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Barack Obama and Islamic State

Discussion in 'Middle East & Africa' started by kalu_miah, Sep 13, 2014.

  1. kalu_miah

    kalu_miah SENIOR MEMBER

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    Barack Obama and Islamic State: Back to Iraq | The Economist

    Barack Obama and Islamic State
    Back to Iraq
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    BARACK OBAMA’s prime-time address of September 10th, bracing America for an open-ended campaign against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, marked a stunning turnaround for a cautious president, a once-again-hawkish Republican Party and—most strikingly—for a public galvanised by the beheading of two American journalists, after ignoring soaring death tolls in the Arab world (see chart). Mr Obama’s presidency is on the line, as critics ask whether he knows how to keep Americans safe.

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    When he proudly declared in 2011 that America’s war in Iraq would soon be over, Mr Obama can hardly have imagined that, three years later, public opinion would oblige him to deliver an address from the White House, assuring the country that almost 500 American troops will head to Iraq to join hundreds already there, where they will support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with advice, training, intelligence and equipment. New Iraqi national guard units in Sunni towns will also receive support, he said. Allies on the ground would be backed by “systematic” air strikes against IS in Syria as well as Iraq. American combat troops would not fight on foreign soil, he promised, choosing his words with legalistic precision. But: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

    Since uprisings began against the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, Mr Obama has resisted calls from aides, among them his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to arm relatively-moderate rebels on a large scale, or risk leaving a vacuum for extremists to fill. On August 8th the president deemed it a “fantasy” that the Syrian government could be beaten by arming moderates he called: “essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth”. A month later in his TV address, Mr Obama announced expanded aid for Syrian rebels, adding that in the fight against IS, “we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorises its people.” He compared this strategy—involving air power and support for regional allies fighting on the ground—to missions he said were succeeding in Somalia and Yemen.

    Though the president believes he has the legal authority to launch air strikes, and bipartisan backing for his larger strategy, he renewed a call for Congress to authorise funds needed to train and equip large numbers of Syrian fighters. A request for $500m to help Syrian rebels has been stalled in Congress since June.

    Asking Congress to approve a ramping-up of American counter-terror firepower might seem to answer complaints from members of Congress who have denounced Mr Obama as a “reluctant commander-in-chief” and demanded to be consulted. Yet in the hours before Mr Obama’s address, leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate were divided over how central a role to seek. Lots of Republicans are happily rediscovering hawkish instincts, jointly accusing Mr Obama (and Mrs Clinton, a putative 2016 presidential challenger) of running a feckless foreign policy. But with elections less than two months away, many in Congress fear taking war votes that might be held against them. As an unusually candid Republican congressman told reporters, many of his colleagues prefer a simple approach: they will denounce Mr Obama if his plan goes awry, and, should it succeed, “ask what took him so long”.

    Approval of Mr Obama’s foreign policy is at record lows. But the public mood is far from consistent. After Syria used chemical weapons on its people last year, only one in five Americans thought striking the Assad regime was in their national interest. Voters flooded Congress with calls opposing even limited missile strikes.

    Now the polls show nearly three-quarters of Americans backing air strikes on Iraq, two-thirds backing strikes on Syria and 61% believing action against IS is in America’s interests. The new public hawkishness is linked to the reporters’ beheading, pollsters report. Americans paid more attention to those murders than to any other news event in the past five years, according to one survey. America is still tired of war. But it wants to feel safe.

    SYNDICATED COLUMN: Obama Trolled by ISIS | Ted Rall's Rallblog

    Obama Trolled by ISIS

    President Obama’s reaction to the videos of two American freelance journalists getting beheaded by Islamist militants gives me the uncomfortable feeling that the American people are getting punk’d — again.

    The same thing happened 13 years ago this week, when a dozen and a half Muslim fundamentalists attacked our financial and political capitals using our own planes. The hijackers got exactly the reaction that they wanted: overreaction.You should never underestimate an adversary, least of all when their remarkable success against difficult odds have demonstrated the wisdom of their tactics. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the 9/11-era Al Qaeda from which it split, is not run by stupid people. Stupid people don’t take half of Syria away from its longtime authoritarian dictator – whose armed forces happen to be better equipped and trained – and half of Iraq away from a puppet regime backed by the world’s most ferocious superpower – in two years.

    Considering ISIS through the lens of proper respect for their leaders’ intelligence, what were they thinking when they posted those two gruesome videos? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Suleiman al-Naser and other top officials of the Islamic State had to know they would provoke a political reaction. It has: More Americans (94%) are aware of the ISIS execution videos than any other news event in the last five years.

    ISIS’ leaders also must have anticipated a military reaction. After the videos, a war-weary American public’s apathetic stance toward the civil war in Syria flipped toward strong support in favor of the bombing campaign announced by Obama (who paradoxically continues to poll poorly on foreign policy).

    Clearly ISIS’ top brass believe they stand more to gain than to lose from the coming onslaught by U.S. drones and fighter jets. This should frighten us.

    Put yourself into the mindset of the insurgents. Their enemies are the existing governments of the countries they seek to occupy: Syria, Iraq, possibly Jordan, certainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But – again, like Al Qaeda in the early 2000s – they have a more formidable adversary: moderation.

    To survive and expand, radical jihadists don’t need all, or even most, Muslims to join the fight. But they do require the tacit consent of the governed in the areas they control, and the political sympathy that prompts donors to send them the financial contributions that allow them to arm new recruits and hold their territory — factors that fuel legitimacy.

    As radicals and fundamentalists, ISIS’ Manichean worldview portrays the West, and especially the United States and Great Britain, and their Middle Eastern client states – obviously Israel most of all – as monsters hell-bent on the oppression of Muslims, the exploitation and appropriation of Muslim lands, using moral corruption and godless capitalism as means toward global domination at their expense.

    Until recently, most Muslims – including most Sunnis – didn’t buy it. Hundreds of millions of them drank, smoked, failed to pray regularly, and envied the liberalism and economic power of the West.

    The genius of 9/11 was to provoke the United States and its allies into behaving exactly like the monsters Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups had long argued they were. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, brazenly embracing torture and mass kidnappings and opening a gulag archipelago of secret prisons everywhere from Eastern Europe to Guantánamo to jail ships floating in the Indian Ocean, as well as the brazen disregard for innocent civilians demonstrated by Bush and Obama’s willy-nilly drone program, convinced countless fence sitters and former moderates to join the militants, cut them a check, or at least look the other way. By the end of the Bush years, the United States waswildly unpopular, viewed as “violent” and “selfish” throughout the Muslim world.

    We got trolled.

    The tactics Obama plans to use against ISIS are more of the same. Once again, U.S. warplanes and remote-controlled killer air robots will rain death upon people, the vast majority of whom were innocent and had nothing to do with the group responsible for beheading those poor journalists. Once again, although we will on occasion succeed in killing some #1 or #2 “top terrorist,” we will lose this battle for hearts and minds because (a) the nature of guerrilla warfare is that no leader is indispensable and anyone can and will be replaced, and (b) each civilian death will generate thousands of fierce lifelong enemies – yes, some family members and many friends, but most of all the one group of people American pundits and journalists rarely reference when discussing “collateral damage” – ordinary people, there and in the region and around the world, who react with disgust and rage at our cruelty.

    Ironically, disgust and rage are the very same emotions that triggered America’s latest tumble into the Islamist trap.
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2014
  2. kalu_miah

    kalu_miah SENIOR MEMBER

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    10 Questions: Syria - Yahoo News

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    10 Questions: Syria
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    This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry is to travel to the Middle East this week, with stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to try to line up support for a coalition to take on the extremist Islamic State group. His trip follows Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit on Monday to Turkey to make the same case to Ankara, a regional heavyweight. Kerry will hold talks with officials from Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

    This week President Barack Obama presented his strategy for confronting the growing threat of the Islamic State, or IS, in Syria. While many of us first heard about the brutal group of terrorists this summer, it's been around for a while and is actually a splinter from what was known as al-Qaida in Iraq. The civil war that has been ravaging Syria over the last several years has created conditions that helped IS gain strength and numbers. To understand Syria’s role, the Assad regime, and the road ahead, I posed 10 questions to Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst.

    1. Syria has been crushed by a civil war for the last three years. What caused the conflict?

    It’s a complicated story, but here’s a thumbnail sketch: Syria has been ruled by the brutal dictatorship of the Assad family since 1971. In 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, Syrians across the country rose up to try to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. The Assads are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism; they had placed Alawites in key positions throughout the government and military, and rewarded the Alawite community and other minority groups with economic perks and disproportionate political power to buy their support against the majority Sunni populace. The regime convinced most of the Alawite and other minority communities that the Arab Spring was really a movement to install a vicious Sunni regime that would oppress Syria’s minorities even worse than the Alawites had treated the Sunnis (which was pretty bad, including another civil war from 1976 to 1982 that Assad’s father crushed by slaughtering roughly 40,000 Sunni rebels in the town of Hama).

    Fearing they would be slaughtered by the Sunnis, most of the Alawites and many of Syria’s other minorities rallied around the Assad regime, whereas most of the largely Sunni populace opposed it and eventually turned to armed resistance when the regime began to slaughter what had at first been peaceful protesters. As is common in these kinds of civil wars, splits began to emerge among the opposition as warlords emerged who were as intent on enhancing their own power relative to one another as they were on defeating the regime. Meanwhile, the chaos and “ungoverned space” of most of Syria served as a power vacuum, the kind of place that al-Qaida and other Salafi Sunni extremist groups like to use to set up shop, mount terrorist operations, and go to war against Shiites and others whom they consider apostates. Inevitably, these kinds of “intercommunal civil wars” suck in the neighbors — in this case bringing in Turkey and the Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, etc.) to support various Sunni groups, and the Shiite Iranians (and the Russians, the Cold War patrons of the Assads) to back the regime.

    So that’s how we got from a peaceful protest movement against a brutal dictatorship to a vicious civil war pitting the remnants of that regime, backed by Syria’s Shiite Alawite community and other minorities, against a variety of Sunni groups that fight each other as much as they fight the regime.

    2. How many people have died so far, and what is the refugee situation?

    Officially, 191,000 have been documented as killed, but it is widely believed that the real number is closer to 240,000. At least 9 million Syrians, out of a total population of about 18 million, have become refugees of the war. Of those, about 3 million have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq (although many of those have moved again because of the civil war in Iraq). Another 6 million or so are internally displaced. Syrian refugees are becoming a very severe burden for Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan (where they are threatening the country’s depleted water supplies).

    3. Assad was initially seen as a potential reformer. What went wrong?

    Bashar al-Assad certainly tried to portray himself as a reformer but never actually acted like one. We still don’t know why. There are those who claim that he really wanted to liberalize Syria but was prevented from doing so by the “old guard” of leaders left over from his father’s era, who opposed all change as potentially destabilizing the dictatorship. Others believe that Assad’s talk of reform was nothing but rhetoric meant to keep the U.S. and the West off his back. At this point we simply don’t know, and we won’t until the civil war is ended and we can speak to members of the regime and perhaps get access to their records — if there are any left when it’s over. For now, all we can say is that Assad never made good on his promises, and that’s what provoked the popular revolt that eventually metastasized into the Syrian civil war.

    4. How did IS come to flourish in Syria and establish its headquarters there?

    IS or ISIS or ISIL (or DA’SH, as the Arabs call it) began life as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). But the U.S. surge, the Anbar Awakening and the dramatic political progress in Iraq from 2008 to 2010 came close to wiping them out. (An important lesson as we try to understand what it will take to “degrade, then destroy” ISIS this time around.) What was left of AQI was saved by the descent into civil war next door in Syria. Its fighters fled to Syria, where in the chaos of civil war they were able to find sanctuary, regroup and start to gathers new recruits and then slowly begin to take control of territory, applying the military and political lessons they had learned from their defeat in Iraq.

    5. Who are the opposition forces that make up the Free Syrian Army?

    There are dozens of groups of varying sizes, ideologies and effectiveness in the Free Syrian Army. Some are moderate Islamists, some secular. Most are built around one or more key personalities and/or recruited from particular locales. They have almost nothing binding them together except their general hatred of the regime and the fact that they are not Salafi extremists. Not surprisingly, many of the groups have proved ineffective. That said, it’s also important to note that they really haven’t had much help at all. The U.S. and Europeans have provided them with next to nothing, whereas the more extreme groups have gotten much greater help from the Gulf states, Turkey and other Sunni governments. The extremists also have both religious zeal to inspire them and experience from fighting in insurgencies and civil wars elsewhere around the world. Likewise, the remnants of the Assad regime have gotten much more help from the Iranians and Russians, and they have the framework (and heavy weapons) of the old Syrian army to fall back on.

    6. Is it possible IS could move to another country and continue staging its jihad from there, as al-Qaida did?

    Absolutely. That’s what they do. But what is important to note is that they tend to move from civil war to civil war. They have had a much harder time establishing themselves and hanging on in strong, stable states. They got wiped out in Egypt in the 1990s and Saudi Arabia in the 2000s. But they started in Afghanistan during its civil war in the 1990s, then moved into Iraq when it descended into civil war after the U.S. invasion, and right now they are thriving in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya — all four countries in civil war. They have also made important inroads in Lebanon, which has similarly been destabilized by spillover from the Syrian civil war.

    7. Why didn't the U.S. arm and train the opposition forces before this?

    Only President Obama can truly answer this, and so far he has been less than candid about it. What is noteworthy — and very frustrating to all of his critics, some of his supporters, most of the Arab world and a bunch of other folks — is that his rationale for not providing greater support to the Syrian opposition has changed constantly, but the policy never has. His subordinates have run through a list of rationales — from not wanting to make the situation worse by providing arms, to fearing that arming the opposition would only provoke the Russians to arm the regime, to claiming that it could not identify anyone “moderate” to arm, to claiming that the moderates had basically lost to the extremists already. None of these are terribly compelling, especially since they all happened anyway and yet the administration never changed its policy.

    My own read — and I can’t possibly prove it, it is merely speculation based on my observations of the president and conversations with his staff — is that Obama just did not believe that America’s interests were threatened until Mosul fell to ISIS in June of this year and still does not believe that the Syrian part of the Iraqi-Syrian civil war threatens American interests. As we all know, he believes he was elected to get America out of wars in the Middle East and is simply averse to making a new commitment. To me, that seems to explain the sharp distinction in his most recent speech between his strategy for Iraq and his strategy for Syria.

    8. What role will Assad's army have in the fight against IS?

    Hopefully none. Here the president was very clear (and very good, in my opinion). He said that the U.S. would not ally with the Assad regime, not even to fight ISIS, and that the U.S. would fight both simultaneously. I think that’s spot on. The U.S. has gotten repeatedly burned by adopting the flawed logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the Middle East in particular, the enemy of my enemy can also be my enemy. The president is right that if the U.S. were willing to really begin to assist the Syrian opposition, there is every reason to believe that we could defeat both the regime and ISIS — but we need to make that commitment. And it was that flawed logic that led us to do disastrous things like ally with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and look the other way while he used massive amounts of chemical warfare on the Iranians and developed vast nuclear and biological-warfare programs, which required the waging of the 1991 Gulf War to deal with (and that ultimately laid the foundation for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and all the disasters and tragedies that attended it).

    9. Why has Saudi Arabia agreed to be a staging area for training Syrian opposition forces?

    This is a very important question. We need to understand that the Saudis, and many other Sunni Arab states, are not sold on the president's Iraq strategy. For the record, I think it exactly right, and I say that as someone who has been extremely critical of Obama’s Iraq policy and his wider Middle East policy. But the Saudis don't agree. They hate and fear ISIS too, but they hate and fear the Shiites (and the ultimate Shiite power, Iran) and the moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood far more than they hate and fear ISIS. They look at the U.S. strategy in Iraq and say to themselves, "We like the fact that Obama is finally engaging the Middle East and finally demonstrating some leadership there, but he is asking us to help our two greatest enemies crush a lesser enemy." That doesn’t really make sense to them. For them, Syria is a much more straightforward fight: They want Assad gone and the Alawite regime broken and want to see the Sunnis in charge, and they don’t really care which Sunnis as long as it is not the Brotherhood.

    10. Will airstrikes really help eradicate ISIS forces? What about "collateral damage," aka civilian casualties?

    Probably yes in Iraq and probably no in Syria. Here you have to go back to the strategy the president announced. It will take large-scale airstrikes — thousands of sorties over weeks or months, as opposed to the 150 the U.S. has flown in the past month — in support of some kind of an army on the ground to smash ISIS and its allies and drive them out of Iraq. Airstrikes alone cannot do the job, but you don’t need a fantastic army to do the job, just an army good enough that their capabilities plus U.S. airpower are enough to defeat the adversary. ISIS has tough, committed and experienced fighters, but they are not 10 feet tall. And there really aren't a whole lot of them. Remember, in Afghanistan it was U.S. airpower in support of the Northern Alliance that smashed the Taliban in 2001, and in Libya it was NATO airpower in support of a few thousand Libyan rebels that crushed Gadhafi’s army. So it is definitely doable if we have even a mediocre Iraqi military to support — it’s just that it will probably take months to rebuild the Iraqi military to the point where it has reached “mediocrity.” Plus, it needs to include Sunni formations that will be accepted by Iraq’s Sunni community.

    In Syria, according to the president’s strategy, it doesn’t sound as if we will have even that. The administration remains incredibly vague about what it plans to do with the $500 million it requested from Congress, and in his speech, the president was at pains to describe his Syria strategy as a counterterrorism strategy like that in Yemen or Somalia, not a military offensive as in Afghanistan or Libya. So it doesn’t sound as if we are going to even try to eradicate ISIS in Syria.

    As for collateral damage, yes, there will always be collateral damage. It is unavoidable in wars. But the U.S. military will try to limit that as best it can, and in truth, it does a remarkable job compared with most other militaries.