I wanted to share a few thoughts on Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and where this leaves the United States in terms of Syria, Iraq and the entirety of the Middle East where, with all our withdrawals, we still remain involved and at war in various ways. I do not believe we can properly assess what happened in Paris without noting that it is less the product of an organization or statelet on the march than one under threat. ISIS has managed to hold on in the face of significant Western military intervention over the last year. But the physical footprint of ISIS has been reduced by roughly 25%.
Over the last few weeks ISIS appears (we’re not certain about claims of responsibility in every case) to have launched major terror attacks in Beirut, Ankara, Paris and on a Russian jetliner over Sinai. This is a dramatic turnabout for ISIS which has generally been content to operate within Syria and Iraq. We cannot know precisely why this change has happened. But the most straightforward explanation is that as it loses ground in its territorial area of control it has decided to open a new front, launching asymmetric attacks on the territory of countries fighting it from the air in Syria. The downing of the Russian jetliner, just weeks after the Russian military entered the conflict to prop up Assad really could not be clearer.
The other point to note is that we helped create the terror state that we lied to each other about existing 15 years ago in Iraq – a revisionist state, unencumbered by any of the constraints of the modern state system and ready and wiling to conduct mass casualty terror attacks against its enemies in the region and around the globe. That is a genuine threat not just to our physical safety in the United States but to our network of allies in the region as well – Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, et al. This doesn’t even get into the treatment of non-Sunni Muslims and Sunni Muslims who don’t ascribe to the ISIS brand of Islam within ISIS controlled territory. I think it is worth noting that we helped to create this. We didn’t create it ourselves. There is much at play here beyond imperialism and the other legitimate grievances the people of the Muslim Middle East hold against the West.
I don’t know what the precise best policies here are. But I do have a clear idea of several of the building blocks. The first recalls something I said a few weeks ago, which is that it is folly to be actively engaged against both sides in a civil war, which is effectively what we are now doing. Such a policy may have a cynical logic when you have two hostile entities which you want to see wear each other down and pulverize each other – much as we did during the Iran-Iraq War in 1980s. That is not the current situation. The Assad regime, while bloody, does not in any way pose an immediate threat to the United States.
We need to redefine our Syria policy around the goal of the physical elimination of ISIS as a territorial entity and the physical destruction of its top leaders. If that means accepting the continuance of Assad family rule in at least rump Syria than we need to accept that – even though he’s backed by regional adversaries Russia and Iran. Again, how serious are we about eliminating ISIS? I’d say not very serious if we’re still hung up on Assad.
I fully realize that Assad has resorted to a massive amount of bloodletting to hold on to power. But his need “to go” has something of a over-precious talisman quality for the standard characters in Washington. We need to decide: what’s really important? Really important. Not makes us feel good or what’s preferable or even what we said we wanted thee years ago but are afraid to unwant. What’s really important.I think it’s clear that breaking ISIS is really important. Ending the Assad regime would be great. But we can live with Assad. And more concretely, we can deal with Assad later, once we’ve dealt with ISIS. I would note that people who actually know Syria as area experts and in most cases despised the Assad regime long before it become a popular topic of parlor conversation in Washington think it is folly to think you can have regime change without state collapse in Syria. Here, for instance, is Juan Cole writing in The Nation …
The threats in Syria have to be seen as fourfold: Daesh, Al Qaeda, the hard-line anti-democratic Salafis, and the Baath regime of Assad. They cannot all be addressed simultaneously, but rather have to be dealt with in turn, with the most dangerous taken on first. From a Western point of view, defeating Daesh and Al Qaeda surely should take precedence over removing Assad, though he has so much blood on his hands that he must eventually be made to step down as well. But violently overthrowing the Baath regime now would simply assure that Daesh or Al Qaeda would sweep into Damascus and take over all of Syria. If Daesh can do so much damage to Paris as a small, landlocked desert statelet with a population of some 3 million under its control, imagine how dangerous it would be if it had a whole country of 20 million, with airports and a major seaport.
In contrast, the Saudis prioritize overthrowing Assad and are entirely unafraid of Daesh and Al Qaeda. They are actively promoting the illiberal hard-line Salafis who would oppress Syrian Alawite Shiites, Christians, Druze, and secular Sunnis—some two-thirds of the country. Riyadh’s priorities are positively dangerous to the West, and a further catastrophe waiting to happen for unfortunate Syria.
I don’t agree with Juan about everything. There are many things I disagree with him about. And people who somehow imagine he’s a pacifist are greatly mistaken. But I think his stance on this is a good touchstone for the outlines of a proper policy. I don’t think anyone takes second place to Juan on understanding the barbarity of the Assad regime. But he can see the great gulf between the two entities. He also points us to what we do not seem willing to talk about – which is that our ‘allies’ the Saudis seem at best indifferent to the rise of ISIS. That’s a big problem.
The real challenge we face – and it’s an immense one – is that even if you pulverize the ISIS state you have a continuing structural problem, which is a restive, aggrieved Sunni population which feels, accurately, disenfranchised by non-Sunni governments in Baghdad and Damascus. To achieve even a modicum of a post ISIS solution, that reality has to be addressed. Though I am not proposing we do so, the US and/or NATO could certainly destroy ISIS as a state by invading its territory. But that would only leave us occupying an aggrieved and resentful population where our presence would further intensify the sort of religious/nationalist sentiments which created ISIS in the first place. That is at best only a step in a solution. It is not a solution in itself.
Here’s what I see as the real conundrum we currently face. Yes, at a minimum, we popped the cork off this hell storm when we overthrew the Iraqi regime. But saying that doesn’t address the immediate situation. We are pressed up against the unresolved and quite possibly unsustainable borders drawn after World War I, based on the wartime Sykes-Picot Agreement. Quite simply, after destroying ISIS, it’s not clear to me how the Sunni population in the ISIS zone is going to be governed by a Iran-leaning Shia dominated Iraqi state to the southeast or an Alewite-dominated Shia and Iran-leaning state to the West. Absent some change in that equation, I think the region inevitably slips back into the hands of Sunni militancy – much as it did in the middle years of the US presence in Iraq.
So simply destroying ISIS seems insufficient and unrealistic as a way to bring about some measure of stability and even passably humane government to this region. If there were already strong states in place, they could likely contain these discontents. But you have different degrees of state collapse in both Iraq and Syria. It’s hard for me to see how you can stand up not a democratic or perhaps even a wholesome state structure but any viable state structure in that region if it is not independent or at least autonomous from Baghdad and Damascus and run by Sunni Muslims.
Of course, if a new Sunni state emerges in that area, you inevitably reopen the question of Kurdistan – a national entity which cuts across the borders of various states. That threatens the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq and more importantly Turkey and Iran. That is a tough challenge that I don’t have and haven’t seen a clear answer to.
What I do know is this. ISIS is a genuine threat to us and our allies. In recent weeks, they’ve killed more than a hundred people in Paris, downed a Russian jetliner and appear to have carried out major attacks in Beirut and Ankara. They are a real and present threat. Assad is not a clear or present threat to us. Our policy is a contradiction and a losing one. We can deal with Assad later. In Washington circles it’s become a conceit. Our policy in Syria should be to destroy ISIS. Everything else can come after that.