On Wednesday night, President Obama gave a speech, the purport of which was to be a war plan to defeat the Islamic State (I.S.). Indeed in the speech the President committed to a “roll back” of the territory the I.S. had conquered, and to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Takfiri Caliphate. But as to how he was going to do that, the details were few.
The speech started very strangely by declaring that the I.S. was “not Islamic” and “not a State,” thus the tacit justification for Obama continuing to refer to “ISIL”. There are a few problems with this. One is simply lexicographical: if the objection is to the group calling itself “The Islamic State,” it seems odd to call it “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”; all you’ve done is award it territory, as well as its religious and governance structure. More seriously, it is not for non-Muslims to say what is “true” Islam, and even for Muslims there is a grave trapdoor, as I and others have pointed out, in saying that some groups of people are not “real” Muslims. At the root of I.S.’s hyper-zealotry, the one thing that marks it off even from al-Qaeda, is its widespread use of takfir, the declaration that some Muslims are heretics, and Islam is very clear that the penalty for apostasy, for a Muslim abandoning his faith, is death. The moderates who try to discredit the holy warriors by saying they aren’t Muslims are going to find that the tactic redounds on them: they will have legitimated takfir, and it will not be moderates who prevail in such an environment.
The speech was extremely convoluted but as best as can be told there were two main changes announced. First,
“Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.”
The Iraqis were asked to form an “inclusive” government, and now have, says Obama, so a “systematic campaign of airstrikes” will be launched in co-ordination with this government. Second,
“we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.”
This might seem to be obviously referring to the Syrian rebellion, the only force with any record of success against the Islamic State, and it does—eventually. But Obama primarily means America’s own Special Forces, the Peshmerga, and what is politely still being called “the Iraqi Army,” a force that has all-but disintegrated and the remnants of which now fight with, and under the direction of, Khomeini’ist jihadists led by Iranian intelligence agents.
Whatever else the Iraqi government is, it is not inclusive. The replacement of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi was an “Iranian victory,” as Hussain Abdul-Hussain has pointed out: something that gives Tehran “evermore control” of Iraq and which meant “Iran got the West and Sunnis to fight its fight”. But President Obama continues to insist this change was brought about under American pressure for inclusivity. Abadi still holds the Interior and Defence portfolios—the great vice of the Maliki autocracy, where he held multiple Cabinet posts related to security—and had wanted to give Interior to Hadi al-Amiri, the commander of the Badr Brigade. Badr is a close Iranian proxy that was heavily involved in the sectarian violence that nearly pushed Iraq into the abyss, and its members penetrated the police and Interior Ministry, torturing, raping, and murdering on a massive scale. (A special focus of Badr was a campaign of extermination against homosexuals, begun around 2009 when the sectarian violence had died down and people began to wonder why it was necessary for racketeers and religious fanatics to be allowed to keep weapons—to protect the community from Western-imported immorality was Badr’s answer.)
Many warned from at the least time of the fall of Mosul that above all else the United States must not be drawn into a sectarian war on the side of Iran, which is to say that the U.S. must not be the guarantor of the Iraqi government, which is now an instrument of Iranian State power. The recent events in Amerli, where Iran’s proxies beheaded prisoners after American airstrikes helped them conquer the area, show the danger of being Iran’s air force. The behaviour of Iran’s proxies was so savage that Muqtada Sadr distanced himself from it. But Qassem Suleimani did not, appearing in a photograph with the religious militia that had taken over the town. With the knowledge that the U.S. had helped bring this about, the Islamic State could hardly ask for more in recruitment terms.
Obama’s message on how Syria fits into this was three-fold. First, the President took credit for getting the chemical weapons out of Syria. Given that the U.N. inspectors are heading back to Syria because they believe they have been lied to about what Assad possessed, and that OPCW has confirmed that chlorine gas was used against Syria’s civilians after this great “deal” was put in place, this seems a little off-key. Add to that that the death toll at the time—110,000—has now doubled and celebrating this Kremlin-orchestrated scheme seems more incongruous still.
Second, and rolled out as a major announcement,
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq.”
But it was very clear that there would be no “systematic” campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. It was known that the U.S. had undertaken a raid to try to free James Foley and Steven Sotloff in July 2014. In other words, this was no announcement: limited strikes and not letting borders be a deterrent to pursuing terrorists is something the President has long supported.
Finally, on the Syrian opposition, the President said:
“[W]e have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress … to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people—a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
The distancing from Assad is somewhat less than absolute: “cannot rely on” is not the same as “will not work with”. It is not serious to blame Congress for the failure of the Executive to institute its policy. The President announced at West Point in May that he intended to build-up the Syrian opposition. One of the President’s representatives said this was “an ongoing focus for us as we head into the summer.” That sounded rather less-than-urgent, but if it had at least been completed by the end of the summer it would have been something. It has not been. The Syrians had rebelled against the Islamic State in January. By May, Latakia and Idlib were “completely free” of the I.S., as was most of Aleppo and parts of Deir Ezzor. There couldn’t have been a clearer opportunity. But right now, the I.S. have conquered Deir Ezzor entirely and are advancing on Aleppo with a chance to put an end to the rebellion entirely. If the Syrian opposition is the “best counterweight” to extremism—as it is—why has it taken three-and-a-half years to help it?
This highlights the main problem with the whole speech: it is an attempt to at least rhetorically change course—the I.S. is now a lethal menace not a “jayvee team“—with absolutely no admission that the President has gotten anything wrong so far. The suggestion that his abandoning the people who rose up and called out for his help in Syria contributed to the rise of the Islamic State is one of the few things that seems to provoke him to losing his notorious cool (“horseshit,” was the exact word used in a recent meeting with a Senator who put this argument to him.)
There were other minor problems. The veering section on how well the economy was doing, and the add-on at the end about how successful had been his Russia policy, were strange, and smacked of attempts to change the subject. Obama’s continued stance that “I have the authority” to deal with national security, but wants Congress invested anyway, is also unhelpful: the President lost the vote he never held on the Syrian strikes a year ago and everybody knows it; the suspicion that that was the point will linger. The President’s trying to help people “understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” likewise conveyed a message that his foreign policy can be vetoed by the pollsters. The President might believe that encouraging the Sunni States to encourage the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq to revolt against the Islamic State—especially after they just did in Deir Ezzor, but were crushed and mercilessly slaughtered after they received exactly no help from the U.S.—is “American leadership at its best,” but the Sunni States don’t seem to agree. They’ve already taken matters into their own hands in Libya, and the most important of them—Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—are unwilling to put themselves forward for a strategy they believe will be, as all previous ones have been on Syria, more rhetoric than action. Obama’s claiming credit for saving the Yazidis is fine—even if the Syrian Kurds had a larger role than is being admitted—but it has to be wondered why only “religious minorities” warrant humanitarian rescue and not Syria’s Sunni majority.
It takes a lot to decipher but the takeaways seem to be: (1) More airstrikes in Iraq, not just humanitarian and to protect U.S. facilities; (2) more support to the Peshmerga and “the Iraqi Army”; (3) more support to the Syrian opposition if Congress votes for it; and (4) the Islamic State will not be safe behind the Syrian border they’ve demolished. The overriding theme for Iraq is that tacit U.S. co-operation with Iran will continue, and for Syria the Obama attempt to keep it at arm’s length goes on. It doesn’t take a cynic to believe that this is unlikely to succeed in uprooting the Islamic State.