By Sharif Nashashibi
US President Barack Obama has managed to unite people across the political divide in their opposition to the American-led military campaigns in Iraq and Syria. In a highly polarised Middle East, this is quite a feat, but not one to be proud of. There are so many holes in the strategy – if one can call it that – it is inflaming an already destabilised region.
The man Americans voted in as a much-needed alternative to self-declared “war president” George W Bush is behaving much like his predecessor. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ lacked a clear definition, goal and timeframe, as does Obama’s. His statements portend a vague, widespread, unending military campaign – the kind that turned his predecessor into a hate figure at home and abroad.
Obama’s vow to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are” is eerily reminiscent of the “potential global war across many theaters” envisioned in a September 2000 report by the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century. He says his aim is to “destroy” the Islamic State, and to “snuff out this particular brand of Islamic extremism.” Every American president since Al Qaeda’s creation has failed to vanquish the group, which recently announced its expansion to the Indian subcontinent. How and why Obama thinks his strategy will succeed against IS remains a mystery. It is far harder to destroy an ideology or an amorphous militant group than a standing army.
Western officials, while refusing to give a timeframe, have made clear that this is a long-term campaign. However, polls have shown no public appetite – in the West or the Middle East – for long-term military action, particularly after Bush’s disastrous ‘war on terror,’ and given the huge costs of the current campaign.
By the end of September, the cost to the US alone was nearly $1billion, and could soar to $22 billion annually, according to the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said in late September that the US had spent up to $10 million every day since June 16. This at a time of global public frustration over austerity measures.
As such, coalition heads of state seem to have painted themselves into a corner. Committing to the long term is domestically untenable, but cutting their involvement short would also cause a backlash amid accusations of failure, over-reaching, and abandonment of goals and pledges.
Like Bush, Obama is accused of abusing executive authority by saying he does not need the approval of Congress. The White House cites the 2001 Authorization for Military Force against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, which was passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks.
However, this applies to nations and organisations that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the attacks. The IS did not exist at the time, and was disavowed by its parent organisation Al Qaeda in February this year.
In terms of implementation, neither airstrikes nor ground troops seem feasible. Coalition officials have acknowledged that airstrikes alone will not do the job. This is particularly true now that American intelligence has sharply raised its estimate of the number of IS fighters to between 20,000 and 31,500, from its June estimate of around 10,000. Indeed, coalition airstrikes have so far failed to stop IS advances in Iraq and Syria.
However, while hawks are calling for ground troops, this would be even more problematic, and would face far more domestic and regional opposition given the costs, risks and consequences involved, as well as the West’s destructive record in the Middle East.
For all the boasting of the increasing number of coalition members and the deepening of their commitment, it is still an overwhelmingly American venture. US officials acknowledged in October that almost 90% of airstrikes have been carried out by American warplanes. This highlights the relatively limited involvement of the other coalition members.
Besides differing goals and strategies, there is open tension and suspicion between some of them (Egypt and Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf monarchies, Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, among others).
That a number of Arab states have joined in has been portrayed as lending regional legitimacy to the coalition, and avoiding the impression of western intervention and imperialism. However, Arab autocracies that are reliant on foreign powers lack legitimacy in the eyes of many Middle Easterners.
Given regional complexities, the breadth of the coalition is largely symbolic, and displays a lack of cohesion and clarity. It is also missing key players on the ground. The moderate Free Syrian Army – which is fighting Assad’s regime and the IS – said it will not join the coalition without a guarantee that the US is committed to his overthrow. Other Syrian rebel groups have agreed ceasefires with the IS.
Iraqi Sunni tribes – who were instrumental in defeating Al Qaeda years earlier – are divided over whether to join the coalition, torn between the abuses of the jihadists and those of the coalition-supported Iraqi army.
It is also not the only coalition in town. The Assad regime, Iran, Russia, China, Hizbullah and other Shiite militias are at war with the IS – belatedly, compared to Syrian opposition forces – but also staunchly opposed to the US-led coalition. Both refuse to cooperate, so while taking on IS, they are also trying to undermine each other.
Reports of Israel providing intelligence to the US-led campaign have aroused anger in a region deeply opposed to Israeli and American hegemony. There is also widespread consternation that while Obama is willing to bomb IS in Syria, he has authorised such action against Assad’s regime, which UN war crimes investigators in September said: “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.”
The US-led campaign, comprised of states opposed to Assad, is actually benefitting him. The coalition’s engagement against IS has enabled his forces to step up their attacks against other rebel groups. With moderate opposition forces far less equipped and financed than the IS or the Assad regime, ground lost by the jihadist group is more likely to be filled by the regime.
Meanwhile, rebels say they are facing a backlash from Syrians angered by the coalition offensive, with protests taking place in opposition-held territory. The Associated Press reported Obama “acknowledging” on the CBS programme 60 Minutes that the US-led campaign “is helping” Assad.
All this may explain why condemnation of the campaign by Assad and his allies has toned down considerably. According to Reuters, a statement by Assad’s foreign minister at the UN in late September “appeared to give tacit approval” to US-led airstrikes in Syria, a marked change from previously vigorous denunciations.
The campaign is also benefitting the Iraqi authorities, which are serial human rights abusers. The Iraqi army has continued to attack civilian targets even after promises by the prime minister to stop doing so. Iranian-led Shiite militias are also beneficiaries. According to eyewitnesses, they have committed atrocities against locals every bit as vicious as the IS after withdrawals by the latter.
There is also growing regional concern about Iraqi Kurds being heavily armed by the West in the fight against IS. With an upcoming referendum on independence that will include the considerable territory they have captured in recent months, they will now be better able to defend their gains. It is ironic, then, that western countries arming the Kurds are also against the break-up of Iraq.
Syrian Kurds now enjoy de facto autonomy. With Kurds in Turkey and Iran coming to the aid of their kin in Syria and Iraq, this may give rise to more militarised, unified and ambitious Kurdish populations in these countries.
There is widespread regional opposition to Kurdish national aspirations, and the threats that this would entail to the territorial integrity of all four countries. As such, this could cause conflicts as devastating and wide-ranging as the ones taking place currently.
The coalition campaign has resulted in civilian deaths and the bombing of civilian infrastructure. In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross has said coalition airstrikes have worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis. Alarmingly, the White House has acknowledged that standards Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes do not apply to American military operations in Syria and Iraq.
This is inexcusable, and vindicates the widespread feeling among Middle Easterners that the US views their lives as expendable. Syrians and Iraqis now live in fear of being killed not just by their governments’ warplanes, but by those of a coalition that is supposed to protect them.
The IS also displays a disregard for human life. Given its atrocities against those under its rule, it has no qualms endangering innocents. For example, it is planting its black flag on civilian homes, according to eyewitnesses – no doubt so that the coalition can be accused of targeting civilians. From all sides, those caught in the middle are paying a high price, as are neighbouring countries that are struggling to cope with refugee influxes.
And just as Bush’s ‘war on terror’ created more of it, so too is this one. An array of jihadist groups – not just in the Middle East but far beyond – have vowed retaliation against coalition member states, which have raised their threat levels at home and warned their citizens abroad. A growing number have been taken hostage and executed, while the region is suffering a spike in terrorist attacks.
In some important respects, this campaign has strengthened the IS rather than weakened it. Jihadist groups have expressed solidarity and rallied to its aid, seeing the US-led offensive as a war against Islam, not simply the IS, which now has potentially global reach in terms of retaliation. A climate of fear is in itself a victory of sorts.
When airstrikes began in Iraq, Al Qaeda’s wings in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula expressed support for the IS, despite the spat between the two organisations. The targeting of Al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the Nusra Front – which had been openly at war with the IS since the start of the year – has led the jihadist rivals to bury the hatchet. This is not only a major boost to the IS but also to Assad, as the Nusra Front diverts attention, resources and manpower from toppling him to fighting the US-led coalition.
As Bush’s ‘war on terror’ swelled Al Qaeda’s ranks, the same is happening with the IS, which is gaining recruits worldwide. Opposition to western hegemony, resentment of Arab autocracy, fear of Shiite expansionism, adherence to rising sectarianism, and the perception of yet another aggression against Islam means the radicalised and misguided see IS as a defender of the faith and a resistor of imperialism and foreign domination.
The consequences of this campaign are hardly surprising given that far more effort is being exerted into tackling effect rather than cause. Instead of understanding what has led to the rise of IS, the predominant mindset seems to be that its military defeat will somehow end the region’s problems. What more can be expected when the US refuses to draw any link between today’s chaos and its catastrophic invasion of Iraq?
The fight against IS is proving to be a very useful PR and recruitment tool for the group, with far-reaching, devastating consequences for the region and beyond. Its enemies have done more for it than it could have hoped to achieve on its own. A local organisation has been catapulted into a global brand that has eclipsed Al Qaeda. It seems nothing has been learnt from very recent history.