Commentary Magazine


Topic: ISIS

Young Arabs Agree: Israel Isn’t Arab World’s Major Problem

One of the most positive strategic developments for Israel of the past few years has been its marked improvement in relations with significant parts of the Arab world. Three years ago, for instance, the most cockeyed optimist wouldn’t have predicted a letter like Israel received this week from a senior official of the Free Syrian Army, who congratulated it on its 67th anniversary and voiced hope that next year, Israel’s Independence Day would be celebrated at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.

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One of the most positive strategic developments for Israel of the past few years has been its marked improvement in relations with significant parts of the Arab world. Three years ago, for instance, the most cockeyed optimist wouldn’t have predicted a letter like Israel received this week from a senior official of the Free Syrian Army, who congratulated it on its 67th anniversary and voiced hope that next year, Israel’s Independence Day would be celebrated at an Israeli embassy in Damascus.

Yet many analysts have cautioned that even if Arab leaders were quietly cooperating with Israel for reasons of realpolitik, anti-Israel hostility in the “Arab street” hadn’t abated. So a new poll showing that this, too, is changing came as a lovely Independence Day gift.

The ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, which has been conducted annually for the last seven years, polls 3,500 Arabs aged 18 to 24 from 16 Arab countries in face-to-face interviews. One of the standard questions is “What do you believe is the biggest obstacle facing the Middle East?”

This year, defying a long tradition of blaming all the Arab world’s problems on Israel, only 23 percent of respondents cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the region’s main obstacle. In fact, the conflict came in fourth, trailing ISIS (37 percent), terrorism (32 percent) and unemployment (29 percent). Given that respondents were evidently allowed to choose more than one of the 15 options (the total adds up to 235 percent rather than 100), it’s even more noteworthy that only 23 percent thought the conflict worth mentioning.

A comparison to previous surveys shows that this figure has been declining slowly but steadily for the past few years: In 2012, for instance, it was 27 percent, a statistically significant difference given the poll’s margin of error (1.65 percent). But the 2015 decline is particularly remarkable because last summer’s war in Gaza made the past year the conflict’s bloodiest in decades for Palestinians. Hence one would have expected Arab concern about the conflict to increase. Instead, it dropped.

The poll also highlights another encouraging fact: The issues young Arabs do see as their top concerns–ISIS, terrorism, and unemployment–are all issues on which cooperation with Israel could be beneficial, and in some cases, it’s already taking place. For instance, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism is closer than it’s been in years–not only against Hamas, but also against the ISIS branch in Sinai, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Israel and Jordan cooperate closely on counterterrorism as well, and it’s a safe bet that quiet cooperation is also occurring with certain other Arab states that officially have no relations with Israel.

Egypt and Israel have also ramped up economic cooperation, even manning a joint booth at a major trade fair earlier this year.

In short, the issues currently of greatest concern to young Arabs are precisely the issues most conducive to a further thawing of Israeli-Arab relations.

What the poll shows, in a nutshell, is that young Arabs have reached the same conclusion Arab leaders made glaringly evident at the last year’s inaugural session of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate: Israel simply isn’t one of the Arab world’s major problems anymore, if it ever was. Now all Israel needs is for the West to finally come to the same realization.

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Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

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The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Kurdish Infighting Threatens Kirkuk, Gains Against Islamic State

Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

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Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

In the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, most analysts believed that Kirkuk would be a flashpoint between Kurds, whom Saddam had forced from the city and who called Kirkuk their “Jerusalem,” Arabs who claimed a majority in the city and its environs, and Turkmens, whose numbers the government of Turkey exaggerated and which Ankara sought to use as a wedge for its own interests.

The reality of post-liberation Kirkuk turned out to be more placid. There was tension, and Kurdish parties maintained their claims, but generally speaking, ethnic and sectarian violence within Kirkuk city was more the exception rather than the rule. After all, many of the Arabs who had replaced Kurds in recent years wished to return to the cities of central and southern Iraq, where they either had living family or the graves of family long since deceased. And many of the Kurds whom Baathist forces had expelled from the city of Kirkuk were not landowners in the first place, but tenants.

The real trouble was in the farmland outside the city, where Kurdish farmers expelled from their fields wished to return immediately, but Arab farmers who had invested their savings in crops were loath to depart before harvesting them. Men like then-Col. (now Lt.-Gen.) William Mayville did a brilliant job working with farmers on a case-by-case basis to resolve such problems in a fair and equitable way.

Still, Kirkuk remained a contested city until late last spring, when Kurdish peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) consolidated control over the city. Even then, under the stewardship of PUK-affiliated governor Najmaldin Karim, the Kurds were careful to ensure that Kirkuk remained a city for all ethnicities and religions; ethnic chauvinism played no part in governance and, if taxi drivers are considered good barometers, then both Turkmen and Arabs acknowledge that they have as much if not greater access to resources and investment.

Not surprisingly, then, ISIS has worked constantly over the past several months not only to destabilize Kirkuk, but to control it altogether. After ISIS threatened Iraqi Kurdistan last August, many countries responded to calls to support Kurdistan and help the Kurds defend themselves. The United States offered airstrikes and training, but still declines to provide the Kurds directly with heavy and advanced weaponry out of deference to Baghdad and to avoid encouraging Kurdish separatism. The Europeans, however, have not hesitated to answer the Kurdish requests for weaponry.

Here’s where Kurdish disunity undercuts the fight against ISIS and risks Kurdistan’s security. Kirkuk is central to the ISIS efforts now to attack and destabilize Kurdistan. While the minister of Peshmerga Affairs is from the Gorran Movement, an opposition group which has since relegated much of its reformist calls to rhetoric only and struck a bargain with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), most weaponry delivered to the Kurdistan Regional Government is directed into the hands of the KDP peshmerga. None of it has found its way to Kirkuk, largely because the Kurdish leadership in Erbil is upset that Kirkukis repeatedly vote for an independent-minded governor and not for the KDP.

In effect, after decades of demanding that Kirkuk should be returned to Kurdistan, once it has been, the political narrow-mindedness of the Kurdish leadership in Erbil seems to prefer to risk Kirkuk’s fall to ISIS rather than see its Kurds choose a political figure from a party other than Masoud Barzani’s party. True, the KDP will use some of the weaponry to prepare for the coming fight in and around Mosul, although at present the Syrian-based Popular Protection Units (YPG) seem to be doing much of the heavy-lifting rolling back ISIS around Sinjar.

Let’s hope that rather than simply heed the Kurdish call for arms and assume such arms will go where needed, European states donating to the Kurdish cause ensure their assistance goes where it is needed and, indeed, refuse to provide arms unless they first receive a firm commitment the arms will fight ISIS rather than be stockpiled for the benefit of a single party or family.

Kurds often complain that they have been victims of history. Alas, as the military abandonment of Kirkuk on the part of the KRG suggests, too often they have been victims not only of outside powers, but also of the short-sightedness of their own political leadership.

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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Obama’s Right

Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

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Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

Now I consider the agreement Obama has negotiated a dishonorable and dangerous product of appeasement, and so it pains me to side with him against political figures I admire and generally support. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I think he is right in arguing that the only alternative to a deal is war.

By this I do not mean that war is the only alternative to Obama’s deal alone. What I mean is that war is the only alternative to any deal the Iranians would be willing to sign–if, that is, the purpose is really to prevent them from getting the bomb. Obama keeps insisting that this is what his deal will accomplish. But it seems increasingly clear that he no longer thinks, if he ever did, that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be so dangerous that it must be prevented at all costs from getting them.

Up until a few years ago, there was hardly any dissent from this conviction. Yet while just about every political leader and pundit throughout the West agreed that the threat of military force had to be “kept on the table” in order for peaceful means to succeed, most of them were confident that a judicious combination of carrots and sticks would do the trick and that military force would never need to be taken off the table and actually used.

There was, however, a small minority–myself included–who contended that the Iranians were so determined to build a nuclear arsenal that nothing, not sanctions and not the chance (in Barack Obama’s words) to “get right with the world,” could ever induce them to give up their pursuit of it. And since we were convinced that negotiations could accomplish nothing but buy the Iranians more time to forge ahead, we also thought that the sooner we bombed their nuclear facilities the better.

We were fully aware that such a course was very risky. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian retaliation against our troops in the region and against Israel, and it might well lead to the dire economic consequences that Iran could let loose by blocking the flow of oil. Yet in our view all this was as nothing compared with the nuclear arms race that an Iranian bomb would set off throughout the Middle East.

Even worse, there was also the high probability that Iran–once possessed of the means to make good on their openly and repeatedly stated dream of “wiping Israel off the map”–would either provoke the Israelis into a preemptive nuclear strike or try to beat them to the punch with a preemptive nuclear strike of its own. Either way, the casualties and the destruction would reach unimaginable heights.

Our position was summed up in the slogan “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb.” And to those like President Obama who charged us with warmongering, our response was that the choice was not between a negotiated settlement and war. It was between a conventional war now and a nuclear war later.

As for the Obama deal, if its purpose were really to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb, it would be a total failure, if only because it leaves their nuclear infrastructure intact and gives them plenty of room to cheat. But judging by deeds rather than words, it is reasonable to conclude that what Obama is trying to do is not to keep Iran from getting the bomb but to further his quest for a detente, or even a de facto alliance, with Iran. Already we see the foreshadowing of such an alliance in his willingness to cooperate with the Iranians in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and his reluctance to take any steps in the Middle East (against their ally Syria, for example) that might displease them.

At this point, the slogan that best applies comes from Winston Churchill’s devastating comment on Neville Chamberlain’s pact with Hitler at Munich in 1938: “You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You have chosen dishonor and now you will get war”–and this time a nuclear war at that. Unless, that is, the Israelis were to choose conventional war now over nuclear war later. My guess is that they will, but it is just as likely that Obama, despite his repeated assurances that he “has Israel’s back,” will stop them by threatening to withhold the diplomatic support and the resupply of lost weaponry they would need. In that case God help us all.

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

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The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

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The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

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General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

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America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

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Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

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Are the Iran Nuclear Talks a Hostage Negotiation?

With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

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With one week left before the current deadline for the end of the nuclear talks with Iran, the administration’s desperation to cut a deal with Tehran is fairly obvious. The reason why the Iranians have stood their ground on the last sticking points stems from President Obama’s history of retreating on every issue when pressed to do so, leading the Iranians to believe they can count on him making a few more concessions in order to secure the agreement. But according to Politico, they have another motive for expecting the West to give way again on measures that might conceivably limit their ability to cheat their way to a bomb. Instead of just taking advantage of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s zeal for a deal, they also have the ability to threaten mayhem throughout the Middle East if they don’t get their way. Possible Iranian threats against U.S. personnel in Iraq may be turning the nuclear talks into as much of a hostage negotiation as anything else.

As Politico’s sources within the administration make clear, U.S. officials are worried that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could lead to attacks against Americans in Iraq from Shiite militias or others doing Iran’s bidding. Iran has become a de facto ally of the United States in the battle against ISIS. But as problematic as relying on an Islamist regime that sponsors terrorism to fight Islamist terrorists may be, this arrangement also leaves the 3,000 U.S. personnel sent to Iraq as advisers and trainers for the forces fighting ISIS vulnerable to Iranian revenge if the president doesn’t do as they demand in the nuclear talks.

The reason why President Obama has given Iran little reason to worry about his willingness to pressure them in the nuclear talks is a function of his weak negotiating style, but it is also rooted in his objectives. Though he has consistently said he will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, he has proven that he is just as interested, if not more so, in détente with the Islamist regime. But while Obama conceives of this as a way for Iran to “get right with the world,” the Iranians have other intentions. They welcome the president’s effort to find an excuse to end their economic and diplomatic isolation but intend to use it as a cover to proceed toward their own goal of regional hegemony.

With their allies winning the Syrian civil war and keeping Bashar Assad in power, Tehran views the fighting in Iraq as a way to consolidate their influence over a Baghdad government that no longer can count on U.S. forces. With the Iranians directing operations against ISIS in Tikrit and elsewhere in the country, a tacit alliance with the United States has now become an open one. Though that aids the fight against ISIS, it also puts Iran in a position to exact revenge on the U.S. if the administration finds its backbone in the nuclear talks.

Washington may argue that Iran’s stake in Iraq and Syria gives it an incentive to play ball in the nuclear talks since they have a lot to lose if the West were to try to oust Assad or to toss them out of Iraq. But the facts on the ground argue in the other direction. It is the administration that needs Iran, or thinks it does. Iran has made itself both indispensible to the fight against ISIS and created a situation in which the U.S. may think it has no choice but to tread carefully whenever Tehran’s interests are placed in jeopardy. That’s not so much an unavoidable tradeoff that is a standard part of diplomacy as it is an occupational hazard for nations that try to do business with terrorists and their state sponsors.

By abandoning Iraq after the surge had secured the victory that U.S. troops fought so hard to achieve, President Obama set a series of events in motion that led to both the rise of ISIS and an unholy alliance with Iran. It has also created a situation where Americans and U.S. interests throughout the region are now hostages that can be threatened if Iran wants to squeeze Obama. Given the president’s eagerness to be fleeced at the nuclear talks by Iran, that may not be necessary. But if the Islamist regime were ever worried about President Obama meaning what he says about not signing a bad nuclear deal, their potential for mayhem in Iraq makes it unlikely that the U.S. will surprise us and stand its ground over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

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Twenty Years Since Japan’s 9/11

Twenty years ago today, Japan suffered its worst terrorist atrocity, the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways by the religious cult known as Aum Shinrikyo. Over at the Wall Street Journal, my column this week looks at the lessons for the West that still resonate from the Aum attacks.

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Twenty years ago today, Japan suffered its worst terrorist atrocity, the sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways by the religious cult known as Aum Shinrikyo. Over at the Wall Street Journal, my column this week looks at the lessons for the West that still resonate from the Aum attacks.

In many ways, those lessons are stronger today than they ever have been. Right now, the Boston Marathon bombing trial is going on, revisiting the question of how to identify and stop homegrown terrorism. Japanese authorities failed miserably in stopping Aum, even though they had committed numerous acts of terror before, including a prior gas attack, using nerve agents, and old-fashioned murder. The lesson is clear: let homegrown terrorism fester, and it will metastasize, eventually causing a catastrophe.

And what about ISIS? Aum may have been the first of the millenarian death cults. Aum’s leader Shoko Asahara (who still sits on Japan’s Death Row, awaiting punishment) essentially made up his cult’s religion, but the apocalyptic or messianic aspect served increasingly as its guiding force. We see that now with ISIS, as they behead and immolate their way through the Middle East, using religion as both justification and incitement. Religious cults that venerate death are a unique poison that cannot be rationalized with, nor contained. They must be destroyed.

Aum Shinrikyo is not an exact parallel to what we face today, but it holds eerie similarities that we can perhaps see better for the time that has passed. In two decades, Japan may not have suffered a similar attack, but the type of threat it faced on that deadly morning is now a part of our larger world.

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What Obama’s Rush to Iran Détente Means

The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

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The nuclear talks between the Iran and the United States and its allies continue in Lausanne, Switzerland this week with both parties expressing both optimism that they are close to an agreement and demands that the other side make concessions. Given Iran’s history of delaying tactics it is impossible to know for sure whether they will eventually agree to the deal or a framework of one being offered them by President Obama by the March 24 deadline. Given the series of retreats that the president has made on this issue in the last two years, it’s hard to blame the Iranians for believing that they can ultimately prevail and get their way in the talks. But as Jackson Diehl noted earlier this week in the Washington Post, these negotiations are about a lot more than the effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. While almost all of the attention on nuclear diplomacy has been on the details of the offer made by the United States as well as on efforts by both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or Senate Republicans to derail what they consider American appeasement of Iran, the real issue is one that the president has done all he can to avoid: the U.S. attempt to create a new entente with Tehran that will allow the two country to cooperate on a host of issues in the Middle East.

As Diehl rightly put it, the U.S. strategy in the talks isn’t really so much about a nuclear issue on which the Americans have essentially punted on efforts to stop the Islamist regime from obtaining nuclear capability. During his 2012 foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama pledged that any deal with Iran would ensure that it gave up its nuclear program. Yet the U.S. offer to Iran will allow it to keep its nuclear infrastructure in the form of thousands of centrifuges, a nuclear fuel stockpile that could easily be reactivated and a sunset clause that will end any restrictions on Iranian activity after an unspecified period. This will allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear power with Western approval and to easily evade restrictions to build a bomb if they want. Even worse, once sanctions are eventually lifted and the West moves on from this confrontation, Iran might well be able to build a bomb by actually observing the agreement.

Any sort of agreement, no matter how weak or unlikely to achieve the goal of preventing an Iranian weapon, will be portrayed by the White House as a great achievement. But as Diehl noted, those who are concentrating solely on the back-and-forth in the talks or the anger about the letter from Senate Republicans warning that a deal won’t be binding if Congress doesn’t ratify it, misses the real objective of the administration to find a partner to help resolve problems in Iraq and Syria.

The administration seems to view Iranian actions in those two countries as being helpful since its forces are fighting ISIS in Iraq and have helped prop up its ally Bashar Assad against Islamist rebels. That helps explain why Obama dithered for years about taking action in Syria even as he continued to call for Assad’s ouster or spoke about its atrocity crossing “red lines.” It also explains why, despite the fact that U.S. officials have rightly labeled Tehran as the leading state sponsor of terror in the world, both Iran and Hezbollah were left off a list of terror threats prepared by Director of National Intelligence James Klapper.

What the president seems to want is to create an era of cooperation in which Iran will have a free hand to protect its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries dominate, will ensure that ISIS doesn’t get too strong. But this scares both Israel and moderate Arab regimes that rightly sees Iran as every bit as dangerous as ISIS.

The result of such an alliance will not only be détente with Iran that will undermine resistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also allow it to achieve the regional hegemony that it has wanted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Thus, while we do well to try and point out the terrible consequences of the nuclear deal, its real implications go farther than just the question of how quickly Iran can get to a bomb. If this deal goes through without being checked by Congress, future administrations will not just have to deal with an Iran that is closer to a bomb but the fact that President Obama is giving a Western seal of approval to Iran’s regional ambitions.

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The Cost of Obama’s Syria Disgrace

Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

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Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

The graphic illustrates the toll the war has taken on that tortured country. Most dramatic is its depiction of satellite photos that illustrate the collapse of Syria’s population centers. The photos show that Syria is 83 percent darker at night than it was before the start of the war. Sir Edward Gray’s famous comment at the start of World War One that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” seems apt for Syria as well. The war has caused an exodus of epic proportions. Approximately 7.6 million people have been displaced inside of Syria as a result of the fight. But 3.9 million, approximately half of them children, have been forced out of the country and are living as refugees elsewhere in great squalor and suffering.

Also depicted is the current division of the country between armed forces loyal to the government, ISIS, and moderate rebels. But those maps don’t tell the full story either of how the current situation came to be or what is really going on today.

The weakest of the three sides in this civil war are the non-ISIS rebels. Some are genuine moderates. Others are connected to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile the pro-government areas are as likely to contain Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists with a sprinkling of Iranian volunteers as they are Assad’s Alawite base of support within the pre-war Syrian army.

But that current division couldn’t have come about had President Obama not played Hamlet on Syria for two years as the original more moderate rebel forces came to be either dominated or pushed aside by more radical elements tied to al-Qaeda. Even more to the point, it was the vacuum created by the West’s indecision as well as the administration’s fateful decision to pull completely out of Iraq that allowed ISIS to arise while Obama was trying to decide what to do.

Four years later, it’s probably too late to expect Syrian moderates now getting some minimal Western aid to do much about an Assad regime that was backed to the hilt by its Iranian ally and their Lebanese auxiliaries. Even worse, the real explanation for American hesitancy to do something about Syria might have been the president’s desire for a rapprochement with Iran.

It is true that any decision to act on Syria would have been fraught with danger. Intervention in Iraq created a host of unintended consequences—such as the strengthening of Iran—which Americans now regret. There was no guarantee that action would not have created other problems and exposed American forces to terror attacks. But we do know what happened because President Obama either couldn’t make up his mind or was too intent on making nice with Iran to act decisively. Could the fallout from a decision to oust Assad before Iran could rescue him or ISIS arose have resulted in more casualties or refugees? Could the strategic situation have been any worse than the one in which ISIS now controls much of the country while the U.S. has been forced into a tacit alliance with the Islamist despots of Tehran and the butcher of Damascus in order to hold them back?

The debate about the answers to these questions will interest historians in future generations. But for now, all we need to know is that the greatest human-rights catastrophe since Barack Obama became president might well have been averted or at least lessened by decisive American leadership. Along with his many other failures and mistakes, this horror should never be forgotten or be allowed to be obscured as the president’s fans seek to celebrate him. Such a disgrace isn’t merely a bad political choice; it’s a permanent commitment to infamy.

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A Hollow Victory in Tikrit

There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

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There are reports that Iraqi forces have retaken much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Pictures of jubilant Iraqi soldiers are appearing on the Internet. It remains to be seen whether these celebrations are premature or not; certainly Iraqi forces have a history of claiming victories over ISIS that soon unravel.

But even if this “victory” stands up, our jubilation should be tightly controlled. Yes, it’s a good thing if ISIS is suffering defeats, but who’s winning? It’s not the United States and it’s not  the lawful Iraqi state led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The real victor here, if there is a victory, is Iran. Most of the fighters who are taking Tikrit are Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen, not soldiers of Iraq. The real leader of this operation is not any general appointed by Prime Minister Abadi but rather Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who has been a high-profile presence on the front lines.

And this is not an isolated occurrence. With Iran and its proxies taking the lead in fighting ISIS, there is a real danger that U.S. support for the anti-ISIS drive will wind up delivering Iraq into the hands of Iran. This is, of course, the danger that many opponents of the Iraq War warned about, but it was a danger kept in check as long as there was a substantial U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The U.S. departure at the end of 2011, however, opened the floodgates for Iranian influence.

By focusing U.S. efforts solely on rolling back ISIS, President Obama is providing another opportunity for Iran to expand its influence. This is a very bad development for two reasons: First, the obvious reason–Iran believes that the U.S. is the Great Satan and it is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, with a track record going back to 1979 of mounting terrorist attacks on American targets. So its success in expanding its influence into countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen is a defeat for the U.S.

Second, Iran is anathema to the region’s Sunnis. The more successful that Iran appears to be, the more that Sunnis will flock for protection to ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other Sunnis terrorist groups.

The U.S. desperately needs a plan not to just to roll back ISIS influence but also to roll back Iranian influence. The kind of plan implemented in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraues in Iraq, when U.S. forces targeted Iranian operatives for exposure and arrest. There is, alas, no sign of such a plan today–if anything, the U.S. seems to be tacitly conceding Iran the right to a dominant role in Iraq, Syria, etc., as part of a broader rapprochement that, Obama hopes, will include a nuclear deal.

This is a monstrous mistake. A victory over the terrorists of ISIS in Iraq, even if it is forthcoming, will be hollow indeed if it becomes a victory for the terrorists of Iran.

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The Disastrous World Obama Has Helped Create

Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

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Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

The Islamic State has now taken control of much of Syria and large parts of Iraq. Libya has descended into violence and chaos; it’s becoming a terrorist haven. The U.S.-backed government in Yemen has collapsed. And Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, has taken an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, reinforcing fears that ISIS is expanding its support well beyond its base in Syria and Iraq.

These developments have created a rising sense of gloom among current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials. The Washington Post provides a useful summary:

  • In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” (Mr. Clapper testified last month that more than 20,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, including at least 3,400 from the West — “a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States.”)
  • Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.
  • Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA under President Obama, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”
  • “You’ve got a much bigger counterterrorism problem than you had a few years ago,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. Terrorist groups “have never had territory of this magnitude. Never had this much money. Never this much access to Western passport holders. Never had the narrative they have now.”

All of this illustrates how farcical the upbeat assessments by Mr. Obama were.

I’d also urge people to recall the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where Mr. Obama promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s ascent to the presidency would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation, he told us. “We have the power to make the world we seek,” the president declared. This came after Mr. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, promised to “repair this world.”

It turns out that by “mutual respect” and “repair this world” Mr. Obama really meant “disdain and contempt” and “do substantial, durable damage to it.”

President Obama, through a pernicious combination of staggering ineptness and intention–he is the first president of the post-World War II generation who does not believe American power is a force for good in the world–has done incalculable harm when it comes to creating a stable world order that advances justice and upholds human dignity.

As the Post story reminds us, DNI James Clapper was asked whether he stood by his assertion that the country was beset by more crises and threats that at any other time in his 50-year career. “Yes, sir,” he said, “and if I’m here next year, I’ll probably say it again.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s New Beginning.

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Obama’s Main Achievement: Iran in Iraq

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

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Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

As the Times notes:

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.

Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.

The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.

Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.

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Giving Iran a Piece of Iraq

Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

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Even his critics had to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a first-rate address to Congress—a masterpiece of persuasive oratory. While much of the attention rightly focused on what the prime minister had to say about the proposed nuclear accorded with Iran (“a very bad deal”), he also had an important message to deliver about Iran’s non-nuclear aggression.

“Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guard on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror,” he alliterated. “Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran. Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea.”

As if to illustrate his point, the Wall Street Journal has an important report about how Shiite militias and the Iraqi army are combining to attack the Sunni town of Tikrit. “In addition to supplying drones,” the Journal reports, “Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force has fighters on the ground with Iraqi units, mostly operating artillery and rocket batteries.” Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, is apparently overseeing this operation in person.

At first blush this might sound no different from the kind of military aid that the U.S. provides to allied militaries but in fact, despite the superficial similarities, there is a major difference. U.S. advisers have always stressed to Iraqi and Afghan forces the importance of acting in an ethical and restrained manner, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because abuse of the civilian population risks driving them into the arms of the insurgents.

The Iranian-backed militias, whether in Syria or Iraq, have exhibited no such restraint. They became notorious in past years for kidnapping Sunnis and torturing them to death with power tools. More recently, under Iranian guidance, Bashar Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Such a blood-thirsty assault, even if tactically successful in Tikrit, will sow the seeds of strategic defeat by encouraging Sunnis to fight even harder against Shiite encroachments. That may well be what Iran wants: the more polarized Iraq and Syria become, the more that Shiites (or, in the case of Syria, the Alawites) will feel compelled to look to Iran for guidance and protection.

That is why the Obama administration is supremely ill-advised, not just for granting Iran concession after concession to win a nuclear deal, but also for looking the other way as Iran assumes an increasingly prominent role in the anti-ISIS fight. The Journal notes that in Iraq “a de facto division” is “developing between areas where Iran has the lead in assisting the fight against the Islamic State, and areas where the U.S. has the lead,” with both sides taking “steps not to interfere with one another’s operations.”

The Journal quotes an anonymous “U.S. official” cheerleading for Iran, saying, “To the degree that they can carry out an offensive without inflaming sectarian tension and can dislocate ISIL, it can be helpful.” The anonymous official might very well be Brett McGurk, the State Department point man on the anti-ISIS fight, who has been tweeting merrily in support of the Iranian-directed offensive against Tikrit (without acknowledging that it is Iranian-directed).

Netanyahu warned against this dangerous tendency when he said: “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America… When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Too bad the administration isn’t listening to him on this subject, any more than it is on the nuclear negotiations. Instead Obama appears to be pursuing a broader rapprochement with Tehran that would have the U.S. grant de facto acquiescence to the actions of Iranian proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

In other words, the state of U.S.-Iranian relations at the moment is even more worrisome than Netanyahu (anxious not to burn every single bridge to the White House) was able to explain.

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Whom Should the U.S. Train in Syria and Iraq?

The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

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The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

As currently conceived, the effort is doomed from the start. Including—and, indeed, relying upon—Turkey is a poison pill, given the growing extremism of the Turkish government and the sympathies of at least certain segments of the Turkish government to more extreme elements inside Syria.

At the same time, the United States has moved forward with training and assistance programs to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

The irony of both efforts is that the United States continues to ignore the most moderate, religiously tolerant, and most effective fighting force in the region: the Popular Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurds. Without formal training, the YPG held Kobane in the face of a tremendous onslaught. But Kobane is only the tip of the iceberg: I visited portions of Syria controlled by the YPG last year. They have made tremendous sacrifices and brought a modicum of stability and security to northeastern Syria.

But it is not only inside Syria where the YPG has seen success. Despite billions of dollars poured into the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, they at best have achieved little more than a stalemate. Prior to the Islamic State’s onslaught against the Yezidis of Mount Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani had turned down the Yezidis and local residents’ requests for reinforcements. Then, peshmerga and security forces commanded by his sons abandoned their posts, sacrificing thousands of Yezidis to the cruelty of the Islamic State. The YPG did not wait for coalition airstrikes before seeking to come to their rescue. At present, the YPG reportedly enjoys greater popularity than the Kurdistan Region Government’s peshmerga in Sinjar and those areas inside northwestern Iraq contested by the Islamic State.

The reason why Turkey objects to any training for the YPG is that they and their civilian political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fall under the general umbrella of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which aligned with Soviet interests during the Cold War and long waged an insurgency inside Turkey. That may be a problem, but it’s time to set priorities: Defeating the Islamic State is more important than paying heed to Turkey’s obsessions. If Turkey won’t play ball if the YPG are included in training, then it’s time to stop working through Turkey. They are, after all, not the only U.S. partner to border Syria.

The Islamic State presents a grave and growing threat throughout the region. If they are to be defeated, no moderates should be excluded. If moderates can be found among Syrian Arabs, that would be great, although they are, at this point, likely a chimera. But there are worthy forces to train among the Iraqi army and even some of the Iraqi volunteers who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to fight the Islamic State. Last fall, I stayed at a facility in which some of these volunteers trained in southern Iraq. While Iran has certainly tried to co-opt and control some of these volunteers, many more care only about defending their communities against the Islamic State and do not care an iota for geopolitics. The United States needs to support and help rebuild the Iraqi army, and those elements which survived their trial by fire. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga also are worthy of support. But the YPG complete the picture. If they can be as successful as they have been against the Islamic State without formal training, they might be the ace in the hole if they can hone their tactics and skills and actually receive the weaponry they need to do the job at hand.

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