death. How to get past the past, then? There’s still, always, the question of what comes next, what to do, what to promote, what (in the case of Great Game Players) to stay the hell out of.

  4. It seems that we, as an entire nation, are now being drafted to serve three years as unwilling subjects of empire as our government completely unmoors itself from accountability, transparency, and the rule of law. I don’t think that this is the “hope and change” that any of us signed up for.

  5. Those three years of giving IS the “Gaza” treatment will give us time to assemble an army of egalitarian legislators and professionals that will move in as soon as all is quiet on the Western Front. (Of course they will be showered with Sunni thrown flowers as soon as they arrive.). Yawn, it’s all so predictable.

    “Light at the end of the tunnel” will make a comeback in administration rhetoric and political cartoons. And shopping, at its most patriotic level, will prove that we are all in the fight.

  6. “The model for world order that Mr. Kissinger repeatedly returns to is the so-called Westphalian peace, negotiated in Europe at the end of the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 at a time when conditions in Europe, he says, roughly approximated those of the contemporary world: ‘a multiplicity of political units, none powerful enough to defeat all the others, many adhering to contradictory philosophies and internal practices, in search of neutral rules to regulate their conduct and mitigate conflict.'” link to nytimes.com

    In the present case these decidedly unneutral “rules to regulate their conduct and mitigate conflict” would be essential to the prolongation of declining hegemony by enabling the affected erstwhile superpower to amplify or magnify its remaining politico-economic “weight” via the appropriation or, at the very least, parasitization and instrumentalization of new and existing regional and global nexuses of military and economic power–with extortionary threats of controlled terror, chaos, and regime change serving as the stick and an “equitable” partage with sufficiently “right thinking” and emulative world oligarchies as the carrot.

    In short, the U.S. seeks to “robotize” global interdependence (i.e. make of it an articulated and controllable carapace) in order to amplify the force of its diminishing hegemony.

  7. Question for you Juan: do you know if there was a way that the United States could have stopped the flow of money and arms from private Gulf billionaire sources to extremist Syrian rebels? I would say my view on what the US should do would be influenced by this.

      • I would then think that this fact would lead credence to the idea that the arming of the moderate rebels might have been productive. If the extremists were getting armed and there was no way to stop the resulting war between them and the Assad government, what would be a better option….interesting. Thanks!

      • I must have missed something — I thought US sanctions on places like Iran and now Russia involved exactly the impairing (maybe not 100% penny-tight) of money flows. At least stuff like this could be done, to choke off some of the arteries that are feeding the ISISIQIL thingie:

        “Mr. Putin’s Very Bad Day: The Noose Tightens On His Inner Circle And The Russian People,” link to forbes.com

        The US hypocrisy, of course, is enough to gag a maggot — the US and the sneaky-petes who play their putrid little games with cash from the sale of cocaine or opium or the ever-growing unaccountable, unauditable “black budgets,” or just all those shrink-wrapped cubes of used $100 non-sequential US bills, have no problem moving money by any one of a number of means, and have no qualms about doing so, whether it’s to “support Moderates” or overthrow governments or fund “the equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” aka the “Contra murder squads, that “we” funded and trained and turned loose:

        “Reagan Was the Butcher of My People:” Fr. Miguel D’Escoto Speaks From Nicaragua,” link to democracynow.org What a lovely description and indictment of “our policies” that piece is. And that just goes along with other sets of geopolitical zombies, on the ordinary people and many democratically elected governments, leading so often to what’s that word, again, “BLOWBACK?”

        Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
        That lends Corruption lighter wings to fly! 40
        Gold imp’d by thee, can compass hardest things,
        Can pocket states, can fetch or carry kings;
        A single leaf shall waft an army o’er,
        Or ship off senates to some distant shore;
        A leaf, like Sibyl’s, scatter to and fro 45
        Our fates and fortunes as the winds shall blow;
        Pregnant with thousands flits the scrap unseen,
        And silent sells a King or buys a Queen.

        link to bartleby.com

        • Money flows of states through banks can be interfered with more easily; private money can be laundered; even so, a lot of Iran money was laundered.

    • The Patriot Act can be used to prevent banks involved with extremist-linked money laundering or other connection to terror activity from transacting business with financial institutions in the United States.

      The Central Bank of Syria has been subject to Patriot Act sanctions since 2006 via presidential executive order.

      Syria has tried to circumvent imposition of sanctions by using Russian or Qatari banks. A Russian bank was placed under sanctions in 2014 by the U.S. government due to its ties to Syria.

      The imposition of sanctions has been damaging to the economy of the Assad regime.

      To the extent that foreign banks can be proven linked to ISIS or other extremist terror groups among the Syrian rebels, the U.S. government may consider imposing sanctions upon such financial institutions.

      The Council of Foreign Relations in its Foreign Affairs periodical published an article describing a situation that “black banks” – those proven to be complicit in illicit activity would be barred from transacting business with “white banks” – those banks with no suspected involvement in illegal activity.

      The European Union can impose similar sanctions.

      The theory behind sanctions being that financial institutions would be careful to avoid involvement with financing terror activities or facilitating such suspected transactions.

  8. Perhaps, videos of ISIS beheading two Americans were made to lure the U.S. into bombing Syria with the hope that residential buildings full of Sunni Arab families will get hit. That would also make a very bad image in the Sunni world.

    OTOH, using an ISIS member with a British accent may have been a warning about what could easily happen in Britain. After all, the London bombings were carried out by four young adults without a terrorist organization backing them.

    Obama is in a awkward position, to say the least. If he does nothing and ISIS attacks, the hawks will pounce. But escalating a war against ISIS could also result in BLOWBACK.

  9. The Western-approvable rebels have already been defeated both politically and militarily in Syria. First, their revolution failed to topple the government, and then they lost on the battlefields of the civil war which ensued.

    That’s why they’re so weak now. The moderates who really wanted to fight are mostly dead, maimed or jailed.

    The ones who are left don’t want to fight much. Instead, they want somebody else to fight and win their war for them, then ride in with the baggage. As a result, they are now either disregarded or despised by the other Syrian rebel factions.

    The “moderate” Syrian rebels never really lacked support. The Iraqi guerrilla factions who fought unaided for years against the USA would have loved to have had bases in Turkey and Jordan in which to recuperate between operations.

  10. Three years? Really? How prescient. I vote for another 100 Years War. But this is at its base an absurdity – how many people have our “smart bombs” inflicted with beheadings and other horrific injuries, all on dubious pretexts? The best argument against this – or any – war is still that made over 2400 years ago – by no less than the king of the bellicose state of Sparta. Once war is entered into, noted Archidamas on the eve of the war between Athens and Sparta, its course is unknown. It is to open a door into a dark room, where no one knows what lurks – though all know that it will entail death, degradation, and destruction (see Cato in Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 52). Climate change. Humans with nuclear bombs. Wars over religion and resources in the name of “freedom”, “way of life”, “stability”. And how do we all think this will end? I’m sure Victor David Hansen can regal us with tales of “a war like no other” and “western freedom”. I strongly doubt that it will not be an outcome of disaster (VDH and his buddy Bill Kristol can tell us how our next defeat is really a victory depending on what political party is in office). But then again, isn’t disaster standard operating procedure? So glad Americans are can do and competent. But incompetence (oh, and death on my buck by the f*****g bushel) seems to be the central reality of American policy. Iraq. The country we loved SOOOOOO much we f****d up not one, not two, but now, apparently, THREE times.

    So, can we have a global “three strikes and you’re out stupid super power” policy?

  11. Money flows of states through banks can be interfered with more easily However, to achieve results positive to US purposes would that not require them to be flows of petrodollars? If Russia may even now be able to sustain US sanction inhibited investment in its energy sector by trading ruble/yuan with China perhaps these others will find similar routes. link to thebricspost.com

    It’s scarcely even obliquely relevant but I am struck by a comment of Cassius Dio on G. Papirius Carbo, Governor of Bithnyia 69BC, who had accused his predecessor of corruption only to find himself similarly accused and convicted (by his own son no less) on his return to Rome.

    Some persons, of course, can more easily censure others than admonish themselves, and when it comes to their own case commit very readily deeds for which they think their neighbours deserving of punishment. Hence they cannot, from the mere fact that they prosecute others, inspire confidence in their own detestation of the acts in question.

    • As my ex-wife would often say to me, “When YOU do it (behavior X), it’s WRONG. When I do it, it’s DIFFERENT!”

  12. I am intrigued by the three-year time horizon. This plants the idea that the US will be engaged in combat in Iraq by the time that Obama leaves office. They are already kicking the responsbility for actually finishing this task to the next President.

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