Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Deadly Rivalry

There is little ideological or moral difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both are fanatical terrorist organizations with a Sunni jihadist ideology and complete disdain for life. ISIS was even once affiliated with al-Qaeda, having been previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. But now they are deadly rivals. The al-Nusra Front is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and it is at war with ISIS. Like Apple and Samsung or Adidas and Nike, al-Qaeda and ISIS are locked in a battle for market share. Those companies compete by bringing to market better products. So do terrorist organizations, only their “products” are high-profile atrocities.

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There is little ideological or moral difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both are fanatical terrorist organizations with a Sunni jihadist ideology and complete disdain for life. ISIS was even once affiliated with al-Qaeda, having been previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. But now they are deadly rivals. The al-Nusra Front is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and it is at war with ISIS. Like Apple and Samsung or Adidas and Nike, al-Qaeda and ISIS are locked in a battle for market share. Those companies compete by bringing to market better products. So do terrorist organizations, only their “products” are high-profile atrocities.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre, now claimed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a video entitled “Vengeance for the Prophet: A Message Regarding the Blessed Battle of Paris,” should be seen in this light. It is, if nothing else, a powerful reminder to the world, after having read about little but ISIS for the past year, that al-Qaeda still matters. ISIS may have made global headlines with grisly beheading videos but it has never struck in a major Western capital before.

It is still unclear, of course, the extent to which AQAP was involved in the attack. Its level of involvement was probably less than al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11 or Lashkar e Taiba’s role in the Mumbai massacre, but both of the murderous Kouachi brothers, Said and Cherif, apparently traveled to Yemen to train with AQAP. This helps to explain their familiarity with AK-47s, even if their tradecraft always remains questionable–they left an identification card in their getaway car.

And even if AQAP was largely responsible for the attack, one of the jihadists killed in Paris–Amedy Coulibaly–claimed allegiance with ISIS. One suspects that in jihadist circles this is a branding statement similar to one’s choice of smart phone or warm-up jacket.

In some ways the Paris attacks may be seen to represent a potent new style of terror–not as complex as 9/11 or Mumbai but not an entirely “lone wolf” style attack, such as the hostage-taking in Sydney last month. The attack is linked to a global terrorist organization but was carried out by homegrown extremists. This is a model that, in business parlance, is easily “scalable”–there are, unfortunately, lots of radicalized Muslims in Europe and even some in the United States, and many of them can travel to places like Pakistan and Yemen where it is easy to link up with major terrorist groups.

The Western response must be twofold.

First, do more to shatter groups such as ISIS and AQAP–to prevent them from controlling territory that they can use as a training base for foreign jihadists. We are very far from achieving this objective today, given widespread reports that 1,000 foreigners a month are traveling to Syria to join the fight. Defeats for AQAP and ISIS also dim their luster and make it less likely they will attract more adherents in the West–no one wants to join a lost cause, not even a would-be suicide bomber.

Second, do more to track down and stop homegrown jihadists before they strike again. The French security services, for all their effectiveness (and it is considerable), failed in this regard because all three culprits had been in and out of custody. All three were known to be violent jihadists yet they were free to roam at will, apparently falling off the French radar screen because the security services were so overwhelmed with tracking fighters heading to and from Syria. The French government is right to push for expanded surveillance powers. The U.S., Britain, and other frontline states should follow suit–or at the very least not stop effective surveillance programs which became so unfairly controversial after Edward Snowden’s treasonous revelations.

France, the U.S., Britain, and other states also need to think about how they should act once jihadists are identified–is it possible to detain them or even expel them before there is solid evidence that they are about to carry out a massacre? Such actions may seem antithetical to the idea of free speech–no one should be punished for their beliefs. And there is no question that abuses have been carried out in the past in the name of preventing terrorism, for instance during the Red Scare of 1919-1920 when hundreds of socialists and anarchists were deported.

But courts do grant protective orders against those who are believed to be violent without waiting for them to carry out an actual violent act. Might it be time to institute some similar system with those who advocate terrorism–not fundamentalist Islam but actual terrorist violence? I’m not sure of the answer, because this would raise legitimate civil-liberties concerns, but it is at least a question worth exploring in the wake of attacks such as the one in Paris–or at the Boston Marathon. We cannot just sit back as ISIS and al-Qaeda play out their deadly rivalry at our expense.

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New Syria Threat Requires U.S. Action

As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

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As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

The Syrians are denying the Der Spiegel report but their claim that it is all lies is no more to be trusted than anything else that emanates from that despotic and murderous regime. Far more credible are the allegations that Syria has used the cover of the civil war to begin the work of reassembling a WMD threat even as Assad claimed to be getting rid of his chemical weapons under the supervision of his Russian ally. This is shocking because Israel had thought it had put to rest the nuclear threat with a daring raid that took out the Syrians’ reactor. According to the German paper:

Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.

Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite “Party of God” based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad’s troops.

The report goes on to describe the effort as being largely the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and has been aided by North Korean advisers.

It should be conceded that no matter how much progress they’ve made in the last year, Syria is probably a long way from a bomb. But given Iranian involvement, the creation of this facility raises doubts about the efficacy of any nuclear deal with Tehran struck by an Obama administration eager for any agreement that could foster détente with the Islamist regime.

Just as dangerous is the thought that Assad, who is winning his civil war due as much to American indifference as to aid from Iran and Hezbollah, will not only survive but also emerge even more dangerous and powerful than he was before the rebellion against him began.

A Syria that is either on its way to becoming a nuclear threshold state or which will serve as a depository for an Iranian nuclear program that is forced to go partially underground by a sham deal with the West would, at best, be a destabilizing force in an already volatile region. At worst, it would be a standing invitation to a new war involving Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas that sets the Middle East aflame.

The answer to this threat should be clear. The U.S. and its allies must either insist that this facility be shut down and destroyed or it must be taken out by air strikes either by Western forces or the Israelis, who continue to be available to do America’s dirty work in this regard.

But the most worrisome aspect of this issue is not only Assad’s determination to get back to the position of strength he occupied before the civil war. It’s that the U.S. policy in Syria is so deeply entwined with that of Iran and the Syrian government that it may not be possible to persuade Obama to act no matter what Damascus does. The administration seems intent on empowering Tehran and allowing it to keep its nuclear toys in the hope that this will cause it to abandon the pursuit of a weapon as well as allowing it to, in the president’s foolish phrase, “get right with the world.” But it appears détente with Iran may also mean a set of policies that causes the U.S. to acquiesce to a Syrian regime that is a danger to its own people and its neighbors. If there were ever a reason for the president to reevaluate a course that seems set for disaster, the news about Syria would seem to be it.

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ISIS Releases Videos of Its Activities in Tripoli, Libya

For President Obama and his advisor (and now UN ambassador) Samantha Power, Libya was supposed to be the anti-Iraq, an example of the United States “leading from behind” yet implementing a “responsibility to protect.” While President George W. Bush made a mistake with his emphasis on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the casualties sustained and money spent were in the failed effort to reconstruct the country, not in efforts to achieve initial military goals), Obama went to the other extreme. In 2004, the New York Times attempted an “October surprise” by alleging that the Bush administration negligently failed to secure an Iraqi government arms cache, resulting in the flow of 363 tons of explosives to insurgents. This turned out to be an exaggeration, but any loss of ordnance and explosives into insurgent hands costs lives and enables terrorism.

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For President Obama and his advisor (and now UN ambassador) Samantha Power, Libya was supposed to be the anti-Iraq, an example of the United States “leading from behind” yet implementing a “responsibility to protect.” While President George W. Bush made a mistake with his emphasis on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan (most of the casualties sustained and money spent were in the failed effort to reconstruct the country, not in efforts to achieve initial military goals), Obama went to the other extreme. In 2004, the New York Times attempted an “October surprise” by alleging that the Bush administration negligently failed to secure an Iraqi government arms cache, resulting in the flow of 363 tons of explosives to insurgents. This turned out to be an exaggeration, but any loss of ordnance and explosives into insurgent hands costs lives and enables terrorism.

In Libya, however, there is no doubt that hundreds of tons of weaponry and explosives poured out of the country as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell, fueling civil war and strife across the Sahel.

In recent months, the civil war in Libya has coalesced largely into a struggle between two groups: “Libyan Dignity” and “Libyan Dawn.” Libyan Dignity and the forces of former Gaddafi-era general and U.S. resident Khalifa Heftar are dominant in Tobruk and enjoy some backing by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Tunisia in their quest to roll back radical Islamist gangs. Libyan Dawn militias backed by Qatar, meanwhile, remain dominant in Misrata, Sirte, and Tripoli.

Here’s the problem: Aligned with Libyan Dawn have been al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State (ISIS), and Ansar ash-Sharia. Maybe Qatar and some Islamist Libyans believe they can use, manage, and contain the more radical terrorist groups, but they would be wrong. It was a strategy Sunni Arab oppositionists and perhaps even Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani tried in Iraq to a disastrous outcome, as the Islamic State turned on its allies of convenience and unleashed a reign of terror from which areas under its control may never recover.

It also appears that what happened in Mosul could very well happen in Tripoli. Today, Al-Awsat, a Libyan daily, published photos of an alleged ISIS patrol dismantling a cosmetic store in the Libyan capital, on foot patrol, and in a pickup truck waving an ISIS flag in what they say is Tripoli.

Now, just because the Islamic State claims that it operates freely in Tripoli doesn’t make it completely so. Pictures might not lie, but they also might not give full perspective. Nevertheless, perhaps its time to recognize that Libya today is akin to Syria three years ago. If Syria was a cancer that metastasized into an immense human tragedy threatening to destabilize neighboring states, it’s possible that an ISIS safe haven in Libya could do the same not only in the Sahel, but to Egypt and Tunisia as well.

Make no mistake: Gaddafi was no ally; he was an unrepentant supporter of terror and it is hard to shed any tears over his demise or that of his autocratic and bizarre regime. Obama and Power might preach about a responsibility to protect, but ham-handed strategies are neither responsible nor do they protect; instead, they simply tap the hornet’s nest.

In Syria, there was a time when support for the opposition might have prevented further radicalization. With all due respect to Sen. John McCain, with the exception of the Syrian Kurds whom both Obama and McCain ignore the time has long since passed when the Free Syrian Army was a plausible, moderate option. In Libya, however, there is a chance to internalize the lessons of Syria. Should American boots go on the ground? No. But should the United States do everything possible to hunt down and kill the radical militias sinking their roots into Libyan soil? Absolutely.

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Interplay Between Baathism and ISIS

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin had a typically excellent column published Thursday noting growing concern within the Obama administration and among military analysts that U.S. weapons provided to the Iraqi military are ending up in the hands of the Iranian-backed militias. They also accurately described current U.S. discussion with regard to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi:

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Eli Lake and Josh Rogin had a typically excellent column published Thursday noting growing concern within the Obama administration and among military analysts that U.S. weapons provided to the Iraqi military are ending up in the hands of the Iranian-backed militias. They also accurately described current U.S. discussion with regard to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi:

Two administration officials told us that there is roiling debate inside the Obama national security team about whether Abadi is willing or able unite his nation’s religious groups. Some inside the administration are advocating for a tougher approach toward Abadi that uses more sticks and fewer carrots. Yet there is concern that pushing away from Abadi will only lead to less influence in Baghdad for Washington, and more for Tehran.

They also mention:

A big question for the administration is whether Abadi is really doing all he can to rein in the Shiite militias and reach out to the Sunni leaders. During a meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month, Abadi both asked for huge new weapons transfers and also expressed doubt that a long-term reconciliation with the Sunnis is even possible.

Frankly, Abadi is correct when it comes to the difficulties of reconciliation between the central government and Sunni Arabs. Too often, American analysts, diplomats, and the press depict Abadi and other Shi‘ite leaders as hopelessly sectarian, while the Iraqi Sunni community by omission is implied to be guiltless and willing to reconcile. There may be more than an iota of truth behind Abadi’s frustration. Simply put, the majority of Iraq’s Arab Sunni community simply has not reconciled to the fact that Iraqi Shi‘ites—long depicted as second-class citizens within the country—are the majority.

From the very beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi Sunnis have been reticent about cooperating with the broader Shi‘ite community. Most visitors walk right past them without noticing, but it is quite telling that the guards at the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad are Kurdish peshmerga, simply because the Arab Shi‘ites and Arab Sunnis don’t trust each other enough to have the other help guard the seat of government.

There has been a tendency—unfortunately encouraged by the likes of Gen. David Petraeus when based in Mosul with the 101st Airborne and continued against the backdrop of the surge—to respond to respond to Sunni violence with concession and political empowerment. This may have won short-term quiet, and the surge may have been a wise military strategy, but it did have a major drawback: it convinced many Sunni leaders that they could win through violence what they could not necessarily win at the ballot box. Petraeus, for example, sought to buy off Baathists and Islamists rather than confront them. In 2004, he enunciated this as a cornerstone of his strategy during a speech at a Washington think tank, declaring, “The coalition must reconcile with a number of the thousands of former Ba’ath officials … giving them a direct stake in the success of the new Iraq.” He put his theory into practice, placing former Baathist General Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris in charge of the Iraqi Border Police units along the Syrian border. Maris’s handpicked allies facilitated smuggling and insurgent traffic along an already porous border. The 2007 capture of a laptop computer containing a database of foreign fighters showed most transited through Syria. Petraeus allowed another former Baathist, General Muhammad Kha’iri Barhawi, to be Mosul’s police chief. When Petraeus left and the money dried up, Barhawi turned over the keys of the city to the insurgents.

The simple fact of the matter is that former Baathists are today Islamists. Long before Saddam’s ouster, Baathism had stopped being an ideology and had instead become a vessel for power. It’s not too much of a leap for yesterday’s Baathists to become today’s Islamists. Indeed, Saddam Hussein himself found religion after his 1991 military defeat. That’s when “God is Great” appeared in Arabic on the Iraqi flag, and in the years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Fedayeen Saddam roamed Baghdad acting as morality police as stringent as those of ISIS today. Dozens of women, for example, were beheaded for alleged morality crimes.

In an interview with the Japanese news service NHK, former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, a staunch Sunni Islamist convicted of terrorism charges under Prime Minister Maliki (but in a court with many Sunni justices), reported that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a former Baathist.

When I met with a former Baathist general as well as a member of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service this past summer after Mosul’s fall, they were quite open that they cooperated with ISIS, even if they did not fully subordinate themselves to them.

Were Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and is his successor Haider al-Abbadi paranoid about Baathists and many in the Sunni Arab community? You betcha. Is that paranoia without justification? Absolutely not.

To force Abbadi to make concessions to the Iraqi Sunni Arab community sounds great from 6,000 miles away, but until the West understands that the root of the problem may not be in Baghdad—or solely in Baghdad—but rather is in the farms of al-Anbar, the villages of Salahuddin, and the city of Mosul, then there can be no peace.

The solution? Not more Sunni empowerment in Baghdad—that will lead only to greater strife and reinforce once again that violence brings power—but rather administrative federalism so that Sunnis can run their lives as part of Iraq but without the interference of Baghdad in their daily lives.

This does not mean, by the way, that Shi’ite sectarianism in general and Iran in particular are not problems. Indeed, by tacitly if not overtly approving of Iranian interference in Iraq, the United States is laying the groundwork for a far more difficult problem down the road since Iranian involvement is not altruistic, but rather involves a permanent erosion of Iraqi sovereignty. And Shi‘ite volunteers answering Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s calls might be genuinely popular in Iraq (or, at least, southern Iraq) but should they succeed in defeating ISIS, there is no plan in place for their decommissioning.

The point? Playing hardball with Abadi isn’t going to work unless the United States is going to step into the field to enable the Iraqi prime minister to play the United States and Iran off each other. And forcing greater concessions toward Iraqi Sunnis—and whoever their leadership might be—isn’t a solution at all, but a tried and true action to bring more violence. When Abadi complains that reconciliation with the Sunnis might not be possible, he isn’t reflecting his own sectarianism as much as the real problem of Sunni chauvinism and irredentism in Iraq.

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Paris Terror and the Flawed “Yemen Model”

Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

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Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

This caused many commentators, including me, to do a double take. As I wrote at the time, “The president’s analogy to Somalia and Yemen is not an encouraging one. Obama may be one of the few people around who thinks that the U.S. has achieved so much success in those countries that it is a model worth emulating.”

Now the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris brings further evidence of how flawed the Yemen model actually is. Considerable evidence has emerged of links between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the gunmen who murdered 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Said Kouachi, one of the two brothers involved, was said to have visited Yemen in 2011 for training, and before launching the assault either he or his brother told bystanders, “Tell the media we are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

It is still unknown whether the actual operation was directed from Yemen, but it was at least inspired from there–a word I use advisedly because a recent issue Inspire, the AQAP glossy magazine, had listed Charlie Hebdo’s now-deceased editor, Stephane Charbonnier, on its hit list of foreigners who supposedly insult Islam. The headline on the article: “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away — Defend the Prophet Mohammed.” Mercifully, the Kouachi brothers are now said to have been killed by French police but the problems besetting Yemen will not be eliminated so quickly or easily.

AQAP is actually only one of the major problems undermining the “Yemen model.” The other major problem is the Houthis, a terrorist group whose members are Zaydis (a Shiite offshoot). They are supported by Iran’s Quds Force. They are making major territorial gains as well, coming close to controlling the entire state even if they don’t control all of its territory. Yemen, in fact, is coming apart at the seams in the same sort of violence between Shiite and Sunni extremists which has also devastated Syria and Iraq.

And what is the U.S. doing about it? For years U.S. Special Operations Forces and the CIA have maintained a small, below-the-radar presence in Yemen, working to train government security forces and to carry out drone strikes on terrorist suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the AQAP ideologue who was killed by a Hellfire missile in 2011.

Such isolated, pinprick strikes may be necessary in the war on terror but they are hardly sufficient. They have not turned the tide in Yemen, nor will they do so in Iraq and Syria. A much more substantial effort is needed, as some of us have been arguing for some time.

In this Policy Innovation Memorandum released by the Council on Foreign Relations in November, for example, I laid out the steps needed to defeat ISIS which involve, inter alia, relaxing the restrictions on U.S. “boots on the ground” and doing much more to mobilize the Sunni tribes. The overarching need is for the Obama administration to end its flirtation with Iran which only alarms Sunnis throughout the region and drives them into the arms of extremists such as AQAP and ISIS. Sunnis must be offered a political endstate that will mobilize them to fight–and that hasn’t happened so far.

Until the Obama administration steps up its game, alas, jihadist groups of both Sunni and Shiite ilk will continue advancing, making further mockery of the “Yemen model” for fighting terrorists.

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Iraqi Kurds Should Purge Those Who Fled

The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have now pushed back ISIS; the crisis of this past summer is over. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—supplemented by Syrian Kurdish (YPG) and PKK fighters, which neither the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) nor the State Department want to acknowledge—are on the verge of liberating the town of Sinjar. While the Obama administration’s commitment to defeating ISIS is ambivalent at best, the Iraqi Kurds continue to press hard for both American arms and a permanent American presence.

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The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have now pushed back ISIS; the crisis of this past summer is over. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—supplemented by Syrian Kurdish (YPG) and PKK fighters, which neither the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) nor the State Department want to acknowledge—are on the verge of liberating the town of Sinjar. While the Obama administration’s commitment to defeating ISIS is ambivalent at best, the Iraqi Kurds continue to press hard for both American arms and a permanent American presence.

This might be a wise investment to help Iraqi Kurds consolidate their gains and prevent an ISIS counteroffensive. That said, the United States invested billions of dollars in building the Iraqi military only to see it disintegrate, leaving arms and hi-tech equipment for the ISIS to salvage. Might the same thing happen with the Kurds?

The Kurdistan Regional Government reacts with umbrage at any such suggestion, but Kurds continue to discuss the events of last August: With ISIS around Gwer, just fifteen miles from Erbil, not only Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga commanders, but also senior Kurdish officials and their families fled Erbil. Certainly, many Kurdish officials stayed put to fight but, according to Kurdish officials, perhaps 35 percent of the city fled along with many top military and political officials who were willing to leave ordinary Kurds to their fate.

With the crisis over, many of these officials returned with little comment and having faced no accountability for their actions. Ordinary Kurds in Erbil who once embraced President Masoud Barzani and his top lieutenants blindly now express their disgust openly at the behavior of the Kurdish leadership.

If the United States is going to make a sizeable military investment in Kurdistan, it behooves the White House and Pentagon to demand that Barzani prioritize competence and professionalism above family and business ties in the organization of Kurdish military, intelligence, and security forces. He might start by demanding Erbil airport manifests for all flights leaving Iraqi Kurdistan for Europe or the Persian Gulf for the week of August 7-13. Certainly, taking a flight out of Kurdistan is not a crime, but government officials or peshmerga commanders doing so at the height of a crisis should have some explaining to do, and should lose their jobs.

American investment in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan might be strategically important, but American aid and assistance is never an entitlement. Tribal ties and nepotism should not trump accountability and professionalism if the goal of greater American ties with Iraqi Kurdistan is to protect Kurds from the ISIS terrorists on their periphery. Masoud Barzani has some hard choices ahead. Examining flight manifests should not be one of them. The delay for such accountability should end now.

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Is Morocco Making Excuses to Crack Down on Dissent?

Note to journalists: If being handed a story by activists on a silver platter, it pays to make sure they’re not pulling a fast one on you, cherry-picking facts and ignoring the elephants in the room. Today’s case in point is Borzou Daragahi’s piece in the Financial Times suggesting that the Moroccan government is using the “specter of ISIS [the Islamic State]…to erode rights in Morocco.”

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Note to journalists: If being handed a story by activists on a silver platter, it pays to make sure they’re not pulling a fast one on you, cherry-picking facts and ignoring the elephants in the room. Today’s case in point is Borzou Daragahi’s piece in the Financial Times suggesting that the Moroccan government is using the “specter of ISIS [the Islamic State]…to erode rights in Morocco.”

Daragahi seems a bit too often to conflate analysis with his own personal politics. After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s presidential election in 2013, I was on a National Public Radio panel analyzing the election’s significance alongside Daragahi. Daragahi likened former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his administration to that of George W. Bush. What was surprising was not that Daragahi believed this, even if it showed a surprising lack of insight into the American political process, but rather that he felt so confident in his opinion that he didn’t hesitate to make the analogy to a national radio audience.

His analysis of Morocco is likewise lazy. To support his charge that Morocco is using the specter of ISIS to crack down on dissent, he apparently attends one demonstration with around 100 activists, quotes an analyst anonymously without explaining why anonymity would be needed, and then cites Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization which incorporated material from a U.S. Treasury Department-designated al-Qaeda financier into its Middle East reports. Sometimes Human Rights Watch does good work, but its methodological shortcoming and tendency to conflate political advocacy with objective analysis should lead it never to be utilized as a neutral source.

To be specific, however, here’s what Daragahi missed in the report he assembled after parachuting into Morocco: He apparently failed to discuss the ISIS challenge with security officials, nor does he appear aware of Moroccan reforms and elections which will allow the Western Sahara to elect its own government and practice real regional autonomy. That’s a pretty big omission, the journalistic equivalent of reporting on Hillary Clinton and neither mentioning the 2016 election nor her tenure as secretary of state.

I have visited Morocco frequently over the last several years, most recently over Thanksgiving, in order to attend the second annual Forum Mondial des Droits de l’Homme, an international confab of human-rights activists, including non-governmental and opposition groups from Morocco itself. Six months before the Islamic State rampaged through Mosul and much of northern Iraq, Moroccan security officials warned about the danger more than 600 Moroccans would pose to regional security as they returned from fighting inside Syria (I wrote about this here and others did a few months later, here). And, of course, Moroccan jihadists have formed their own ISIS-linked brigade inside Syria. Of course, none of this Daragahi sees fit to report, nor does he even appear aware of the background to either Moroccan extremism or the government’s reforms. Rather than simply crack down, however, Moroccan officials have sought to counter such radicalism with an unprecedented, non-violent program which they are now exporting throughout the region, training imams from Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, the Maldives, and Nigeria.

True, Morocco’s Parliament is currently considering a bill that seeks to criminalize training with extremists or attempting to reach their camps. The new law would allow the government to charge Moroccans engaged in terrorist activity abroad as well as those doing it inside the country. According to the draft law, those convicted will face five to 15 years in prison and fines of between $5,800 and $58,000. And it is also true that Moroccan security forces have been active in their attempts to monitor terrorist recruitment and stem the flow of foreign fighters.

Many human-rights monitors are lazy, and some journalists even more so. They punish access. If it’s safe and easy to go to Morocco or Israel, why not simply travel there, take advantage of their freedoms, and write self-righteous and critical reports devoid of context? Egypt bans journalists and academics? Let’s avoid that. Turkey has become the world’s largest prison for journalists? Strike that off the travel list as well. Algeria remains a military police state which strictly controls visas? Best not to try to go to the Tindouf camps where the Polisario Front, a Marxist Cold War throwback, holds refugees as virtual hostages. And, of course, there’s Iran, where the Washington Post correspondent remains in prison. Morocco is far from perfect, but it does allow access and real space for civil society.

What Daragahi seems not to realize is that it’s easier for groups to claim oppression than admit that the reason they can’t attract more than 100 people to a rally in a country of 33 million is simply because people are by and large happy with the direction of the country and recognize that the Moroccan government today—unlike the Moroccan state of two decades ago—is serious about redressing grievances and moving forward with democratic reforms. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement in press freedom, in countering police abuse, or in prison conditions. But to suggest that Morocco isn’t sincere about its desire for reform? Or that it is hyping the threat of ISIS? Perhaps Daragahi wants to consider all the reporting from a year ago suggesting that the Iraqi government and others in the region were hyping the threat of ISIS before he amplifies what is essentially a conspiracy theory.

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New SecDef Must Address Eastern Mediterranean

Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

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Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

But being Secretary of Defense is not simply about reacting to the latest crises. It’s also about planning for future ones. In theory, that might be the purview of the National Security Council and State Department Policy Planning Staff, but neither have distinguished themselves under Obama; quite the contrary, they have become dumping grounds for political loyalists and followers rather than thinkers.

Carter’s greatest legacy may not yet be on the radar screen of senators and their staff who are already pouring over his record to prepare their questions. But, the rise of Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras should highlight both the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and America’s relative vulnerability.

The discovery and development of gas fields off the coast of Cyprus and Israel have infused the Eastern Mediterranean with new importance. Its gas may account for only slightly more than half that of Alaska’s northern coast and less than half of that of Saudi Arabia, but Eastern Mediterranean gas is closer to its customers and in a less extreme environment.

The gas fields might be good for both Israel and Cyprus’s economy, but can also be a source for instability. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Egemen Bağış, at the time Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister and, despite corruption allegations, still a top advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.”

Meanwhile, in May 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the permanent deployment of a 16-ship Mediterranean task force. With President Obama apparently willing to acquiesce to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Russian use of Syria’s Tartous Naval Base is assured. Add into the mix Hezbollah, which brags that it is training in underwater sabotage, the Lebanese government which is voicing a new maritime dispute with Israel over 330 square miles of offshore waters, Hamas, a resurgent Iranian navy, and al-Qaeda’s rise in the Sinai peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean has not been so contested since the height of the Cold War.

The United States has one naval base in the region, in Souda Bay, Crete. But with Tsipras’s rise, that’s up for grabs. If Tsipras doesn’t expel the United States completely, he may go the Philippines’ route and raise the rent exorbitantly to the point where it becomes untenable to continue.

The United States maintains numerous installations around the Persian Gulf: In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the next decade, however, the Eastern Mediterranean will only grow in importance, as fracking will continue to break the relative importance of Persian Gulf energy exporters. How the United States should position its forces in the Mediterranean may not seem like a pressing problem, but decisions made during Carter’s watch will reverberate for decades. He should be up to the challenge. Let us hope that the Senate explores the issue.

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Russia Seeks Advantage from America’s Syria Paralysis

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

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Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

So what does Secretary of State John Kerry do? He bans Salih Muslim from coming to the United States, refusing him visas on several occasions over the past year. Not only that, but Kerry has refused to extend Muslim invitations to attend Syrian opposition conferences. His reasoning is illogical: he has accused Muslim of cooperating too much with Assad, a charge Muslim denies. Regardless, Kerry—who repeatedly referred to Assad as “my good friend” while a senator accepting Assad’s hospitality—has allowed Assad proxies a seat at the table, so his refusal to deal with Muslim appears even more bizarre.

Part of the problem may be that the PYD is seen as too close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States designates a terrorist group. If this is the case, however, Kerry should call his office because, after air dropping supplies to Syrian Kurds loyal to the PYD fighting in Kobane, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied the PYD was a terrorist group under U.S. law. Regardless, even if that wasn’t the State Department’s position, it wouldn’t necessary be the end-all and be-all because the U.S. government had managed until just a few months ago to categorize both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—both U.S. allies—as terrorist groups.

So what is Salih Muslim to do? He’s made in recent months two or perhaps even three visits to Moscow to meet with Russian officials, most recently over Christmas. One really cannot blame Muslim. He is not anti-American; quite the contrary, he seeks greater American ties and influence. But only Russia is answering his calls. The Kremlin, however, seldom provides assistance altruistically; it will expect a quid pro quo, and that won’t be to America’s favor.

Perhaps Obama and Kerry could begin by dealing with the reality of Syria rather than an imaginary moderate opposition that either does not exist or does not recognize the multi-ethnic, federal reality of Syria’s future. It costs nothing to issue a visa to Muslim. And it might enable a diplomatic breakthrough that would disadvantage both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, while at the same time capitalizing on a model that has already proven successful on the dusty and war-weary plains of Syria.

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The Real Key to ISIS’s Appeal: Stopping Iran

Apparently the U.S. Special Operations Command is wrestling with the question of what makes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “so magnetic, so inspirational.” This is an interesting question to ponder, but it’s not as puzzling as the military makes it out to be.

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Apparently the U.S. Special Operations Command is wrestling with the question of what makes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “so magnetic, so inspirational.” This is an interesting question to ponder, but it’s not as puzzling as the military makes it out to be.

At one level, obviously, ISIS has some ideological appeal by claiming to represent the forces of “true” Islam. By creating a modern-day caliphate where their fundamentalist version of sharia law will be enforced with brutal force, ISIS has tapped into a deep vein of longing in the Muslim world for the return of a golden age when Islamic states were the richest in the world–a far cry from the perceived humiliations that Islam has suffered ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

But this appeal exists mainly among those not actually living under ISIS control–among a small minority of far-away Muslims who have the luxury of romanticizing what these thugs and killers are up to. There have been numerous reports, by contrast, that Iraqis and Syrians actually living under ISIS control are unhappy about the group’s brutality and its inability to deliver even minimal governmental services. So why don’t ISIS’s subjects revolt?

In the first place because ISIS has the guns and they don’t. The group has shown how high-profile atrocities can cow a larger subject population. But there is another, practical aspect to why ISIS manages to retain control of a vast territory the size of Great Britain: it has managed to make itself into the leading defender of Sunni interests against Shiite oppression.

This is the true key to the group’s ideological appeal and it will not be dispelled by fuzzy American propaganda campaigns excoriating ISIS for its atrocities or putting forward moderate Muslims to proclaim that ISIS does not speak for the religion of Mohammad. The only way to dispel ISIS’s core appeal is to show that Sunnis can be protected against Shiite depredations without flocking to ISIS for protection. And that in turn will require the U.S. to show that it is willing to fight against Iranian-backed Shiite extremism as much as it is against Sunni-backed ISIS extremism.

Instead the Obama administration has given every indication that it is trying to accommodate an Iranian power grab in both Syria and Iran. The president has further reinforced that impression with an interview in which he said that Iran can be a “very successful regional power” if it gives up its nuclear program.

But whether Iran has nukes or not, it is seen by Sunnis as an existential threat because of its attempts to dominate the region. Indeed Iran-backed forces in both Iran and Syria have carried out terrible atrocities against Sunni civilians, yet the Obama administration is cooperating with the Iranian-backed regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and doing precious little to aid the Sunnis who could in theory launch another Awakening movement to overthrow ISIS.

To truly sap ISIS’ ideological appeal, the U.S. needs to stop flirting with Tehran and start acting to mobilize a Sunni rebellion against ISIS with guarantees that Sunni communities will have their rights respected after ISIS is overthrown. This could, for example, involve engineering a deal in Iraq to give Sunnis a regional status akin to that of the Kurds. Until that happens it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. military, no matter how tactically skillful its efforts may be, to defeat this terrible threat..

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2014: Bashar al-Assad’s Comeback Year

The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

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The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

NPR tempers the holiday spirit today with an important reminder of just how much has changed, for the worse, in the Syrian civil war and the cross-border ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, NPR notes, is ending the year in a far better place than he started it. Although that seems obvious, it’s disturbing to think back what a difference a year makes:

At the beginning of 2014, Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to send his ministers to take part in negotiations in Switzerland, and his future as Syria’s ruler was not looking very bright.

He was accused of killing tens of thousands of his own people in a civil war that was nearly three years old. The opposition was demanding Assad’s ouster. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland and called loudly for a political transition in Syria. He was clear about who would not be involved.

“Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” he said.

Fast-forward to the present. Those talks were abandoned. Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it’s not targeting Assad’s army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

The key quote comes next from Joshua Landis. “I think Assad is in a stronger position today in many respects, certainly on the battlefield, and he has the United States as a strategic ally,” he told NPR.

Think about that. It was less than a year ago that the American secretary of state was asserting unequivocally that Assad was done and that certainly his days of being treated as a legitimate head of state were over. Now “he has the United States as a strategic ally.”

This isn’t some random simple twist of fate. Assad’s survival depended on his playing his cards just right. In the preceding years of the civil war that still rages in his country, Assad was facing a collection of rebels, a disorganized circus of armed opposition. Assad knew how to prioritize his defense.

In August, the New York Times’s Room for Debate feature asked the following question: “Should the U.S. Work With Assad to Fight ISIS?” One of the panel contributors, The National columnist Hassan Hassan, pointed out the absurdity of relying on Assad as a partner against ISIS:

The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, ignores a basic fact: Assad has been key to its rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.

Assad has gone from dead man walking to the once and future king in the space of a year because he made many enemies but then outmaneuvered them all. Earlier in the conflict, Assad was losing. He’s not anymore.

And neither is ISIS. After Assad allowed the terrorist group to fester and hold territory, it has been controlling areas of Syria and Iraq while using the resources of those territories to fund its terror state. Since the Obama administration’s plan has been to delay sending troops and then sending too few to defeat ISIS, disrupting the group’s revenue streams would be the next obvious step.

Unfortunately, the two can’t be so easily separated. As Foreign Policy reports, the anti-ISIS alliance has had some success in stemming oil revenue. But they haven’t stopped it. And disrupting other streams of terrorists’ revenue requires–you guessed it–boots on the ground: “But cutting off the group’s proceeds from other illegal activities like kidnapping and extortion is harder to do without first reconquering the territory where the militants operate what are effectively mafia-style criminal enterprises.”

So for now, ISIS isn’t losing either. We had two enemies in Syria, and they’re both doing OK for themselves at the moment. But someone has to be losing, and by process of elimination you can pretty much guess who it is. The “moderate” rebels–our previous strategic ally, before Assad supplanted them–have found themselves in a vicious cycle. They struggle because we aren’t helping them enough to succeed, which we then use as an excuse to help them less, which in turn leads to them struggling even more:

Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

And there’s one more loser in all this: America’s strategic interests. ISIS is undermining our attempts to leave behind a stable Iraq and splitting territory next door in Syria with Assad, Iran’s proxy. It’s true that Assad had a pretty good year considering where he was heading into 2014. But that’s another way of saying America’s enemies had a pretty good year.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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The Sydney Siege and the Lone-Wolf Copout

The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

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The phenomenon of “lone-wolf” terrorism is vexing to policymakers because it is so hard to predict and prevent. But it also has too often provided an excuse–a way for the political class or security forces to avoid any blame for a successful domestic attack. Even worse, anti-anti-terrorism commentators use lone-wolf attacks to cast doubt on the whole war on terror enterprise as doing more harm than good, or at least not doing much good. Something similar seems to be taking shape in the wake of the Sydney, Australia siege this week.

Iranian immigrant Man Haron Monis took a Sydney café full of customers hostage for about sixteen hours; Monis and two of the hostages were killed before the café was cleared. Monis reportedly had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and professed his desire to hang an ISIS flag during the siege (he displayed a more generic Islamic flag while demanding to be brought an ISIS flag). He holds extremist views and has what appears to be a violent history.

And yet, the narrative forming is one of failed antiterror legislation. As the New York Times reports:

The laws, which passed the Australian Parliament with wide support, made it an offense to advocate terrorism, even on social media; banned Australians from going to fight overseas; allowed the authorities to confiscate and cancel passports; and provided for the sharing of information between security services and defense personnel. The government also deployed hundreds of police officers in counterterrorism sweeps across the country.

None of these measures prevented a man known to both the police and leaders of Muslim organizations as deeply troubled and with a long history of run-ins with the law from laying siege to a popular downtown cafe in Sydney, Australia, this week and holding hostages for 16 hours. The attacker, Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, and two of the 17 hostages were killed early Tuesday amid the chaos of a police raid. …

The case, like recent lone-wolf jihadist attacks in Brussels, Ottawa and New York, raises troubling questions about the ability of governments to monitor homegrown, radicalized would-be jihadists and prevent them from doing harm.

That’s true as far as it goes … but it doesn’t go very far. There was, in fact, plenty that could have been done and the authorities knew it. As the Times notes, Monis was charged last year as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife (she was apparently stabbed and then burned alive). He was out on bail. Then in April he was charged in an older sexual assault case. And here’s the kicker: “Forty more counts of sexual assault relating to six other women were later added to that case.”

So here’s what we have: a Muslim extremist whose current charge sheet includes accessory to murder and more than forty counts of sexual assault who was granted bail. He was free until trial, despite all this. So here’s one obvious measure the authorities could have taken: deny him bail, or even rescind bail once the assault charges started getting counted by the dozen. You shouldn’t have to wave the ISIS flag to get attention; murder and sexual assault over a period of more than a decade should be enough.

According to the L.A. Times, Australia’s bail laws were amended to make such action easier, but not in time to stop Monis. That may or may not be a dodge, but it certainly makes clear that there is something that could have been done to keep Monis off the streets. Throwing up your hands and sighing “lone wolf” is just a copout.

What else can governments learn about domestic extremists from the case? Here’s one more clue, from the New York Times:

In Australia, the government even had information that the Islamic State sought to recruit just such an attacker to carry out a bold attack in Sydney. “All that would be needed to conduct such an attack is a knife, a camera-phone and a victim,” Mr. Abbott warned Parliament in September.

Mr. Monis, who was reported to be armed with a gun, did not appear to have put a great deal of planning into his attack at the Lindt Cafe. Lacking an Islamic State banner, he demanded one in exchange for several hostages, local news media reported.

ISIS and groups like them are thus a domestic threat in two ways. First, the obvious: they can plan attacks on the homeland and try to attract jihadists to a war zone who have Western passports. They can provide training and contacts for someone looking to go back home and cause trouble.

And second, they can plan terrorist attacks from abroad without ever having to enter the target country and without the domestic attacker ever having to leave. This is the intersection of foreign policy and domestic security. If ISIS is seeking to turn disaffected radicals into one-man sleeper agents then the “lone wolf” tag isn’t very edifying–or accurate. And it points to a lesson about the futility of shortcuts: There is no substitute for actually defeating the enemy.

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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Israel Still Doing U.S. Dirty Work in Syria

Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

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Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

For years the U.S. has stood by and watched as the Russians have supplied arms to Assad to slaughter his own people. Even worse, as President Obama dithered about taking action to halt the killing of more than 200,000 persons, the crisis there worsened as, with the help of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, atrocities escalated and moderate alternatives to Assad were marginalized by radical groups including ISIS.

The result is that by the time the U.S. belatedly recognized the necessity of acting against ISIS, there were few good options left for resisting Assad and his allies. More to the point, much as was the case when I wrote about Israeli strikes on Syria in both January and May of 2013, it is Israel that has been forced to step into the vacuum created by the administration’s feckless policies.

Like those strikes, this past weekend’s attacks were primarily directed by Israel’s own security imperatives. Allowing Russia to transfer arms to terrorists, whether serving as mercenaries fighting to preserve a regime that is allied with the Shi’a group’s Iranian masters or deployed near Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah presents a dramatic and potent threat to Israel. But by acting decisively to keep Hezbollah from acquiring even more dangerous weapons than the ones it already possesses, Israel is also helping to keep the situation in Syria from becoming even more unmanageable.

The U.S. strikes on ISIS inside Syria have had some impact on the ability of the terror group to expand its control of much of that country as well as Iraq. But it is too weak a response to even begin the task of rolling back the extent of the so-called caliphate. The net effect of the administration’s effort both there and in Iraq is to expand Iran’s influence and to, in effect, allow Assad and his allied forces a free pass to go on committing atrocities.

Even as President Obama, who was once quite vocal about the necessity for Bashar Assad’s ouster, mulls sanctions against Israel while appeasing Iran and allowing it to run out the clock in nuclear talks, the Jewish state is guarding both its interests as well as those of the West by acting to restrain arms transfers in Syria. While the U.S. concentrates on an insufficient air offensive aimed at ISIS, Israel is effectively restraining any Syrian and/or Iranian adventurism in the region. Keeping Assad and Hezbollah in check is a vital American interest as the rest of the region looks on with horror as the Syrian regime and its friends continue to destabilize the region. Though it continues to be the Obama administration’s favorite whipping boy, Israel’s actions are once again proving the value of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Does ISIS Threaten Israel?

Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

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Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

The most brazen attempt by ISIS-linked militants to attack Israeli targets came last month when an Islamist group from the Sinai hijacked four Egyptian vessels and made off into the southern Mediterranean with the apparent intent to target either Israeli gas installations or Israeli ships further up the coast. That attempt, which took place November 12 and was ultimately foiled by the Egyptian navy, involved an al-Qaeda linked group which now appears to have shifted its allegiances to ISIS. The name of the terror cell in question, “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” is itself a direct reference to Jerusalem and the land of Israel: “Bait al-Maqdis.” This is one of many Islamist groups operating in the Sinai, several of which are al-Qaeda affiliated and may be inclined to recognize the authority of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the legitimate caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. ISIS itself was after all in part an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, for Israel the influence of ISIS also strikes far closer to home. It is well known that a number of Israel’s Arab and Bedouin citizens have already left to fight with ISIS. So far the numbers in question have been small; Shin Bet is aware of perhaps just thirty such individuals. But more recently there have been reports of ISIS using social media in an attempt to woo Israeli-Arabs with medical expertise to come to ISIS’s assistance. The concern of course is that at some point these battle-hardened individuals will attempt to return to Israel, or that they will simply seek to form cells in Israel itself.

So far rumours of such ISIS linked cells have remained just that. At the time of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers this summer, a West Bank group claiming to represent ISIS attempted to take responsibility for the kidnapping. In recent days there have been online postings by a group claiming to be “ISIS–Gaza Province.” Naturally Hamas has denied the existence of an ISIS branch in Gaza, but Hamas has had its own struggle with Salafist splinter groups in Gaza and it is conceivable that some of these would identify with ISIS. The number of Palestinians sympathetic to ISIS is impossible to judge right now, but when images appeared of the ISIS flag being displayed on the Temple Mount, this certainly gave Israelis legitimate cause for concern.

Beyond Israel’s own borders ISIS is still being kept at some distance. ISIS is of course strong in Syria, but more to the eastern region of the country. Along Israel’s Golan border there are other extremely hostile Islamist groups, most notably al-Nusra. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan and for the moment secure from ISIS. That said, the Hashemite monarchy has looked particularly weak in recent years and the influx of some 630,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan—a country where a quarter of the population is thought to be sympathetic to Salafism—has hardly been a stabilizing factor. Ironically, the border most secure from ISIS is probably the northern border, on account of the strength of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, ISIS has launched assaults on Lebanese towns along the Syrian border and there is a risk of more intense fighting spreading to that front.

Perhaps the clearest indication of all that ISIS has designs on Israel can be found in the group’s very name. Before rebranding as simply the Islamic State, ISIS went by the Arabic acronym Daesh: al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to the entirety of the Levant, including Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. It is for this reason that some incarnations of pan-Arabism have viewed Palestine as simply being Southern Syria. But for ISIS, the reference to al-Sham makes very clear the full extent of the group’s ambitions.

Over the summer ISIS’s media wing al-Battar released a series of images and statements depicting the Dome of the Rock and threatening the Jews that ISIS is on its way. The Israeli left knows a security sensitive Israeli public will be all the more averse to territorial concessions and so it is natural it should wish to play down the threat from ISIS. That threat may not be immediate, but Israelis should have no illusions about ISIS’s intentions, or indeed the draw ISIS’s ideology may have for some Palestinian militants.

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How Iran Prevents a Real Solution to ISIS

There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

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There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

But it would be an exaggeration to claim, as does some of the news coverage, that this deal is a big step forward in the battle against ISIS. The reality is that the Kurds and the Iraqi central government would fight ISIS whether they had reached a deal on oil revenues or not because it is in their self-interest to do so.

The real question is, Will Sunnis fight ISIS? To mobilize Sunni opposition against these Sunni jihadists, the central government will have to strike a deal with Sunni tribal leaders that will guarantee they will not be persecuted and abused as they were under Maliki’s sectarian rule. That is a much more important and also a much harder objective to achieve than a Baghdad-Erbil oil deal.

All the more so because of Iran’s growing prominence on the pro-government side. The latest evidence of that is news that Iranian F-4 jets attacked ISIS targets inside Iraq’s Diyala province, which Tehran claims as part of a 25-mile “buffer zone” which extends into Iraq. The strikes were apparently directed by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s terrorist-sponsoring Quds Force, who has become increasingly visible in Iraq in recent months.

It is unclear if the Iranian strikes were done with the agreement of the Iraqi government. If not, they were an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty; if they were done with the Abadi government’s permission, that is one more sign of the sway that Tehran continues to hold in Baghdad. Either way this is bad news. Because the more visible that Iran appears in the anti-ISIS coalition, the less likelihood there is that Sunnis will rally to the anti-ISIS cause because many of them are more afraid of Iranian domination than of ISIS domination.

Sadly, the White House is probably happy about the growing Iranian involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. It shouldn’t be. A basic fact that President Obama can’t seem to grasp as he continues his ill-advised outreach to Tehran is that the more that the U.S. draws closer to Iran, the less chance we have of winning the confidence of Sunni tribes that are the real key to defeating ISIS. Instead of quietly acquiescing in Iran’s growing role, the U.S. should be preparing a plan to checkmate and rollback Iran’s growing influence.

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Should Assad Stay or Should He Go? Obama Can’t Decide

The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

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The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

The bad news: President Obama won’t agree to a “far more extensive no-fly zone across one-third of northern Syria.” “That idea,” according to the Wall Street Journal, was “a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which told Ankara that something so invasive would constitute an act of war against the Assad regime.”

Would this be the same Assad regime that has killed some 200,000 of its own people? The same one that President Obama has said must leave office? Yup. That would be the one. So why on earth isn’t the U.S. willing to take actions that would constitute an “act of war” against this regime?

According to the Journal, the problem is that: “For the U.S., the risk in creating even a small de facto no-fly zone would be the possibility of a challenge by the Assad regime. The U.S. passed messages to the Assad regime not to contest coalition aircraft at the start of the airstrikes in Syria in September. So far, the regime hasn’t challenged U.S. aircraft, according to U.S. officials.”

It is hard, however, to accept this explanation with a straight face. Is the administration seriously pretending that the air defense network of the Assad regime—similar to that of the Saddam Hussein regime that the U.S. dismantled with virtually no losses on two occasions—would be a difficult, even insurmountable, challenge for the most sophisticated military in the world? Recall that this is the same air-defense network that Israeli aircraft have no trouble spoofing anytime they want to bomb a nuclear installation or Hezbollah arms shipment. Yet we are supposedly not willing to risk action against Assad?

The real explanation, one surmises, is that the Obama administration has quietly changed its policy on Assad without telling anyone: From calling for Assad to go, Obama has now decided that Assad must stay. And why? Part of the explanation is undoubtedly Obama’s desire to strike a deal with Assad’s patrons in Moscow. The other part of the explanation is probably Obama’s fear of the power vacuum that would occur after Assad’s downfall and the possibility that it would be filled by al-Qaeda-style jihadists.

The latter worry, at least, is a legitimate one but it is hardly a reason to allow Assad to go on using his air force to slaughter innocent civilians as well as the fighters of the Free Syrian Army that Obama is counting on to help fight ISIS and the Nusra Front. Yet it is perfectly possible, indeed morally and strategically necessary, to ground Assad’s air force without ousting Assad from power just yet while working feverishly with international powers to try to engineer a postwar settlement in Syria similar to the one in postwar Yugoslavia.

But Obama is doing none of this. Instead he is simply acquiescing in Assad’s continuing mass murder. This is a policy that is worse than immoral. It is stupid.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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