Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.
He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”
In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.
I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.
All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.
But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:
Yesterday, Max Boot criticized the Obama administration for the timing of the designation of the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist group. Timing and coherence is not the Obama administration’s forte: If the Obama administration was a person and had a meeting at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, it would show up promptly at 4 p.m. the following Thursday. I largely agree with Max’s analysis:
On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front? Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition….
I disagree with Max’s implication that the Obama administration should have held off its designation. Max writes, “However justifiable morally, the designation of the Al Nusra Front makes little tactical sense at this moment. From the rebels’ perspective it is simply playing into Assad’s hands without doing anything concrete to bolster the non-jihadist opposition.”
The New York Times has an amusing article today about how Madeleine Albright, Wesley Clark, and other former Clinton administration officials and generals are trying to cash in in Kosovo, which American intervention rescued from Serbian oppression. As a result of the Clinton administration’s actions, Kosovo has become one of the most pro-American places in the world with streets named after both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and a statue of Clinton in the capital, Pristina.
What are the odds, I wonder, that there will be any similar outpouring of pro-American affection in Syria where, instead of intervening, the Obama administration is standing by even as the death toll climbs north of 45,000? The administration has now recognized a rebel government and blacklisted the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization but these small, symbolic steps are hardly leading to an outpouring of affection for Uncle Sam. Far from it. Indeed, as another Times article reports:
The Obama administration’s policy on Syria continues to lurch forward incoherently, the latest development being the designation of the Al Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front?
Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition. But the U.S. has so far provided no meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition—certainly not arms. The Al Nusra Front has been growing increasingly prominent precisely because it is getting more outside support than other groups—in its case not only from Al Qaeda in Iraq but also from Gulf states.