I admit to some initial ambivalence over the extension of the American-led air war against the Islamic State (I.S.) into Syria. After forty-two months of President Obama’s inaction in Syria, there was an irrepressible sense of “at last”. This quickly unravelled.
The initial complication was the “Khorasan Group,” which was also attacked in the first barrage of airstrikes inside Syria. The “Khorasan Group,” it transpired, was not actually a separate group but rather a set of individuals within al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra. These Khorassanites, as some in Syria refer to them, were al-Qaeda veterans imported into Syria partly to direct Nusra’s policy, but also, according to reports, with a focus on attacks against the West. CENTCOM explained that the airstrikes on the Khorassanites had averted an “imminent attack“. In such a case, there is nothing to argue with. Nusra had been given the space, especially over the winter of 2012/2013, to wage a vigorous food-for-fundamentalism campaign—becoming almost the sole distributer of food, energy, and blankets in the liberated areas of Syria at that time—and its fighting prowess, relative cleanliness, and focus on dawa (missionary work) in combination with social services, rather than the imposition of the shari’a, won it considerable support. If there was an imminent danger, however, the damage to the Western standing among the Syrians was unavoidable.
Unfortunately, suspicions arose quickly that the anti-Nusra strikes were more legal jujitsu than the sudden discovery of an al-Qaeda plot against the American homeland: whatever the doubts about the 2001 Authorisation for the Use of Force now that the I.S. has split from al-Qaeda, there can be no doubt the U.S. President can use force against al-Qaeda. But there is a more serious reason to be direly suspicious of the claims that the Khorassanites were close to a terrorist strike against the United States. Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti Salafi-jihadist whose life status is still unknown, was the supposed leader of this externally-focussed cell. Fadhli assisted Abu Musab az-Zarqawi in the founding of what was then al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) and is now the I.S., and did so from a Qaeda facilitation and finance network based in Iran. It was reported that the discovery of the Fadhli-led efforts to direct Nusra to terrorism against the West was “revealed by one of [Fadhli’s] bodyguards, named as Abu Rama, who was recently arrested by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” Now consider this. Fadhli moved from Iran to Syria, and apparently the Iranian regime, which is rather good at finding its enemies internally and controls large chunks of the security apparatus in Iraq and the whole security sector in Syria, didn’t notice. Moreover, as Michael Weiss put it,
“One wonders if US officials came by the same information independently, through, say, intercepts of communications between Waziristan and Idlib, or if Abu Rama’s intelligence was shared or coordinated between the Assad regime and those officials through an intermediary such as the Iraqi Security Forces or a European country’s spy service? Finally, how did the mukhabarat ‘recently’ capture Abu Rama?“
As Weiss concludes, the grave suspicion stands here that Iran’s leaders are “up to their old tricks of moving terrorist networks into Arab countries, only to then wind up those networks in order leverage sensitive intelligence with Washington.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, was in New York this week pressing Tehran’s argument that if the West could just get past the nuclear thing, wonders of co-operation against the “real” threat—namely Sunni terrorism—could begin. This rather leaves out the fact that we now have mountains of evidence that the Assad regime’s (i.e. Iran’s) strategy from the start of this in Syria was to empower the Islamic State enough to destroy the moderates, present to the world a binary choice—the regime or the I.S.—and try to draw the “international community,” and America specifically, in to put down the insurgency under the banner of the War on Terror.
In short, it seems that the intelligence that has led the U.S. into this very damaging predicament where it has struck at Nusra—needlessly antagonising a group whose focus was not yet on the West, splitting the anti-Assad coalition, and causing civilian casualties that can be used by the Islamic State (“If the raids had targeted the regime and a large number people had been killed by mistake, we would have said they were a sacrifice for our salvation.”)—was basically Iranian disinformation. The effort to turn the focus from the savagery of the Assad despotism and the Iranian theocracy’s bid for mastery of the region and nuclear weapons to the problems of Sunni jihadism has been essentially allowed to succeed. The U.S. has struck at I.S. in the east, where even the regime is now hitting it, and at Nusra, but does nothing to stop the I.S. advancing on Aleppo City where the regime is effectively providing it air cover, or attacking Kobane/Ayn al-Arab, and lets the regime follow Western strikes into Idlib with its barrel bombs, severely damaging those moderate rebels identified with Western power. All excuses ring hollow for overflying Assad’s instruments of mass-murder to hit only the force he willed into being as a means of preserving his regime.
Obama committed early to not helping the Syrians. In December 2011, Obama had told then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: “We have no intention to intervene militarily” in Syria. Obama misread (mostly because of wishful thinking) the situation in 2012, and believed Assad would fall, a vindication of his masterly inactivity. In the summer of 2012, it would not have taken much for the U.S. to decisively alter the balance: the rebellion had been taken into Aleppo City, four senior regime criminals had been killed, both of Syria’s two major cities were ablaze, and the nationalist rebels were in the lead—I.S. didn’t even exist and Nusra was a marginal and unpopular group. By year’s end, Nusra, with its greater finance, and the other Salafists, likewise with access to foreign funds, overtook the more secular groupings in the insurgency who had no external help, and this became another reason to avoid helping; it was too murky and the radicals were sure to run away with Syria. Meanwhile, with Iran’s help, the regime began to turn the tide.
Finally, however, Obama has been dragged into Syria. The Saudis believe they have secured a serious commitment from the Obama administration to bolster the moderate rebels. I’ll believe this when I see it. Obama has repeatedly said this whenever the public pressure about his lack of a Syria policy has become too much, and every time it has proven a mirage. At West Point in May, Obama committed to helping the Syrian rebels, whom he noted were the only serious anti-I.S. force on the ground—the only ones who had actually both tried and succeeded against the takfiris (Assad has done neither). It never happened. The $500 million he demanded from Congress for the operation still hasn’t passed; in his speech announcing the extension of strikes into Syria this month, Obama blamed Congress for not moving quickly enough. The problem comes down to the fact that despite a commitment to regime-change in Syria made in August 2011, Obama has never been serious about it. In his speech at the United Nations this week, Obama made no mention of the horrors of the Assad regime: his focus was entirely on the Islamic State—which is why Assad’s officials were so very pleased with it. Obama also continues to deride the “mythology” that helping the moderate rebels earlier would have forestalled the rise of the Islamic State—despite the testimony to the contrary of Frederic Hof, who oversaw the Syria desk at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, the former CIA Director and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, and indeed Mrs. Clinton herself. (Obama also continues to say that the U.S. did not know who the rebels were, something Ford says is a flat-out lie.)
All the way back in June, it was quite obvious that what was needed to defeat the Islamic State was to support proxy forces that were already fighting it and which align with our own interests—namely the Iraqi Kurds and the Syrian rebels. But, as I also argued, “The crucial thing … is not to be drawn in by the Iranian theocracy’s attempt to capitalise on [the I.S. threat].” The threat from the I.S. is very real, especially to Europe, but the threat from Iran is much greater. Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech at the U.N. said that unless the world was prepared to allow the I.S. enrichment capability, it must not allow Iran one; he doesn’t overstate by much. (Iran, after all, under the “moderate” Rowhani, has just executed a man for doubting that the story of Jonah and the whale is literally true.) The realists who accept that Iran is a threat will often say that whatever the threat from the nukes, Iran’s asymmetric capabilities are the most immediate concern. This is true but ignores the fact that those asymmetric threats, like terrorism and subversion, become much more dangerous under a nuclear canopy. Without nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime has effectively seized Syria and Iraq, and its proxies are equally as savage as the I.S., equally committed to unravelling the region’s borders, and better financed, trained, and organised. Meanwhile, the Hizballah carries on a global campaign of violence against Americans and Jews. The response has been weak enough as it is to Iran even after it has tried assassinations in Washington, D.C.: with nuclear ambiguity behind them, the West’s response will be weaker still.
The place to start in checking the Iranian theocracy and working toward its overthrow was always Syria, and while it is extremely late that is still the theatre in which to begin rolling back Iranian influence. There is no moral justification for striking at the I.S. while leaving Iran’s proxy regime alone; the regime has raped, tortured, and murdered (often in that order) many more people than the I.S., and reduced an entire country to ruins with artillery and fighter jets. Nor is there a strategic justification. To destroy the Takfiri Caliphate and leave Clerical Iran as master of the Fertile Crescent would be an epochal calamity.