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An ISIL war plan based on aspirations and denial

President Obama's strategy fails to grasp the hard realities on the ground

September 25, 2014 6:00AM ET

Now that the United States has initiated airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria, we can see the launch of President Barack Obama’s full strategy to defeat this new enemy. Putting these military actions aside, there is much to question in the White House’s plans to train a Free Syrian Army, bolster the Kurds and build a coalition of allies in order to degrade and defeat ISIL.

No moderates

There are no moderates in the Syrian civil war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The statement by United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power that the Obama administration is seeking to train and support a Free Syrian Army made up of moderates is, at best, an aspiration based on no facts on the ground. At worst, it represents an effort to conceal the fact that the U.S. encouraged Muslim Brotherhood elements in Syria to revolt in 2011, which in turn formed the foundations of the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, or JN).

In the Syrian civil war theater, there are only two groups fighting to kill Assad and transform Syria into a radical Islamic nation: JN and ISIL. 

JN is a branch of Al-Qaeda, and all the subgroups that cooperate and fight alongside JN are as radical as Al-Qaeda. ISIL is a breakaway from Al-Qaeda, and ISIL’s difference with JN and Al-Qaeda is entirely ideological — for example, about the value and timing of declaring a caliphate. Otherwise, JN and ISIL are united as takfiri jihadists. They work together at the commander level in order to battle the hated Alawites, Hezbollah, Iranians and Americans. No formal declaration or signed document between JN and ISIL is needed; all is expedience.

The small distinction that is not a difference between JN and ISIL is that JN is sometimes willing to coexist with Iran while it attacks the Assad regime, whereas ISIL believes in killing all Shias.

In the Syrian civil war, the Syrian army is chiefly reduced to working on a battalion level. Assad counts on the support of elements from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), backed up by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. The combined power of JN and ISIL forces have stalemated the Assad regime.

The Obama administration’s plan to establish three training camps in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in order to produce a Free Syrian Army of several thousand over a year is, to put it kindly, a public relations gesture that ignores the fact that there are no nonjihadist rebels to be found in Syria.

No Kurdistan

The Kurds, meanwhile, are fully aware that they are being manipulated by the U.S., Iran and Turkey. The Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria are united in their century-old ambition to create a single sovereign state, Kurdistan. Inadequately armed, they are fighting ISIL in order to secure their territory and are not interested in launching offensively against ISIL in the parts of Iraq and Syria that are dominated by Sunni tribes and other groups. 

The prospects for the Obama administration to degrade and destroy or even to manage ISIL are grim. The prospects for a perpetual war of attrition throughout the Middle East, on the other hand, are excellent.

U.S. bombing in Iraqi Kurdistan has, in fact, helped the Iranians, not the Kurds. The U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIL in Syria that began Sept. 22 come very late to stem the advance by ISIL against the Syrian Kurds, who are fleeing in the tens of thousands across the border into Turkey.

U.S. combat elements, including special forces and paramilitary agents from the Central Intelligence Agency, are said to be in Iraqi Kurdistan and assisting IRGC combat forces, even though the IRGC is suppressing the Kurdish Iranian resistance, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan.

Iran is reportedly asking for concessions from the U.S. on the nuclear weapon inquiry before the United Nations Security Council in exchange for aid in combating ISIL. This trade will make plain what is already implicit on the ground in Iraq: a working alliance between U.S. special forces and intelligence teams and the IRGC.

Meanwhile, Ankara is seeking a buffer zone in northern Syria that appears to be part of the war on Assad but is in fact a prelude to crushing the Kurds in Syria and Iraq before they can trade their hard-fought battles against ISIL for statehood. 

No allies

During the airstrikes on ISIL and JN targets in Syria, the Obama administration announced that partner nations participated in the operation. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan were named. However, there was little clarity from the administration as to how the Arab states joined the U.S. effort. 

My information at present is that almost all the participation consisted of allowing the U.S. to use the airspace of those countries. Several Arab warplanes flew in the raids, but there is no substantive confirmation that those planes launched any weapons.

This detail is vital because the Arab states are uncertain allies in the White House’s strategy ahead. Their leaders told the U.S. immediately after Obama’s Sept. 10 speech that they were extremely reluctant to join in a campaign against ISIL, for fear of retaliation.

Even Jordan is hesitant, as it fears the radicalization of its large Palestinian population. Jordan’s Hashemite King Abdullah is faced with a dual threat from ISIL and native Muslim Brotherhood elements who aim to depose the regime.

The only groups that welcomed Obama’s plan are the Shias fighting in Syria and Iraq in defense of the Assad regime, whose long-term chances of surviving the civil war have been boosted by airstrikes.

In sum, the Sunni Arab world is divided between nations that actively support ISIL and JN, such as Turkey and Qatar, and those that passively support them, such as Saudi Arabia. Their support for takfiri jihadists who aim to tear down the kingdoms and emirates can seem paradoxical, but it must be considered in light of the thousand-year-old battle between Sunnis, led by Riyadh, and Shias, led by Tehran.

The prospects for the Obama administration to degrade and destroy or even to manage ISIL are grim. The prospects for a perpetual war of attrition throughout the Middle East, on the other hand, are excellent.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Iraq, Islamic State, Syria
Barack Obama

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