Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

The Unavoidable Costs of Inaction in the Middle East

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times. Read More

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times.
From the Los Angeles Times:

Islamic State militants’ attempts to inspire Americans to launch attacks at home pose a bigger threat to the U.S. than Al Qaeda, the head of the FBI said Wednesday.

From The Hill:

The Army’s top officer said Tuesday it was “frustrating” to watch the gains U.S. troops helped achieve in Iraq unravel with the entrance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and that the chaos “might have been prevented.”

“It’s frustrating to watch it,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Fox News in an exclusive interview weeks away from his retirement after 39 years in the Army.

“I go back to the work we did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and we got it to a place that was really good. Violence was low, the economy was growing, politics looked like it was heading in the right direction,” he said.

Odierno, who commanded at various levels in Iraq during the war, said “I think it would have been good for us to stay,” when asked by Fox News if it was a mistake to pull out.

There you have it: The biggest terrorist threat we face was created, in no small measure, by President Obama’s pullout from Iraq, which was hardly necessary; all indications were that if the president truly wanted to reach a deal to keep U.S. troops, he would have been able to do so. That, combined with Obama’s failure to intervene early on in Syria’s civil war, created the conditions under Islamic State has become such a potent threat.

That is worth keeping in mind the next time that Obama slams the Iraq War or claims that his political adversaries are warmongers. (Which, by my watch, should occur in the next five minutes.)

Yes, it’s true that sometimes getting involved in a war is a mistake, and (based on what we now know in hindsight) the Iraq War was one of those times. It was true, too, that the war was terribly mismanaged until the surge (which Obama opposed), resulting in much needless death and destruction. But what Obama’s tenure in office has shown is that not getting involved in a war — or ending our involvement in a war prematurely — also carries terrible costs. We are seeing those costs now with the rise of ISIS, and also the rise of Iran. Heaven knows what will happen in Afghanistan if the president carries out his pledge to withdraw entirely before he leaves office.

Getting involved in the Middle East carries costs, true. But what we are now seeing is the heavy cost of nonintervention, and it is Pollyannaish to imagine that the price will be paid exclusively by Iraqis or Syrians, or even by the Israelis and Turks, the French and British. Americans, too, will pay the price for the president’s tragically misguided foreign policy which is inadvertently aiding the rise of our enemies

 

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ISIS’s Evil Cannot Be Contained

“Evil isn’t always defeated.”

So says former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin about ISIS. “It suddenly just occurred to me, if you add everything up, that these guys could win,” he told the New York TimesRead More

“Evil isn’t always defeated.”

So says former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin about ISIS. “It suddenly just occurred to me, if you add everything up, that these guys could win,” he told the New York Times

He isn’t the only one thinking along those lines. Stephen Walt of Harvard, notorious for his attacks on pro-Israel supporters as a Fifth Column, recently penned an essay entitled, “What should we do if the Islamic State wins?”

It is accurate to point out that ISIS has been withstanding a year’s worth of ineffectual American air attacks — that it has actually expanded its domain during the time it has been under low-level American assault. It certainly makes sense to worry that on the current trajectory the Islamic State, notwithstanding its extreme brutality (or perhaps because of it), will have a dismayingly long life.

But the question is what conclusion do you draw from these accurate observations? My conclusion is that we need to do more to defeat ISIS. Walt and others among the chattering classes, however, seem to be falling prey to a corrosive defeatism that holds that an ISIS victory is no big deal.

Sure, ISIS burns prisoners alive and beheads them. Sure, it enslaves and rapes women, murders Shiites and non-Muslims en masse, and destroys priceless antiquities. But, hey writes Walt, who are we to object when our own ancestors “massacred, raped, and starved Native Americans”? And that’s to say nothing of those really bad guys, “the Zionists who founded Israel.”

Sure, ISIS is guilty of excesses, but so were other revolutionary movements such as the Bolsheviks and Chinese communists, who were ostracized for decades by the West before they calmed down and assumed their rightful place in “the international community.” Why can’t we look forward to the day when ISIS will have a seat at the United Nations?  Walt suggests that we practice “containment” until ISIS, too, cools down and starts acting like a normal state.

Where to begin with an argument so spectacularly misguided? Perhaps it’s worth pointing out the obvious — that while Americans, Britons, and lots of other people did things in centuries past that we would today consider abhorrent, they were, by contemporary standards, pretty civilized. While it’s true, for example, that English settlers massacred Indians, it’s also true that Indians massacred English settlers. It was a more brutal world back then.

The groups that ISIS most resembles historically are not the Americans or Britons, but rather berserkers such as the Mongols and Vikings and Huns who wiped out the civilizations they encountered. And, yes, it’s true that in the long run they blended with more settled societies and settled down — but then, as they say, in the long run, we are all dead.

So, too, more contemporary monsters such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong eventually tired of mass murder. After their deaths, the states they created became less savage. But that’s scant comfort to the tens of millions of people who were the victims of these tyrants.

And it is not just Russians or Chinese who suffered. The U.S. was drawn into World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — conflicts that cost us hundreds of thousands of fatalities — as a result of the communist victories in Russia and China. (Stalin helped Hitler rearm in the 1930s and agreed with him to partition Poland, the act which launched World War II. After the war, China and Russia gave Kim Il-Sung and Ho Chi Minh the go-ahead to launch their wars of aggression.) It is hardly comforting to know that today Russia and China are more civilized — especially because they aren’t that civilized. China is still ruled by communists and Russia by a former KGB agent, and both are still threats to their neighbors and the United States.

Another example makes the same point: The Iranian revolution is pretty long in the tooth now (it’s been in power since 1979), but Iran’s revolutionary zeal has not dimmed. It’s still supporting brutal proxies such as Hezbollah and Bashar Assad who have been responsible for more than 200,000 deaths in Syria’s civil war. Now, of course, its war of aggression against its neighbors is going to receive a massive injection of resources by way of the nuclear deal that President Obama has just negotiated, so we can expect Iranian attacks to grow.

Thus, the notion that we can sit back comfortably and wait for ISIS to moderate is pretty farcical. Perhaps that will happen in a hundred years, but who will live long enough to see it? How many innocents will have been tortured and murdered in the meantime?

This is not just a human rights issue for those unfortunate enough today to live in the Islamic State. Remember that the emergence of revolutionary regimes in Russia and China (or for that matter in France in 1789), was not just a matter of concern for their own citizens. Those regimes sparked wars and spread revolutions that affected their neighbors — and in the case of the communist regimes, states from Africa to Latin America.

Likewise today ISIS is busy sprouting “provinces” from Libya to Afghanistan and inspiring lone-wolf jihadists to murder their neighbors wherever they may live. Like Taliban-era Afghanistan, the Islamic State has become a magnet for foreign extremists, some of whom are sure to receive training that they will put to use in their home countries. ISIS has already done much to destabilize its neighbors — having spread from Syria to Iraq, it is also now carrying out suicide bombings in Turkey and elsewhere. And the threat is getting worse all the time.

This is not a threat that can be “contained.” If we can’t stop foreign fighters from going into Syria, how do we stop them from coming out? How do we prevent ISIS from using the Internet and cell phones to communicate with fighters around the world? (That’s gotten especially hard to do because of Edward Snowden’s revelations.) How can we stop ISIS’s rabid ideology from spreading murder and mayhem not only across the Middle East but around the world wherever Muslims might be radicalized by its message?

The answer is we can’t. The only way to dim ISIS’s ideological appeal – and, hence, end its reign of terror — is, as Graeme Wood argued in The Atlantic, to destroy its caliphate. Mercifully that is a realistic objective because ISIS is not as remotely as powerful as the Soviet Union or Red China. Yes, in the case of those superpowers, we had to accommodate ourselves to evil. But ISIS is not yet a superpower — and it will never be if we do more to destroy it today while it still remains vulnerable.

 

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ISIS Picks the Wrong Fight

ISIS may well come to regret the day it chose to mess with Turkey.

A suicide bomber, believed to be an ISIS member, has killed at least 31 people in the southern Turkish town of Suruc near the Syrian border. The victims — including three beautiful young women who took a selfie together moments before they were killed — were members of socialist youth groups who had congregated to work on rebuilding the town of Kobani in northern Syrian, which had been taken by Kurdish fighters from ISIS in January after a bloody months-long fight. Read More

ISIS may well come to regret the day it chose to mess with Turkey.

A suicide bomber, believed to be an ISIS member, has killed at least 31 people in the southern Turkish town of Suruc near the Syrian border. The victims — including three beautiful young women who took a selfie together moments before they were killed — were members of socialist youth groups who had congregated to work on rebuilding the town of Kobani in northern Syrian, which had been taken by Kurdish fighters from ISIS in January after a bloody months-long fight.

Turkey has long had an ambivalent relationship with ISIS. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a Sunni Islamist who has called for the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime, which is backed by Shiite Iran. In the fight against Assad, Erdoğan has thrown in his lot with the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He has not exactly supported ISIS, at least not insofar as we know, but he has not done much to stop it either. He has been notoriously lax on border security, allowing many thousands of foreign recruits to cross from Turkey into Syria. And when the fight in Kobani was going on, directly visible from the Turkish border, he did nothing to help the Kurdish fighters because he doesn’t want to boost Kurdish separatism.

But in recent days, Erdoğan had ordered a roundup of ISIS activists, and that may have helped trigger this suicide bombing.

Let us hope that the Suruc suicide bombing will further awaken Erdoğan to the danger posed by ISIS. Because if Turkey gets serious about fighting ISIS, there is rather a lot it can do. It could, for a start, use its substantial army to create “safe zones” across the border in Turkey which could not be threatened either by ISIS or Assad — safe zones where the more moderate Syrian opposition could establish itself. If Turkey were really on the warpath, its army could probably destroy the entire caliphate, at least the part on the Syrian side of the border, in fairly short order. Turkish participation in the Syrian civil war could be a game changer, conceivably even leading to a peaceful resolution of the conflict as Syria’s own involvement in the Lebanese civil war in the 1990s did.

The problem, from Turkey’s perspective, is that as a Sunni state it is not going to fight ISIS if that redounds to the advantage of Assad. If the hints delivered from Erdoğan are to be believed, he has been looking for Washington to endorse a more balanced policy that is both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS. Under those circumstances, Turkey might be convinced to play a more active and positive role in Syria. But, of course, the odds of President Obama stepping up in Syria are scant — especially not when he is in the midst of a grand rapprochement with Iran which doesn’t care much about ISIS one way or the other, but that does desperately want Assad to remain in power.

Thus in all likelihood this opportunity to harness Turkish outrage will pass, allowing Iran and ISIS to continue dividing up Syria between them.

 

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The Terror We Couldn’t Stop

On Friday, the families of four American Marines awoke to a world without their loved ones. They had their lives stolen from them by a gunman, 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who stormed a recruiting station and opened fire on the unarmed service personnel. American officials have advised the public not to rush to conclusions about the attacker’s motives. That’s good advice, but we shouldn’t subordinate common sense to a political ideal. Abdulazeez’s motives are not difficult to discern. Though the attacker did not share many of his thoughts online, those posts he did compose were, according to the Daily Beast, “written in a popular style of Islamic religious reasoning.” He fantasized about the afterlife and described at length how he had little regard for his meaningless corporeal form. He may have taken trips to Yemen and Jordan before executing this suicidal attack. In carrying out an assault on American soldiers, he was following an Islamic State directive. This apparent act of terrorism in Chattanooga is just one of the many efforts of ISIS-linked or ISIS-inspired attackers to execute terrorist attacks inside the United States. It is a demonstration of the terrifying fact that there will always be holes in the net and, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the threat to the homeland cannot be entirely abrogated without neutralizing the source of terrorism overseas. Read More

On Friday, the families of four American Marines awoke to a world without their loved ones. They had their lives stolen from them by a gunman, 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who stormed a recruiting station and opened fire on the unarmed service personnel. American officials have advised the public not to rush to conclusions about the attacker’s motives. That’s good advice, but we shouldn’t subordinate common sense to a political ideal. Abdulazeez’s motives are not difficult to discern. Though the attacker did not share many of his thoughts online, those posts he did compose were, according to the Daily Beast, “written in a popular style of Islamic religious reasoning.” He fantasized about the afterlife and described at length how he had little regard for his meaningless corporeal form. He may have taken trips to Yemen and Jordan before executing this suicidal attack. In carrying out an assault on American soldiers, he was following an Islamic State directive. This apparent act of terrorism in Chattanooga is just one of the many efforts of ISIS-linked or ISIS-inspired attackers to execute terrorist attacks inside the United States. It is a demonstration of the terrifying fact that there will always be holes in the net and, despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the threat to the homeland cannot be entirely abrogated without neutralizing the source of terrorism overseas.

Abdulazeez is hardly the first American to try to execute attacks on soft targets in the United States, but he was among the more successful. Since the start of 2015, there have been a substantial number of terror plots that were halted in the planning stages and aspiring terrorist actors charged with conspiring to stage attacks.

In January, Ohio-based 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell was arrested after purchasing two Armalite M-15 model semiautomatic rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition. According to the FBI affidavit, he was allegedly planning to stage a terror attack on the U.S. Capitol Building similar to the October 2014 attack on Canadian parliament. Cornell told the undercover federal agent who helped him to plan the attack before facilitating his arrest that he wanted to execute the attack in ISIS’s name.

Just a few weeks later, three Brooklyn men were arrested after pledging to target the President of the United States in an assassination attempt and “martyr” themselves for ISIS’ cause. Investigators allege that they three men planned to travel to Turkey in order to cross the border into Syria where they would join in the jihadist fight to expand the nascent ISIS caliphate.

In mid-March, a United States National Guardsman and his cousin were arrested after allegedly plotting to use American military uniforms to infiltrate an Illinois Guards base and stage a Fort Hood-style attack on U.S. service personnel. “I wish only to serve in the army of Allah, alongside my true brothers,” wrote National Guards Solider Hasan Edmonds who was arrested while attempting to flee to Cairo.

In April, John T. Booker Jr., a 20-year-old Topeka resident, was arrested “while making final preparations for the suicide car bomb attack” on the U.S. Army Base at Fort Riley, according to the FBI.

On June 7, a New York City student was arrested after investigators learned that he had been researching designs for a pressure cooker improvised explosive device similar to those used to kill three and wound hundreds more at the Boston Marathon in 2013. When federal agents attempted to execute the arrest by pulling over a car driven by, 20-year-old Munther Omar Saleh, he and an accomplice jumped out of their vehicle and rushed the arresting agents. “Authorities said a knife was found on the man Saleh was with,” Fox News reported.

On the July Fourth holiday, FBI Director James Comey revealed that his agency had prevented a massive, ISIS-inspired terrorist event and charged 10 potential mass killers who were preparing to execute the assault. “I do believe our work disrupted efforts to kill people, likely in connection with July 4,” Comey said. He added that some of the plotting represented “very serious efforts to kill people in the United States.”

And, as recently as Monday, American officials arrested the son of the captain of the Boston Police Department for allegedly plotting to execute an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack. Radicalized by the Boston Marathon bombings, the young man who calls himself Ali Al Amriki was arrested after purchasing four weapons illegally from an informant on July 4. “In his apartment, the FBI found possible bomb-making equipment including a pressure cooker, as was used by Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as well as a variety of chemicals, an alarm clock, along with ‘attack planning papers,’” the New York Post reported.

American law enforcement deserves plaudits for effectively thwarting these and many other attacks on American targets, but that is cold comfort to those who lost friends and family members in Tennessee on Thursday. Abdulazeez’s successful attack demonstrates that, in a complex threat environment with a variety of actors trying to evade law enforcement, some will slip through the cracks.

This attack demonstrates the necessity of combating and ultimately destroying ISIS overseas in order to eliminate the ideological center of gravity that compels the young and radicalized to destroy themselves in service to a bloody belief structure. This grotesque act of violence is disturbingly common and fails to shock the senses in precisely the opposite way that Dylann Roof’s racist and terroristic attack on an African-American church stunned and traumatized the nation. Whereas acts of backwards and anachronistic racist acts of mass violence are rare, attempted attacks like those carried out by Abdulazeez’s are all too common. Someday, when the war to defeat radical Islam enjoys its final victory, acts of terrorism like those Chattanooga will be as unusual as that in Charleston. It is a day America’s lawmakers should be doing all within their power to realize.

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The Islamic State and Russia’s Soft Underbelly

For decades, Russians associated Islamist terrorism with Chechen separatists and the North Caucasus. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin can trace his rise to a counter-terrorism crackdown on Chechens perhaps aided, in part, by some false flag attacks on Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. With the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre nearing, the scars of Islamist terrorism in Russia remain fresh.

Increasingly, however, Chechnya, Daghestan, and other Russian-controlled but Muslim majority areas in the North Caucasus may be the least of Moscow’s concerns. Read More

For decades, Russians associated Islamist terrorism with Chechen separatists and the North Caucasus. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin can trace his rise to a counter-terrorism crackdown on Chechens perhaps aided, in part, by some false flag attacks on Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. With the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre nearing, the scars of Islamist terrorism in Russia remain fresh.

Increasingly, however, Chechnya, Daghestan, and other Russian-controlled but Muslim majority areas in the North Caucasus may be the least of Moscow’s concerns.

On May 27, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) released a new video featuring Gulmurod Halimov, commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry Special Forces and a recipient of counterterrorism training in the United States. In the video, Halimov condemned the secular-oriented Tajikistan government and called on Muslims across Central Asia to join with the Islamic State.

Now, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian Republics have not been part of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but they remain largely in the Russian orbit and Russia considers republics like Tajikistan, where it deploys troops, to be its first line of defense in the fight against radical Islam rising up along its southern flank. If key, vetted leaders like Halimov can defect then so can anyone else in the region, especially given the noxious poverty, rampant corruption and persecution.

But it’s not just Central Asia. A large number of Tatars live in the Volga Basin, having long ago been displaced there. Some remained in the Crimea, where they originated, but, by invading and annexing the Crimea, Russia absorbed the remainder. Then, there’s the Bashkirs, who live in the Urals. Over the last decade or two, there’s been a revival of religious identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs, and an increasing tendency toward radicalization among a smaller proportion.

Demography, of course, is crucial. Fertility rates in Russia are falling, and Russia’s population is in decline despite the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster Christian immigration. (One-third of the Armenian population in the Republic of Armenia, for example, has migrated to the rusting factory towns of Siberia since Armenia’s independence, largely to replace Russians who have migrated away or died. But the Russian Muslim population continues to increase. Will that mean Russia will become Muslim? No. But given the coming youth bulge, this will impact the demographics of the Russian Army. So, here’s the nightmare situation for Russia:

  • Poor governance and increased radicalization make Central Asian Republics vulnerable to Islamic State recruitment. Radicalism is nothing new in the area — think the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — but the Islamic State provides a shot of adrenaline.
  • A Muslim youth bulge against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and traditional Russian discrimination against its Muslim population benefits Islamic State recruitment in the heart of Russia, and not simply along the periphery.
  • At the same time, the Muslim youth bulge will disproportionately impact the demographics of the Russian army. Already, at least ten percent of Russians are Muslim. If the proportion of conscripts reaches 20 percent Muslim, how might that impact the ability of the Russian army to put down Islamist-inspired insurgencies in the North Caucasus or elsewhere?

The Islamic State knows this, of course. Russia has a soft underbelly that the Islamic State will exploit. The tragedy is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had well over a decade and a half to address some of the factors adding fuel to the fire but instead failed to effectively reform the economy and relied only on repression. He’s transformed Russia into a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers explode; they don’t bring long-term stability. Perhaps the era of apartment building explosions is not over; it may be just beginning.

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End of the Pax Americana?

I was struck by a quotation from a retired Vietnamese general in this New York Times article about the rapid warming of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. “Among all the choices, Vietnam chooses Pax Americana,” said Le Van Cuong, who had once fought American troops.

That’s a heartening and highly rational choice on the part of a country that fears its giant neighbor and onetime ally, China, and sees its former foe as a good-faith guarantor of its security. It is, in fact, a choice that countries and individuals have made in great numbers since World War II: South Korea, Japan, Germany, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and many, many others have voluntarily chosen to embrace the Pax Americana. But for how much longer? Read More

I was struck by a quotation from a retired Vietnamese general in this New York Times article about the rapid warming of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. “Among all the choices, Vietnam chooses Pax Americana,” said Le Van Cuong, who had once fought American troops.

That’s a heartening and highly rational choice on the part of a country that fears its giant neighbor and onetime ally, China, and sees its former foe as a good-faith guarantor of its security. It is, in fact, a choice that countries and individuals have made in great numbers since World War II: South Korea, Japan, Germany, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and many, many others have voluntarily chosen to embrace the Pax Americana. But for how much longer?

Nobody wants to join the losing side — everyone prefers, in Osama bin Laden’s phrase, “the strong horse.” For many decades, there was little doubt of America’s strength. And even today, the U.S. remains the sole superpower by virtue of its unrivaled economic and military might. The U.S. economy remains strong, at least stronger than those of our competitors among other industrialized nations, even if growth is hampered by an ever-expanding tax and regulatory burden.

But America is busy cutting its defense budget, with the army alone due to fire 40,000 soldiers over the next two years. While the U.S. retains formidable military and diplomatic muscle, it is not exerting itself as it once did. From Ukraine to the South China Sea, we can see the perilous consequences of American disengagement.

The situation is particularly worrisome in the Middle East. The Obama administration is making one concession after another to Iran in the hopes of achieving a deal that will allow the mullahs to keep a nuclear program while reaping untold billions in sanctions relief. At the same time, the U.S. is ignoring evidence that Bashar Assad, Iran’s ally, continues to use chemical weapons in spite of his promise to remove all of them. Assad is also dropping barrel-bombs with impunity on the civilian populace, with hardly a peep of protest from Washington. Seen from the vantage point of Tehran, America looks like a pushover; not a formidable adversary.

The same view no doubt holds in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has just revealed in Congressional testimony, the Department of Defense has trained only 60 Syrian rebels to take on ISIS’s 20,000+ fighters. Presumably the CIA has trained some more, but the forces they have produced are inconsequential, too. Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes, summing up Carter’s testimony, “the 3,500 U.S. personnel deployed in Iraq since last year had trained just 8,800 Iraqi army and Kurdish militia soldiers. Just 1,300 Sunni tribesmen have been recruited.” It is scant wonder, then, that ISIS has actually expanded its territory since the U.S. began bombing it last August.

Why aren’t more Syrians and Iraqis flocking to join the anti-ISIS cause? Because they are not going to risk their necks in a losing cause, and America at the moment does not look like the strong horse in the Middle East. Iran and ISIS both look stronger. That’s not because they are inherently more powerful than America; on any rational comparison of strength, both the Islamic State and Iran are inconsequential next to the American hyperpower. But they are punching above their weight, while we punch below ours.

If this situation continues unabated, we will find ever fewer countries making the choice that Vietnam is making. We will, in fact, find that that the Pax Americana, which generations of Americans stretching back to 1898 have been laboring to create, is no more. Not because we are unable to project power anymore but because we are choosing not to.

 

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The Implosion of Obama’s Syria Strategy

For President Barack Obama, the deteriorating situation in Syria has always been a political problem rather than a pressing national security challenge. When the president was faced with a regime that flouted international norms and precedents by using chemical weapons, he set a “red line” for action that failed to deter Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from continuing along his destabilizing course. Even while amassing international and domestic support for intervention in Syria, Obama was groping for a way out of the trap he had set for himself – a way that he was provided by Assad’s duplicitous patrons in Moscow. When the Islamic State militancy exploded out of its Syrian cradle, Obama only reluctantly began to address the threat to the region posed by the then fully metastatic Syrian crisis. By crafting two distinct international coalitions to fight the same war on two sides of an arbitrary Middle Eastern border that no longer existed, Obama signaled his lack of seriousness in combating the extremist threat in the Levant. But the core of Obama’s scheme to limit American involvement in the war on ISIS, his Rube Goldberg proposal for creating an indigenous Syrian army to fight ISIS, was the most laughable element of his strategic approach to avoiding a new entanglement. It should be abundantly clear today that this White House has no interest in prosecuting this war or achieving realistic and realizable goals.  Read More

For President Barack Obama, the deteriorating situation in Syria has always been a political problem rather than a pressing national security challenge. When the president was faced with a regime that flouted international norms and precedents by using chemical weapons, he set a “red line” for action that failed to deter Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from continuing along his destabilizing course. Even while amassing international and domestic support for intervention in Syria, Obama was groping for a way out of the trap he had set for himself – a way that he was provided by Assad’s duplicitous patrons in Moscow. When the Islamic State militancy exploded out of its Syrian cradle, Obama only reluctantly began to address the threat to the region posed by the then fully metastatic Syrian crisis. By crafting two distinct international coalitions to fight the same war on two sides of an arbitrary Middle Eastern border that no longer existed, Obama signaled his lack of seriousness in combating the extremist threat in the Levant. But the core of Obama’s scheme to limit American involvement in the war on ISIS, his Rube Goldberg proposal for creating an indigenous Syrian army to fight ISIS, was the most laughable element of his strategic approach to avoiding a new entanglement. It should be abundantly clear today that this White House has no interest in prosecuting this war or achieving realistic and realizable goals. 

“Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms,” The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake reported in the summer of 2014, nearly a year after the president had accepted the terms of an arrangement that supposedly stripped Assad’s regime of chemical weaponry. “The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well. But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.”

Inevitably, though, the president did lend America’s diplomatic weight to the mission of creating an international coalition dominated by Arab states. That coalition would lend legitimacy to the air war targeting ISIS positions inside Syria to which he reluctantly committed American military power. But in order to keep Western “boots” off of Syrian soil, the White House devised an absurdly complex process through which the West’s engagement in Syria could be reduced. That strategy consisted of identifying combat-ready rebel groups inside Syria that are willing to fight ISIS but were relatively secular and unlikely to turn on their Western backers once the Islamic State had been routed. From there, those fighters identified as good candidates would be transported out of Syria, sent to a third-party country in the region, trained, equipped, and reintroduced into the Syrian theater.

The Pentagon estimated in December of last year, two months after this strategy was approved by Congress, it would take up to one year from the beginning of the process and no fewer than 15,000 fighters to complete the job, although only 5,000 would be needed at the start. More than six months later, it should be abundantly clear that the administration has no interest in combating ISIS in Syria. Of those initial 5,000 Syrian rebels necessary to dislodge the Islamic State, Defense Sec. Ashton Carter confessed that only 60 individuals have so far been identified and are being trained.

“This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards,” Carter conceded in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we know this program is essential.”

“We need a partner on the ground in Syria to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat,” he continued. “And as training progresses, we’re learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations.”

This revelation comes on the heels of a press conference in which the president told Pentagon reporters that he would order an intensification of the anti-ISIS air campaign over Syria. In that press conference, Obama touted the fact that ISIS was losing some territory to assaults from indigenous groups, but nearly all that progress is due to the work of Kurdish forces inside Syria. They have grown increasingly suspicious of both this White House and the supposedly moderate Arab rebel militias that the administration has sought to elevate.

“In the lead-up to the mainly Kurdish capture of the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad last month, Islamic extremists panicked the town’s Arab population by warning that fighters with the YPG, People’s Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), would run amok,” read a recent Voice of America report. “This prompted thousands of Arab residents to flee to Turkey.”

“Some circles are trying to ignite a Kurdish-Arab military conflict,” one PYD leader told VOA reporters. These tensions are growing increasingly acute as Kurdish fighters expel ISIS from territory in Syria’s north and establish a proto-Kurdistan on Turkey’s border.

The administration has most likely allowed the window in which it would have been feasible to arm and train an effective, secular indigenous force that could combat ISIS. If it has not, the current rate at which rebel combatants are being readied for the fight is preposterously cautious. At present, the administration’s anti-ISIS strategy is maturing at a rate slow enough to instill mistrust in those forces that are supposed to be the West’s ally in this fight, and it is likely making the next president’s job in the Middle East that much harder.

 

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The Threat From the Hamas-ISIS Connection

To listen to both Hamas and ISIS, the two Islamist terror groups are enemies. As Foreign Policy noted back in May, Hamas views the Islamic State as a threat to its despotic hold on power in Gaza and destroyed a mosque affiliated with its followers. ISIS returns the sentiment, condemning Hamas for its brutal rule and vowing as recently as this week that it will topple them. What then should we make of the news coming out of Israel this week that Hamas provided vital help to ISIS’s deadly terror attack on Egyptian security forces in the Sinai. No doubt some of Hamas’s apologists will dismiss the claim as an attempt by Israel to discredit an enemy in the eyes of the West. But given the scale of the Sinai attack it is hard to believe that ISIS would have been able to pull it off without serious assistance and the only possible source of that help would have to be Hamas-ruled Gaza. If true, this should not only heighten concerns about the spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East but also call into question some of the assumptions that many in the foreign policy establishment have held about Hamas being a stabilizing rather than a purely destructive force in the region.

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To listen to both Hamas and ISIS, the two Islamist terror groups are enemies. As Foreign Policy noted back in May, Hamas views the Islamic State as a threat to its despotic hold on power in Gaza and destroyed a mosque affiliated with its followers. ISIS returns the sentiment, condemning Hamas for its brutal rule and vowing as recently as this week that it will topple them. What then should we make of the news coming out of Israel this week that Hamas provided vital help to ISIS’s deadly terror attack on Egyptian security forces in the Sinai. No doubt some of Hamas’s apologists will dismiss the claim as an attempt by Israel to discredit an enemy in the eyes of the West. But given the scale of the Sinai attack it is hard to believe that ISIS would have been able to pull it off without serious assistance and the only possible source of that help would have to be Hamas-ruled Gaza. If true, this should not only heighten concerns about the spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East but also call into question some of the assumptions that many in the foreign policy establishment have held about Hamas being a stabilizing rather than a purely destructive force in the region.

As the Times of Israel reports, Israeli military intelligence has made public the fact that Hamas provided both military support to the ISIS operation that killed dozens of Egyptian but has also helped bring wounded ISIS terrorists out of Sinai into Gaza. The Israelis say they have direct proof of involvement in this week’s atrocity and also evidence that leading members of the Hamas’s military wing have been directly involved in assistance to ISIS.

Given the public hostility between the two groups, how is that possible?

The answer to that question comes in two parts. The first relates to the difference between public stances and political reality. The other is a function of the old saying about the enemy of my enemy being my friend.

It would be foolish to think that Hamas and ISIS don’t regard each other with hostility. Hamas rightly fears the growth of any Islamist group that might outflank it by posing as being even more belligerent and bloodthirsty than it may be. Hamas has dealt harshly with any potential rival in Gaza, be it the mainstream Fatah Palestinian party that rules the West Bank or the more radical Islamic Jihad. Hamas regards any rival faction as an enemy by definition and treats them accordingly.

By the same token, ISIS regards all those that won’t recognize the authority of its so-called “caliphate” as foes to be killed without mercy. Its rise throughout the region has been fueled in part by posing as a defender of Islamic values against corrupt elites. Though this is the same game that Hamas played as it gained a foothold in Palestinian politics at the expense of Fatah, they fit nicely into the same role that the corrupt party of Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas played for them. Hamas is every bit as tyrannical as any other Arab or Muslim regime and ISIS clearly thinks it can gain by pretending to be better.

Yet to think of ISIS and Hamas as being in a state of war may be to overestimate their hostility and underrate their grasp of political reality. Hamas doesn’t so much fear ISIS as it does worry about a wild card group making decisions for them about war with Israel at a moment when they might prefer to continue the truce with the Jewish state. Similarly, ISIS has enough on its plate fighting in Syria and Iraq against forces that would like to see it destroyed without opening up a new front in Gaza at a moment when its strength there is minuscule compared to the enormous military that Hamas can deploy against Israel.

But despite animosity and distrust, it is more than obvious that both Hamas and ISIS share a common enemy in Egypt. The Sisi government in Cairo is dedicated to the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood and regards Hamas, which was founded by Brotherhood supporters and whose help to the group during the unrest in Egypt was included in the charges against former President Mohammed Morsi, as a hostile entity. Egypt is even more determined to isolate Gaza than Israel. In that sense, the Hamas-ISIS connection is a natural alliance.

That’s why Hamas has a vested interest in creating more chaos in Sinai than exists along its border with Israel. No matter what their opinion of each other might be, Hamas understands that the Egyptian government is a far more dangerous threat to its continued survival than is Israel. Under the circumstances it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to believe that Israel’s intelligence about Hamas’s involvement in ISIS activities in Sinai has the ring of truth.

This realization ought to do more than cause concern in both Cairo and Jerusalem. The Sinai had already been transformed into something of a Wild West for terror in the years since a bloody Hamas coup allowed the group to seize control of the independent Palestinian state (in all but name) that currently exists in Gaza. But with ISIS moving into the void of security that the Sinai has become, a low level conflict with terrorists may be about to turn into something far more serious.

More to the point, this tacit alliance between otherwise rival Islamist terror groups ought to cause some foreign policy experts who have regarded Western acquiescence toward Hamas’s continued grip on Gaza as a given to rethink that assumption. If Gaza is no longer merely a launching pad for rockets and tunnels aimed at terrorizing Israelis but is also a base for terror aimed at toppling moderate Arab governments, continued tolerance of its sovereignty in Gaza is not only morally wrong; it is a suicidal proposition for the West.

Just as the Israelis have refrained from toppling Hamas in Gaza lest they be stuck governing the dysfunctional strip, so too do Western nations have a distaste for regime change in the strip. But perhaps it is time that those who were so quick to criticize Israel for launching a counter-attack against Gaza-based terrorism last summer realize that the perpetuation of Hamas rule there is a threat to more than the Jewish state. So long as an Islamist terror group has a secure base next to both Egypt and Israel and is getting aid from Iran, it is reasonable to assume that it will be undermining the security of both of those states as well as the rest of the region.

Rather than seeking to loosen up the blockade of Gaza that Israel and Egypt have been enforcing to limit Hamas’s ability to project terror abroad, perhaps the West should understand that pressure on the Islamist state needs to be heightened not diminished.

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ISIS Opens New Front in Egypt

As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

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As early as November of last year, officials in the Islamic State confirmed their commitment to adorning themselves with the trappings statehood by minting their own currency. The world got its first look at these curious new coins this month. Reportedly modeled on coinage circulated in the Caliphate of Uthman in the middle of the seventh century, ISIS’s new coins included a decidedly modern addition: On the reverse of one is a depiction of the map of the world. It is a physical representation of ISIS’s internationalist ideology and harkens back to the State Emblem of the Soviet Union, which signified that state’s ideological commitment to the spread of communism by superimposing a hammer and sickle over the globe. Far from being destroyed or even degraded, as the president once pledged, ISIS has demonstrated its devotion to expansionism by exporting terrorism to places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. This week, ISIS mounted a series of spectacular attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that indicate the Islamic State is not only set on but capable of enlargement.

Last month, on the heels of a Saudi raid that reportedly rolled up a nearly 100-member strong ISIS cell inside the Kingdom, ISIS-linked suicide bombers twice targeted Shiite Mosques with attacks amid Friday prayers. Last week, this style of attack was replicated in Kuwait. 27 worshipers packed into Kuwait City’s Al-Sadiq mosque were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device amid a Friday prayer service. The bodies were still being removed when an ISIS-linked video claiming responsibility for that attack was posted online. On that same day, a radical Islamic gunman attacked a Tunisian hotel where he killed 38 and injured 39 more. Most of the casualties were British citizens, making this assault the deadliest terror attack targeting Britons since the 2005 bus bombings. “ISIS has claimed responsibility for that attack, as well, though this claim may be more tenuous,” CNN reported. Simultaneously, in France, the manager of a local transportation company was found beheaded at a United States-owned factory. His body was discovered alongside two banners bearing Islamic writing.

Whether all or some of these attacks are directly linked to ISIS or were merely inspired by the organization and its affiliates, it’s clear that the terrorist organization’s reach extends well beyond the fluid borders of its nascent caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the most daring example of ISIS’s ability to project force across the region occurred this week on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The strategic land bridge between Egypt and Africa was turned into a battlefield on Wednesday when ISIS executed a coordinated military assault against Egyptian military personnel.

The New York Times report from the front lines of the assault reads like a dispatch from a war zone rather than the scene of a terrorist incident:

Dozens of Egyptian soldiers were killed, police officers were trapped in their posts, ambulances were paralyzed by booby-trapped roads and residents were warned to stay indoors by jihadists roaming on motorcycles. The Egyptian Army responded with warplanes in the area around the town, Sheikh Zuwaid, 200 miles northeast of Cairo, near the Gaza Strip.

The attack was the most audacious and deadliest yet for the Egyptian militants who have affiliated with the Islamic State, the extremist group that has emerged as the most potent jihadist force convulsing the Arab world. The group has established itself in Syria, expanded into Iraq and has strong footholds in Libya.

By nearly 5 p.m. local time, the attack that had begun in the early morning hours was still ongoing. Cairo boasted that its military had killed over 100 militants while just 10 of its soldiers had lost their lives, but local media outlets placed the military’s casualty rates as much as four times higher.

The attack also marked a shift in tactics by Islamic State fighters. “Isis has previously launched several bloody attacks on the Egyptian army in the north-eastern part of the peninsula – most notably this January and last October,” wrote The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley. “But after those assaults, Isis quickly retreated – whereas after Wednesday’s attack the group appeared to try to advance.”

To what extent Isis had succeeded in holding territory is unclear, said Zack Gold, a Sinai-focused analyst, particularly as reporters have long been prevented from entering this area of Sinai, which lies far from the peninsula’s southern tourist resorts.

But any control of physical space would be significant, said Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The invading of a city, taking over buildings – that is a new development, and it’s similar to the over-running of cities that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” said Gold.

In a thoughtful analysis of the spiraling violence in eastern Egypt, Michael Rubin observed that this assault came just hours after the assassination of the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. “Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013,” Rubin noted. He added that Egyptian media made short work of blaming regimes perceived to be sympathetic toward ISIS, like that of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of being complicit in the attack – or worse.

Despite almost a year long, U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the group’s capabilities have not been appreciably disrupted. In fact, they are expanding their ability to destabilize the region either directly or through surrogates.

 

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Egypt at War

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks. Read More

Over the last few days, Egypt has faced a terrorist wave. First, there was the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s state prosecutor, the equivalent of the Attorney General. Barakat was the target of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist animus for his role prosecuting thousands of Islamists since Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Now, today, a wave of attacks has killed at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. Ominously, several Egyptian security sources are pointing the finger at Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. According to Kirk Sowell, probably the best open source Arabic analyst today, the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya satellite, the Egyptians are accusing Turkey of being operationally behind the attacks.

Western critics of Sisi base their criticism in the 2013 coup. Morsi was, after all, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. And while many observers acknowledge deep unease at Morsi’s attitude toward democracy as a means toward an undemocratic end, there is merit to their argument that forcing Morsi’s exit might provoke the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists to violence, whereas a better approach might be to allow subsequent elections delegitimize Morsi. The counterpoint to this argument, of course, was that Morsi might not allow future free-and-fair elections. Sisi won subsequent elections with 96 percent of the vote, a margin usually reserved for Arab autocrats. While Sisi certainly had the public behind him leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the inflated margin also reflects the inability of any opponent to wage a serious campaign and receive equal attention in the state-controlled media. Over subsequent months, Sisi and his team have used security forces and the judiciary to devastating effect against those prone to seek a more Islamic order.

Unease at Egypt’s human rights situation may be real, but that does not mean that the United States can be sanguine about the fight Egypt now faces.

First of all, even for those prone to see democratic potential in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sinai is a completely different ballgame. Even at the height of Mubarak’s security state, there was huge disaffection in the western Egyptian province of Matruh, in the Sinai, and Upper Egypt. Moderators had to silence regional delegates to Mubarak’s own party’s convention when they complained about the lack of infrastructure, housing, and opportunity.

The Sinai, however, was always a special case. There has always been a sharp cultural divide between Egyptians from Egypt proper and the Sinai. Egyptians did not consider themselves Arabs until the 1920s and 1930s, while the Bedouin consider themselves to be the proto-Arabs. Egyptians have long looked at the Bedouin with additional suspicion because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first reason is that some lived under Israeli control between 1967 and 1982, when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai. Second, many have distant relatives who are Israeli citizens, although no Egyptian I have interviewed has ever been able to cite an example of an Egyptian Bedouin betraying Egyptian security to Israel.

Over recent decades, Saudi television has also radicalized some Bedouin. Bedouin Arabic is closer to that spoken in the Arabian Peninsula than it is to mainstream Egyptian Arabic. Before the advent of satellite television, it could sometimes be easier for Bedouin to access terrestrially broadcast Saudi programs than Egyptian television and, given the choice of either, Bedouins often preferred to listen to the more easily accessible Saudi dialect. The Saudis, meanwhile, broadcast a steady stream of religious propaganda that encouraged radicalism. The Mubarak regime kept Bedouin radicalism at bay, but Morsi opened the floodgates. He stopped any serious security regimen and encouraged Hamas in the neighboring Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy held up the delivery of helicopters meant to counter the Al Qaeda threat. The rise of the Islamic State has only radicalized things further. The Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group targeting police and Egyptian soldiers stationed in the Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. Europeans and American officials may be critical of Sisi and skeptical of his reformist pledges, but it can be incredibly shortsighted to risk a growing Islamic State foothold alongside the Suez Canal out of animus to the new Egyptian leader.

But what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Al-Watan online has reported in Arabic today that Egyptian security forces today killed nine Muslim Brotherhood operatives. Even if Western officials are more sympathetic to their political plight in the wake of the coup, it would be incredibly backward to rationalize the assassination of Barakat simply because of the events of 2013 left a bad taste to those seeking broader, faster democratization inside Egypt. First Morsi and then the coup may have polarized Egypt, but it’s important to deal with reality than fantasy. As broader violence erupts between Sisi on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State proxies on the other, it’s crucial to back the former and a definitive U.S. interest to seek the defeat of the latter.

As for Turkey and Qatar, Saudi-backed media has to be taken with a grain of salt. But be it in Syria, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and now Turkey, there is an uncomfortable pattern emerging of the Turkish state backing the most radical Islamist movements in the region. Diplomats might like to talk to the partner they’d like to imagine rather than the partner sitting in front of them, but it’s essential to deal with the reality: Egypt is a friend in the war against terror; Turkey is not.

 

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No Victory against ISIS with Erdoğan in Turkey

Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of its caliphate, was a horrible day across the region. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched terrorist attacks that have killed innocents in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Terrorists seek out soft targets. They search for the unprotected and undefended in order to commit the unexpected. While the U.S. counterterrorism community has perfected defending against the last terrorist attack — hence the obsession with bottled water and more than three ounces of shaving cream at airport checkpoints — large bureaucracies are poor at thinking outside the box. Hence, there will always be another terrorist attack no matter how vigilant police might be. Read More

Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of its caliphate, was a horrible day across the region. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched terrorist attacks that have killed innocents in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Terrorists seek out soft targets. They search for the unprotected and undefended in order to commit the unexpected. While the U.S. counterterrorism community has perfected defending against the last terrorist attack — hence the obsession with bottled water and more than three ounces of shaving cream at airport checkpoints — large bureaucracies are poor at thinking outside the box. Hence, there will always be another terrorist attack no matter how vigilant police might be.

But what happens when the government that is supposed to secure the flank actually decides to encourage and enable terrorist attacks? No, this is not some Noam Chomsky-esque study in moral equivalence with regard to the United States. Rather, it is apparently the reality of what happened yesterday in Kobani, the Kurdish-held Syrian town alongside the border with Turkey. Islamic State terrorists infiltrated into Kobani from across the Turkish border and massacred almost 150 civilians.

After months of criticism about allowing Turkish territory to be transformed into a figurative highway for foreign Jihadis, the Turkish government promised that it would interdict those seeking to join the Islamic State. Just as Pakistan arrests an occasional foreign fighter and then claims it is serious about combating terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan, so too did Turkey point to its occasional arrest of a European teenager and say that such action proved it was serious about stemming the flow of recruits into Syria.

The latest Kobani massacre, however, puts that lie to rest. Evidence continues to mount that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish officials answering to him in the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MİT), Turkey’s intelligence service allowed Islamic State fighters to traverse through Turkey and attack Kobani from Turkey, a flank the largely Kurdish residents of Kobani felt was secure by nature of it being an international border belonging to a NATO member that had pledged its security. This apparent collaboration between Turkey and the Islamic State increasingly is the rule rather than the exception.

There was, for example, the leak of MİT documents showing Turkish support of Al Qaeda. And, rather than give medals to the Turkish soldiers who intercepted truckloads of weaponry destined for Syrian radicals, Erdoğan ordered their arrest. These are among the topics that the Erdoğan regime has forbidden the Turkish media from reporting.

The problem appears two-fold. First, Erdoğan sympathizes ideologically with the Islamic State. That may sound preposterous; after all, Erdoğan is the elected leader of a NATO member, but evidence regarding his antagonism to the West and a more secular order is overwhelming. And, secondly, Erdoğan is antagonistic to Kurds. The peace process was about politics. Erdoğan derived great benefit both domestically and abroad for appearing sincere in his efforts to end old animosities. This was a cynical ploy, however. Like Atatürk, Erdoğan is perfectly happy to embrace Kurds so long as they abandon their ethnic identity. The only difference between the two is that Atatürk wanted Kurds to subordinate their identity to Turkish nationalism while Erdoğan expected them to subordinate themselves to a common religious identity.

As to evidence of Erdoğan’s antagonism toward the Kurds: There was the unresolved Roboski massacre, as well as overwhelming evidence—including telephone intercepts—showing Turkish security to be behind the assassinations of three Kurdish activists in Paris, France.

More than nine months ago, President Barack Obama promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. Despite ordering airstrikes against Islamic State targets, it is unclear whether Obama is committed to doing what it will take to fulfill his pledge. Obama is right, however, that military strategies alone will not lead to victory. There must be a diplomatic component as well.

Diplomacy isn’t simply about talking to one’s partners and adversaries; it is also about achieving goals that cannot or should not be achieved militarily. If the defeat of the Islamic State is a goal — and, given the terrorist attacks of today it must be—then part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy must be the end of the Erdoğan era. The recent elections — despite the false and naïve optimism of some journalists — were not a “body blow” to Erdoğan but rather a hiccup. If no coalition can be formed, Turkey will head into new elections, ones in which Erdoğan will take no chances.

But how to achieve regime change in Turkey? Direct diplomatic intervention is both unwarranted and unwise. Turks are also nationalist, and so any direct involvement will backfire. But nationalism plays both ways, and many Turks are disgusted about what Erdoğan has done to their country. Indeed, many Turkish political analysts attribute unease over Erdoğan’s Syria policy (and his embrace of radicals) for his party’s disappointing showing in elections earlier this month.

Still, there are tools open to Washington. Back in 2008, the Turkish courts considered banning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its constitutional violations. In the end, single justice saved the party—apparently after receiving a large sum of money wired into his bank account by a Turkish businessman who sought to resolve favorably a long-simmering dispute with the AKP. That businessman’s name is whispered among Turks, and Turkish journalists acknowledge the last minute cell phone call that preceded the change of the Turkish judge’s vote. If such information is known, why not make it public? Saving the Turkish president or his ruling party from the exposure of its actions shouldn’t be a goal of the United States. Delegitimizing them in the public sphere is imperative.

Likewise, the AKP has been plagued by corruption scandals allegedly involving Erdoğan, senior advisors, cabinet ministers and parliamentarians. Again, this should be the subject of public discourse, if not in Turkey than from the bully pulpit of the State Department and the White House. If Erdoğan, his children, or ministers and their families, or members of the AKP are believed complicit in corruption or financing terror, they should be sanctioned and banned from the United States. Would such action undercut Turkish participation in the fight against ISIS or in NATO? Perhaps. But, after the massacre in Kobane, it’s time to ask whether the costs of that partnership outweigh the benefits. Regardless, the problem isn’t Turkey but rather its leader and those who blindly do his bidding in the AKP. It may be an uncomfortable conversation, and perhaps many diplomats and analysts will disagree with the policy prescription but it is time to acknowledge one salient reality: There will be no victory over the Islamic State so long as Turkey remains a Trojan Horse betraying those who fight against it.

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Support Syrian Kurdish Forces Now

It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

China has stolen at least 14 million present and former government officials’ personal information, including mine, according to Office of Personal Management emails I received. And the consequences for Chinese actions? None. And, for that matter, the consequences for those within the U.S. government charged with keeping our personal information secure? Again, zero.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnians might reflect at how much worse the massacre might have been had it been Obama rather than Bill Clinton at the helm. At least the U.S. under NATO auspices launched an air campaign later that summer to bring the horrific violence to an end. Obama would likely have found a reason not to enforce any humanitarian or strategic red lines whatsoever. And, as for the Ukraine? It’s easy to talk about helping a fledgling democracy counter naked aggression but when push comes to shove, Obama seems perfectly willing to sell Ukrainians down the river as well.

Of course, it gets worse. After having invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is preparing to pull the plug on the former and has already largely done so on the latter.

It is increasingly clear that neither U.S. national security nor human rights are criteria upon which Obama bases decisions. Max Boot is absolutely right that the Obama administration is readily ceding Iraq to Iranian influence, all the more ironic since many of the Iraqi Shi‘ites hugely resent Iran’s ambitions: If a traveler ever wants to experience true anti-Iranian sentiment, forget Jerusalem or Riyadh and visit Fao, the southern-most fishing village in Iraq, or have hushed conversations in some of the hill villages of southern Lebanon. I have also had the opportunity to see Hayya Bina, the Lebanese group to which Max refers, in action during some of my trips to Beirut and southern Lebanon. The Obama administration has demanded the group stop working among Lebanese Shi‘ites to organize or support any work or opposition to Hezbollah.

Nowhere has the Obama administration been so cavalier toward freedom, liberty, and the fight against terrorism as in Syria. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” even after his murderous rampage began. And, as senator, John Kerry made his aides blanch when he repeatedly described Assad as “my good friend” after bonding during a motorcycle ride. Let’s just be glad that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t like yachting, as Kerry’s moral vacuity and poor character judgment might have led him to say something equally regrettable.

Whatever the hope for the Syrian opposition in the initial months, the group radicalized tremendously. Advocates for the opposition like Sen. John McCain have their hearts in the right place, but have allowed their tenaciousness to trump good judgment: Supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition would, at this point, be akin to supporting Al Qaeda. McCain should not become Erdoğan with a better sense of humor. At the same time, though, the idea of reconciliation or even a hands-off approach to Assad is noxious. This is a man that not only uses chemical weapons against his own people, but also refused to order his air force to strike the Islamic State’s headquarters at Raqqa at any point during the pre-September 2014 period when he had uncontested dominance over Syrian airspace.

There is only one group that has had any modicum of success fighting radicals and counter Assad inside Syria, and that is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG), the People’s Protection Units or the Syrian Peshmerga. I was fortunate to meet the YPG last year during a trip to northeastern Syria. They have sacrificed tremendously: I visited both memorial shrines, spaces reserved for families of martyrs, and fresh graves, while also hanging out at YPG checkpoints and talking to YPG commanders. Aside from a few airdrops around Kobane and, in the last few days, some air support around Ayn Issa, a town north of Raqqa, they have received little from the United States. The Syrian opposition that the United States does support has little to show for its money.

The YPG – and the Syrian Kurdish administration to which they answer – has the added benefit of being largely tolerant. They host tens of thousands of Arab refugees from the Aleppo area, and churches, mosques and, for that matter, Yezidi temples. And yet, the Obama administration and Kerry specifically give the Syrian Kurds the cold shoulder. The State Department refuses Salih Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, a visa and it is a rarity that U.S. diplomats will speak with him, even if in the same room. Kerry has welcomed Syrian militants with blood on their hands to join the international diplomatic process but continues to veto any real Kurdish participation, at least among the Kurds representative of the Rojava administration.

In the last few days, the YPG has captured a strategic town just 30 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. It’s an opportunity that should be supported. Clearly, the YPG fulfill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s “will to fight” prerequisite. If Obama truly wishes to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, then working with the YPG should be the central pillar. It’s time to work in the realm of reality and seize every opportunity, rather than continue to embrace the fantasy of Assad’s responsibility or other Syrian opposition’s credibility and moderation.

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Prosecuting the Islamic State’s ‘Willing Executioners’

In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

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In 1997, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that argued that ordinary Germans were far more complicit in the Holocaust than previously acknowledged. He traced the evolution of German anti-Semitism and described how it became “eliminationist.” He also suggested that it was not only the Nazi Party that cheered the demise of the Jews but, even among those who did not directly participate or cheer on the genocide, there was pronounced indifference.

Historians still debate Goldhagen’s thesis today, but the issues he raises about mass psychology and complicity in war crimes are relevant beyond simply the Holocaust. On June 23, 2015, the Ninawa Division of the Islamic State distributed the link to a video via twitter depicting the execution of alleged spies. The first group was forced to sit in a car that an Islamic State adherent then blew up with a rocket-propelled grenade. The second group was forced into a cage, which was then slowly submerged underwater until all the prisoners had drowned. The third group was decapitated with explosive cord.

Snuff videos are unfortunately common with the Islamic State, but all too often politicians and press ignore an important aspect of them: What happens behind the camera is as important as what happens in front of it. Take all the focus on Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. “Jihadi John.” He featured in at least seven videos, but who held the camera? Who transported the prisoners? Are they any less culpable? And, with each of the execution videos, assume that the prisoners and hostages endured several — arbitrarily, let’s say five — mock executions (that’s why so many appear calm; most may not believe the video would be anything but another bluff). So, there is then the responsibility of their wardens, drivers, and even house cleaners.

President Obama prefers to see terrorism as a criminal rather than a military problem. Certainly, there are elements of both. But, if the criminal analogy is pursued, then it is crucial to understanding the extent of culpability. The 1988 movie “The Accused” starring Jodie Foster was inspired by the true story of the gang rape of Cheryl Araujo in a Massachusetts bar. In the movie, Foster, playing a character named Sarah Tobias, is unwilling to accept only the prosecution of the three rapists, and demands — successfully — prosecution of those in the bar who cheered the rapists on.

Inevitably, if and when the Islamic State collapses — and it very well might when there is more concerted leadership in the White House — countries across the globe will have to consider how to address their citizens who travelled to and/or volunteered for the Islamic State. Many will claim that they committed no war crimes, but only played a supporting role. Indeed, Islamic State recruiters often promise their recruits that they need not fight if they choose not to: there are many other roles — guard duty, laundry and catering, and burying bodies, for example. Even some seeking the glory of jihad found themselves in these support roles. None of this should be exculpatory, however. “Jihad John” might be the face in front of the camera, but every single individual who volunteered to fight or aid the Islamic State bears responsibility. Indeed, most learned of and chose to assist the Islamic State precisely because they had seen the depiction of Islamist power and the humiliation of opponents or non-Muslims depicted in those videos. They are little different than those in Big Dan’s Bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who enabled and cheered on a rape, even if they themselves did not penetrate the victim.

It’s essential also to recognize that while not all residents of the Islamic State support it, an uncomfortable number of local Syrians and Iraqis have enabled and accepted its arrival. These, even more than the foreign Jihadis, are the Islamic State’s equivalent of “willing executioners.” They are the ones who have informed on neighbors hiding wanted opponents or lending their service to the terrorist entity. So-called Jihadi brides who travel from the West to Syria and Iraq are knowingly and willingly providing solace to murderers. They should be treated no more leniently than the wife of a serial killer who helped her husband commit his crimes.

And while the children and students indoctrinated into the Islamic State might not (yet) share the same level of guilt, their teachers do — whether Iraqi, Syrian, or foreign.

The Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias in Iraq, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighting in Syria have so far been remarkably restrained as they reconquer territory, although their records have not been perfect. Just as the Islamic State’s victories have been quick and caught the world largely by surprise, their defeat might be similar.

It pays to be prepared. If 22,000 jihadis from 90 countries now fight for the Islamic State, then it behooves those 90 countries to create and share a database with names, photographs, and any biometric information to hamper not only their return to their home country, but also their relocation elsewhere.

The International Criminal Court is woefully inefficient. And justice should not be a jobs industry for NGOs. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International furthermore have disqualified themselves with their previous partnership with an Al Qaeda financier. In addition, Human Rights Watch’s previous fundraising in Saudi Arabia creates a conflict of interest, to say the least, given Saudi culpability in funding extremism in Iraq and Syria. While governance in Syria remains uncertain, the Iraqi government should have first crack at prosecuting any member of or volunteer for the Islamic State in much the same way as it tried Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants. Only then can the healing truly begin.

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Anbar Sleeps Once More

For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

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For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

One of the great gains of the Surge is what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.” In late 2006 and into 2007, Sunni Arab leaders in the restive western Anbar Province that had once tolerated the heavy hand of al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to prevent encroaching Shiite influence united against their oppressors. Contrary to the popular mythology espoused by al-Qaeda leadership, the United States had demonstrated that it was a Middle Eastern power. It would not simply retreat amid a slow bloodletting at the hands of the insurgency. As Bing West observed, the American military showed that it was “the strongest tribe,” and the region’s leaders were prepared to throw their lots in with America.

Today, with the fall of Ramadi to ISIS apparently representing a new status quo, there is no doubt about who is the strongest tribe in Anbar. Many of the region’s Sunni clerics and tribal leaders who resisted ISIS’s advance were exiled or slaughtered by the renewed insurgency. Those who remain have now accepted their overlords. “A number of Sunni tribal sheikhs and tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group,” Al Jazeera reported earlier this month. “The sheikhs and tribal leaders made the pledge on Wednesday in Fallujah in a statement read out by Ahmed Dara al-Jumaili, an influential sheikh, after a meeting.”

The gains of the Surge are lost. Anbar is again asleep.

Compounding the impression among Anbar’s Sunni elites that a Shiite conspiracy is afoot that will only further undermine their influence in their home governorate is the fact that the United States has so flagrantly traded expediency for strategic competence by, reportedly, inviting Iran-backed Shiite militias into Anbar. Not only are militias loyal to Tehran operating inside Anbar, they are doing so alongside U.S. service personnel and within the same base.

“Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported. “Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.”

As galling as that last sentence may be — and it is galling — it is even more disheartening to know that the Sunni leaders in Anbar now have even more reason to tacitly or even openly welcome the ISIS insurgency, regardless of how brutal it might be. It’s hard to square the revelation that American troops and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s September 2014 contention that “we are not coordinating military operations or sharing intelligence with Iran.” The direct communication between forces that take orders from the Pentagon and those that are loyal to Tehran is now overt.

What’s harder to comprehend, however, is how this strategy would lead to a lasting victory against ISIS in Iraq. What seems more likely is that it would sow the seeds of a new civil war, and a real one, in the vacuum that would follow ISIS’s retreat and America’s second withdrawal from Iraq.

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Can Hillary Face the Truth About Iraq?

In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

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In the New York Times yesterday, former Marine Owen West, who served two tours in Iraq including one tour as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion, said flat-out that President Obama’s current strategy of limiting U.S. personnel to serving as trainers on bases will fail to achieve its objective of defeating ISIS. “Mr. Obama has declared that advisers are not combat troops,” he wrote. “But in fact, to influence battlefield performance, the adviser’s first job is to set the example in combat. The goal is to instill in the local force a sense of professional aggression — of seizing the offense — that must be demonstrated firsthand. Put simply, if the president wants to destroy the Islamic State, he will eventually renege on his ephemeral pledge not to engage in ground combat.”

What West is saying reflects little more than battlefield reality—the hard logic of war that can’t be wished away with airy political rhetoric. And it is a reality acknowledged even by some prominent Democrats such as Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense who is widely believed to be a leading candidate for secretary of defense in a Hillary Clinton administration. She told CNN, “We need to provide more stuff for training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level. We need to provide more fire power support, more intelligence surveillance ….” She further called for “providing operational support on the battlefield. Enablers, air cover and so forth.” That certainly sounds like a commitment greater than the one President Obama has made, which Flournoy criticized for being “under-resourced.”

It would be interesting to hear what Hillary Clinton thinks of Michele Flournoy’s observation. Clinton has recently said, “I basically agree with the policies that we are currently following,” adding, “There is no role whatsoever for American soldiers on the ground to go back, other than in the capacity as trainers and advisers.”

Clinton is, of course, trying, as best she can, to eradicate memories among Democratic voters of how she supported the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 before jumping ship to opposing the surge. That may be good politics in a Democratic primary—but it’s bad policy. The same could be said of her refusal to endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord that she supported as secretary of state.

The hope of Clinton’s more hard-headed supporters—including, one suspects, Michele Flournoy—is that she is merely throwing out political red meat to win the White House and that once in office she will tilt to the center. But if Clinton won’t utter unpleasant truths in a laugher of a primary, in which her closest rival is Bernie Sanders, there is good cause to wonder if, once in office, she will take hard, unpopular but necessary actions—such as allowing U.S. personnel in Iraq to take the calculated risks necessary to beat the Islamic State.

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Who Will Be the First to Suggest Negotiating with Islamic State?

There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

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There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

In Years of Upheaval, Kissinger ridiculed the notion of talking with terrorists. “We did not have a high incentive to advance the ‘dialogue’ with the PLO, as the fashionable phrase ran later,” he wrote, “not because of Israeli pressures but because of our perception of the American national interest.” He further explained how, “Before 1973, the PLO rarely intruded into international negotiations. In the 1972 communiqué ending Nixon’s Moscow summit, there was no reference to Palestinians, much less to the PLO…. The idea of a Palestinian state run by the PLO was not a subject for serious discourse.” In 1972, Black September, a PLO offshoot-proxy, attacked the Munich Olympics, and a year later, the National Security Agency heard PLO leader Yasir Arafat give the order to murder U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel who had been taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Khartoum. Simply put, you can’t get more pariah than that.

But, just six years later, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN, ostensibly to determine whether there was any formula by which the PLO would accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The State Department had never authorized the meeting between Young and a PLO representative. When reprimanded, the defiant Young resigned. President Carter, true to form, privately blamed Israel for forcing the issue to a head. And while many conservatives lionize President Ronald Reagan for his moral clarity, it was at the tail end of the Reagan administration that the State Department—with Reagan National Security Council permission—began talking to PLO representatives.

The same lack of resolve holds true with Hamas. In 2003, Richard Haass, at the time director of policy planning at the State Department (and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations) dismissed any notion of talking to Hamas. Speaking on PBS Newshour, he said, “There are some groups out there you can negotiate with. You have to decide whether there are terms you can live with,” he explained. “But groups like Hamas … have political agendas that I would suggest are beyond negotiation. And for them…, there’s got to be an intelligence, a law enforcement, and a military answer.” Just three years later, however, he suddenly began to advocate for engagement with Hamas.

Haass’ turnaround was consistent with the Council on Foreign Relations’ informal role as the barometer of elite opinion, rather than its path breaker. Already, in 2005, the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway had argued that political power might moderate Hamas by forcing its accountability to a constituency, never mind that donations from terror sponsoring regimes insulate Hamas from popular accountability. Chris Patten, the European Union’s former chief diplomat, in a March 13, 2007 Financial Times op-ed, counseled forgetting Hamas’s past and starting anew, never mind that in the run-up to the elections, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar vowed, “We will join the Legislative Council with our weapons in our hands.” Jimmy Carter was just as willing to whitewash the record. He told NBC’s Meredith Vieira in January 2009, for example, that Hamas had upheld its ceasefire with Israel—seemingly unaware that the group had fired over 600 mortars and rockets into Israel the previous month. The next month, Paddy Ashdown and ten other former statesmen and politicians signed a letter published in The Times of London saying, “We have learnt first-hand that there is no substitute for direct and sustained negotiations with all parties to a conflict, and rarely if ever a durable peace without them. Isolation only bolsters hardliners and their policies of intransigence. Engagement can strengthen pragmatic elements and their ability to strike the hard compromises needed for peace.” Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act: Her State Department approved a direct meeting between diplomat Rachel Schneller and the Hamas representative in Lebanon. Through it all, had Hamas changed? No. Its charter still embraces genocide, and the group remains just as committed to terrorism, if not more so now that it knows it can act without losing diplomatic credibility.

As for Iran, Sohrab Ahmari’s “The 36-Year Project to Whitewash Iran” says it all. Seldom has a regime so intent in rhetoric and practice to murder Americans been given so many repeated free passes on it actions.

Time has even laundered Al Qaeda and it fellow travelers among proponents of engagement. Secretary of State Colin Powell was roundly ridiculed for suggesting outreach to “moderate Taliban” just months after 9/11, but that’s exactly what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently made the policy of the United States. As for Al Qaeda proper? It only took four years before the first academic researchers began suggesting dialogue with Al Qaeda. While a moderate Syrian opposition existed in the first months of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, it was quickly pushed aside, defeated, or co-opted by far more radical groups. The Nusra Front made no secret of its fealty to Al Qaeda. When the Islamic State went its own way, suddenly the Nusra Front looked moderate by comparison. Was it moderate? Absolutely not, but that has not stopped the Turkish government, whose counter-terrorism work the State Department still praises, from arming it. Members of the Syrian National Coalition, which the State Department supports, also advocate negotiation with the Nusra Front.

This brings us to the Islamic State. Far from degrading and defeating the group, President Obama’s strategy has at best been ineffective and at worst allowed the group space to grow. It has consolidated control over territory and has begun brainwashing a generation of children. Some among a more radical fringe have already suggested negotiations with the group. While most analysts would recognize the futility and ridiculousness of such a position given the murderous ideology which the Islamic State embraces, the absence of moral clarity among diplomats means that it’s only a matter of time until the Islamic State becomes a fact of life in the diplomatic mind, and some ambitious diplomat or Nobel Prize-seeking Secretary of State quietly suggests letting bygones be bygones and insisting that realism mandates talking to the enemy. Such a scenario might sound ridiculous today, but it’s the only outcome of a rudderless, valueless foreign policy. After all, if the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Taliban, chemical weapons-wielding Syrian regime, and even Nusra Front can become partners, then there is no behavior so evil as to force permanent pariah status. That is, unless both Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognize just how sick U.S. diplomatic culture as become and re-assert their oversight role in earnest, use the power of the purse to constrain the State Department, and legislate to set the parameters of a more responsible policy.

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Obama Wins Small Victories While Suffering Big Defeats Against Terrorists

As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

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As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

These are all nice little victories. Wuhayshi and Belmokhtar certainly deserved to die, as punishment for their crimes, and it’s good to see any towns liberated from ISIS’ murderous grips. But weighed on the scales against all of the victories that terrorists have been enjoying lately these seem like small change.

ISIS has taken over roughly half of Syria and a third of Iraq, most recently capturing the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. It has also expanded its operations to Libya, where an ISIS offshoot is battling with other extremists for control of ungoverned territory, as well as to Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, and other countries which it has ambitiously declared to be provinces of its caliphate. Meanwhile the Al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has helped to take Idlib and is expanding its operations elsewhere in Syria, while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has succeeded in exerting significant territorial control in Yemen. In Afghanistan the Taliban and Haqqani Network remain as active as ever, as do Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, etc. There is even a newish Al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which is threatening to unleash another reign of terror in countries such as India and Bangladesh—a threat to take seriously given the large Muslim population on the subcontinent.

And don’t forget the flip side of all of these Sunni jihadist groups—Shiite jihadist groups, under the thumb of Iran, which now the most powerful actors in the ostensibly government-controlled regions of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, all of which are becoming virtual provinces of Greater Iran.

Sad to say, none of these alarming trends will be shaken in the slightest by the death of a couple of terrorist commanders or the loss of a town or two. Given the way that terrorist groups have been expanding into the vacuum of so many lands across the Greater Middle East, it takes a willful denial of reality to claim that we are winning what used to be known as the war on terror.

The most that can be said is that we have enjoyed some success in avoiding a repeat of 9/11 on our soil; while terror attacks such as the Boston marathon bombing have occurred, they have mercifully been on a smaller if still terrible scale. But alas we can expect more attacks on the homeland as well as on our interests abroad because ISIS, the most high-profile terrorist group of the moment, is ramping up its international operations. As this graphic shows it has already been linked to numerous attacks from Australia to Texas, and we can expect more in the future.

If the Obama administration has an effective way to fight back, it has been carefully concealed for the moment. It is important to break ISIS’ hold over its “caliphate” in order to dispel its mystique and to lessen its attraction to foreign jihadists. But the most effective ground forces to oppose ISIS in Syria are the YPG, which, even if we ignore their ties to the PKK Marxist terrorist group, are still limited in what they can do—they cannot take and hold non-Kurdish areas. The same goes for the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite militias which have the most effective counter-ISIS forces in Iraq: their reach is effectively limited to areas occupied by their own groups.

Defeating ISIS, a Qaeda and their ilk will require an ambitious agenda far beyond any developed or even contemplated, as far as I can tell, by the Obama administration, which prefers to bomb from long range in a way that is destined to remain ineffectual.  There is no American strategy that I can see that will seriously shake the hold that these terrorists groups have been developing on ever-more extensive territory. And that means that recent successes, however welcome, are likely to be inconsequential.

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Obama Embraces Hope But Little Change in Iraq

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained? Read More

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained?

The administration is apparently pinning its hopes on the passage of a law authorizing a National Guard composed of Sunni tribesmen, but Iraqi officials have been promising to pass that law for at least a year and haven’t delivered because sectarian Shiites have no interest in arming Sunnis. Perhaps that will suddenly change. And perhaps 450 additional trainers will somehow make a difference when the previous deployment of 3,000 personnel hasn’t done much to stop the ISIS onslaught. Perhaps the administration will get lucky, but hoping to fill an inside straight isn’t a good basis for policymaking.

If the administration were really serious about defeating ISIS, it would have to lift the rules that prevent American personnel from going into battle with Iraqi forces and calling in air strikes. It would also have to be prepared to order US Special Operations Forces to engage ISIS directly, staging regular raids like the one that recently killed an ISIS mid-level leader in Syria. In addition, it would have to mount a major political initiative to give the Sunnis a reason to fight ISIS by assuring them that they will not again be subjugated to extremist Shiite rule. Oh, and the administration would also have to come up with some strategy for fighting ISIS in Syria — and in far-flung lands such as Libya, where the Islamic State is now expanding.

If the administration has any plans to address these issues, they are well-concealed secrets. What we can tell from public statements and leaks is that the president is willing to tinker around the edges with the current strategy, much in the way that President Bush did during 2003-2006. But, unlike Bush in 2007, Obama is not willing to question the flawed assumptions on which his current strategy is based. Until that happens don’t expect to see much success in rolling back the Islamic State.

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The Fall of Sirte Makes ISIS in Libya a Mediterranean Power

While ISIS conducts wildly successful, multipronged assaults on targets in Syria and Iraq, it might be easy to forget that the fight against the Islamic State is raging across the Muslim world. From the coast of the Atlantic in Nigeria to the Persian Gulf, from the Southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the teeming and expansionist Islamic State has reinvigorated the militant Islamist movement. Among the many forgotten battlefields where ISIS seeks to expand its nascent caliphate is the failed state of Libya. There, the West’s democracies sought to correct for George W. Bush’s oft-criticized policy of regime change by ironically embracing it, but with slightly less acumen or foresight. As ISIS gains a foothold in the Libya that took shape after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and subsequent murder, that country is growing increasingly likely to be next front in the war against Islamic radicalism. Read More

While ISIS conducts wildly successful, multipronged assaults on targets in Syria and Iraq, it might be easy to forget that the fight against the Islamic State is raging across the Muslim world. From the coast of the Atlantic in Nigeria to the Persian Gulf, from the Southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, the teeming and expansionist Islamic State has reinvigorated the militant Islamist movement. Among the many forgotten battlefields where ISIS seeks to expand its nascent caliphate is the failed state of Libya. There, the West’s democracies sought to correct for George W. Bush’s oft-criticized policy of regime change by ironically embracing it, but with slightly less acumen or foresight. As ISIS gains a foothold in the Libya that took shape after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and subsequent murder, that country is growing increasingly likely to be next front in the war against Islamic radicalism.

Reports from the region suggest that Libya has become a popular site for veterans of the Syrian civil war, as well as Iraqi and Tunisian extremists, to practice their newfound skills of seizing and holding territory. “[A]ccording to Libyan security sources, ISIS now has about 2,000 fighters in Sirte and an estimated 700 in Sabratha, famous for its Roman ruins, in the northwestern corner of Libya just 41 miles from Tripoli,” The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer wrote on Monday.

The Islamic State’s advance into the key Libyan port city of Sirte has accelerated in the last several hours. In the early morning, forces loyal to the government in Tripoli fled a power plant in the port city of Sirte amid an assault by ISIS fighters. According to ISIS forces, which had seized much of this city last year and captured its international airport two weeks ago, the remaining holdouts still loyal to the acting Libyan government soon capitulated.

“The Islamic State group claimed to have seized full control Tuesday of the Libyan city of Sirte from the Fajr Libya militia, including a power plant, according to a US monitor,” the AFP reported. With the fall of that key port located just a few hours from the Sicilian coast, ISIS is now a Mediterranean power.

The fall of Sirte coincides with a nationwide offensive by ISIS fighters that consists of mounting attackson soft targets inside Tripoli, laying siege to the country’s oil fields, and executing suicide bombings in a number of Libyan cities. The ISIS-linked fighters in Libya have reportedly adopted the practice of summarily executing minorities, including Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians. Defense officials reported on Tuesday that the Islamic State had captured 88 Ethiopian Christians in their effort to flee North Africa and escape by boat to Europe.

An estimated 50,000 have already fled to southern Italy, igniting fears that a humanitarian crisis in Europe is imminent if the chaos in North Africa continues – a prospect that seems today to be more than likely.

On Monday, representatives from the G-7 states advised the various groups vying for legitimacy in post-Gaddafi Libya to make “bold political decisions,” put aside their differences, and unite before the nation they seek to lead has utterly collapsed. But the West will have to adopt a more substantial approach to this crisis, including a material commitment to provide support for the strongest and most reliable anti-Islamic force in the country.

And they will have to do it soon.

“Forces loyal to the eastern government have been fighting Islamic fighters in the eastern city of Benghazi for a year but have been unable to control the entire city,” the Saudi-based news agency Al Arabiya warned on Monday. “Last week, the eastern army said it was short of ammunition.”

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Obama Plays Analyst-In-Chief in Fight Against ISIS

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be. Read More

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be.

The president also neatly dodged the issue of whether he would be prepared to commit more U.S. forces. Asked about that, he replied, “I think what is fair to say is that all the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraqi security forces if they feel like that additional work is being taken advantage of.” That reveals muddled thinking on two levels. First the question wasn’t just about more trainers—it was about more US forces, period. Trainers alone will never be very effective; what are needed are more advisers, tactical air controllers, and special operations personnel to work alongside Iraqis in battle to call in precision air strikes and to bolster their professionalism. With his answer, Obama revealed a willful refusal to even consider this kind of commitment even though most military experts agree it is the only one with any shot of success.

The second problem with Obama answer is that he is once again putting the onus on Iraqis to get their house in order before the U.S. will do more assist them. Obama was right that the effort to enlist Sunnis to fight ISIS “has not been happening as fast as it needs to.” He was right, too, that “the political agenda of inclusion remains as important as the military fight that’s out there. If Sunnis, Kurds, and Shia all feel as if they’re concerns are being addressed, and that operating within a legitimate political structure can meet their need for security, prosperity, non-discrimination, then we’re going to have much easier time.” But what if anything is President Obama himself going to do to break through the political log jam, to provide a check on Iranian influence, and to push for the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s governing structure? Here is the entirety of his answer: “And so we’ve got to continue to monitor that and support those who are on the right side of the issue there.”

What was missing was any pledge by Obama that he was going to roll up his sleeves and work on this personally or even that he would send a high-profile envoy to Baghdad, of the kind the administration has employed on other issues. All we got was pretty much more of the same — more a description of the problem than a pledge to find a solution. Once again, the president is showing himself to be more analyst-in-chief than commander-in-chief. But dispassionate analysis will not defeat a determined organization like ISIS. That requires a massive effort that is plainly not forthcoming from this administration.

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