Obama bites more than he can chew, again
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Washington DC. September 15, 2014
In a September 10 speech, President Obama promised too much: to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The US president will most likely be as “successful” in wiping out ISIL ( the militants calling themselves the Islamic State) as he has been in enhancing US relations with the Muslim world, stopping the Israeli settlements and revitalizing the peace process.
The root-cause of terror systems in the Middle East is hard to eradicate; the cause feeds on Sunni-Shiite rivalry, poverty and unemployment, entrenched despotic dynasties, political humiliation, and foreign meddling in local affairs. The belief system of ISIL has three ideas: Islam is the “solution”, the “West is responsible” for much of what goes wrong in the Middle East, and local rulers are co-opted “agents” of the West.
Despite their stark violations of Islam, terror groups appeal to many in troubled Mideast communities, particularly growing youth populations and to an expanding class of fanatic intellectuals. Such alienated groups are highly suspicious of the outside world, particularly the US and its closest ally in the region, Israel.
The Obama four-point strategy (expanded air strikes against ISIS, enhanced military training to “moderate” Syrian rebels, reinforced counter-terror intelligence and humanitarian assistance to affected minority groups) underestimates the support which ISIL has mobilized in the communities it controls. The American military plan, which relies heavily on drones, is also oblivious to the possible increase of local community support to ISIL if the US intervention takes a long time, is severely destructive to civilian life and leads to wider foreign military presence.
The airpower strategy does not effectively use solid ground troops. It is supplemented by weak Arab forces which will now receive additional US training in, out of all places, Saudi Arabia. By hosting US military training, Saudi Arabia will expose itself to unpredictable internal pressures. Saudi Arabia receives millions of pilgrims annually; this religious state is not suitable for military capacity building. If the assault on ISIL drags on, Saudi Arabia will be accused of becoming a Western agent of foreign armies. It is ironic that the Saudis, who are partially responsible for the swelling of Mujahidin fighters and the proliferation of fanatic religious schools around the globe, are now financing the reversal of such efforts.
No single Arab country has promised direct military confrontation with ISIL. The autonomous Kurdish forces, which are battle-hardened, can make a difference in fighting terror groups, but not enough to guarantee success.
Iraq has so far relied primarily on its Shiite militias in fighting (Sunni) ISIL; this is a counterproductive, sectarian approach to a devastating national crisis.
Training the “moderate”, but terribly divided, Syrian rebels will take much time, and it has proven ineffective. Are the Syrian rebels expected to fight the Syrian national army as well as ISIL? Recent reports reveal the reluctance, or even rejection, of some Syrian rebel groups to cooperate with the US in order to focus on their collective uprising against Assad.
One additional card remains unclear in this complex game of power: Israel, being on the Golan border with Syria, may sooner or later be provoked. If and when Israel enters this complicated conflict, ISIS may suddenly appear less dangerous to Arab societies. Considering ISIL’s threat on its borders, Israel now finds President Assad acceptable.
In teaming with one ideological (pro-Western and largely Sunni) side of the Arab world Washington is provoking another side. Such an ideological approach will not contribute effectively to conflict resolution; it may unintentionally reinforce ethnic and sectarian tension.
To defeat ISIL strong local armies on the ground are needed. The US coalition against ISIL excludes the most powerful adversaries of ISIL- the Syrian army, Iran and Hezbollah. If the US does not exclude Iran and the Syrian army in building its regional and international coalition against terror it is possible to defeat ISIL. Should Tehran and the Damascus national army cooperate, overtly or covertly, with the US and the Sunni Arab world in defeating ISIL there would be an opportunity to revisit the shelved plans of rebuilding a fractured Syria, and for the reconciliation of Iran with Saudi Arabia, the two leaders of the Shiite and Sunnite world, respectively.
The risk of failure of Obama’s strategy could be disastrous. Fighting ISIL from the skies – with unprepared local armies and a strategy that ignores relevant regional issues and augments existing local tension- could strengthen terror groups and further fragment Syria and Iraq, not to mention Lebanon and Jordan.
Obama cannot afford to end his second presidential term with ISIL surviving and possibly growing in strength.
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