“The mul­ti­ple US wars in the Mid­dle East – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and oth­ers – have sought to re­move the Soviet Union, and then Rus­sia, from the scene and to give the US hege­monic sway. These ef­forts have failed mis­er­ably”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Deadly ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Is­tan­bul, Dhaka, and Bagh­dad demon­strate the mur­der­ous reach of the Is­lamic State (ISIS) in Europe, North Africa, the Mid­dle East, and parts of Asia. The longer ISIS main­tains its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the longer its ter­ror­ist net­work will cre­ate such car­nage. Yet ISIS is not es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to de­feat. The prob­lem is that none of the states in­volved in Iraq and Syria, in­clud­ing the United States and its al­lies, has so far treated ISIS as its pri­mary foe. It’s time they do.

ISIS has a small fight­ing force, which the US puts at 20,000 to 25,000 in Iraq and Syria, and an­other 5,000 or so in Libya. Com­pared to the num­ber of ac­tive mil­i­tary per­son­nel in Syria (125,000), Iraq (271,500), Saudi Ara­bia (233,500), Turkey (510,600), or Iran (523,000), ISIS is mi­nus­cule.

De­spite US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pledge in Septem­ber 2014 to “de­grade and ul­ti­mately de­stroy” ISIS, the US and its al­lies, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, and Is­rael (be­hind the scenes), have been fo­cus­ing in­stead on top­pling Syria’s Bashar al-As­sad. Con­sider a re­cent can­did state­ment by Is­raeli Ma­jor Gen­eral Herzi Halevy (quoted to me by a jour­nal­ist who at­tended the speech where Halevy made it): “Is­rael does not want to see the sit­u­a­tion in Syria end with [ISIS] de­feated, the su­per­pow­ers gone from the re­gion, and [Is­rael] left with a Hezbol­lah and Iran that have greater ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

Is­rael op­poses ISIS, but Is­rael’s greater con­cern is As­sad’s Ira­nian back­ing. As­sad en­ables Iran to sup­port two para­mil­i­tary foes of Is­rael, Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas. Is­rael there­fore prioritises the re­moval of As­sad over the de­feat of ISIS.

For the US, steered by neo­con­ser­va­tives, the war in Syria is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the plan for global US hege­mony launched by De­fense Sec­re­tary Richard Cheney and Un­der Sec­re­tary Paul Wol­fowitz at the Cold War’s end. In 1991, Wol­fowitz told US Gen­eral Wes­ley Clark:

“But one thing we did learn [from the Per­sian Gulf War] is that we can use our mil­i­tary in the re­gion – in the Mid­dle East – and the So­vi­ets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about 5 or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet regimes – Syria, Iran (sic), Iraq – be­fore the next great su­per­power comes on to chal­lenge us.”

The mul­ti­ple US wars in the Mid­dle East – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and oth­ers – have sought to re­move the Soviet Union, and then Rus­sia, from the scene and to give the US hege­monic sway. These ef­forts have failed mis­er­ably.

For Saudi Ara­bia, as for Is­rael, the main goal is to oust As­sad in or­der to weaken Iran. Syria is part of the ex­ten­sive proxy war be­tween Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Ara­bia that plays out in the bat­tle­fields of Syria and Ye­men and in bit­ter Shia-Sunni con­fronta­tions in Bahrain and other di­vided coun­tries in the re­gion (in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia it­self).

For Turkey, the over­throw of As­sad would bol­ster its re­gional stand­ing. Yet Turkey now faces three foes on its south­ern bor­der: As­sad, ISIS, and na­tion­al­ist Kurds. ISIS has so far taken a back seat to Turkey’s con­cerns about As­sad and the Kurds. But ISIS-di­rected ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Turkey may be chang­ing that.

Rus­sia and Iran, too, have pur­sued their own re­gional in­ter­ests, in­clud­ing through proxy wars and sup­port for para­mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions. Yet both have sig­nalled their readi­ness to co­op­er­ate with the US to de­feat ISIS, and per­haps to solve other prob­lems as well. The US has so far spurned these of­fers, be­cause of its fo­cus on top­pling As­sad.

The US for­eign-pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment blames Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin for de­fend­ing As­sad, while Rus­sia blames the US for try­ing to over­throw him. These com­plaints might seem sym­met­ri­cal, but they’re not. The at­tempt by the US and its al­lies to over­throw As­sad vi­o­lates the UN Char­ter, while Rus­sia’s sup­port of As­sad is con­sis­tent with Syria’s right of self-de­fence un­der that char­ter. Yes, As­sad is a despot, but the UN Char­ter does not give li­cense to any coun­try to choose which despots to de­pose.

The per­sis­tence of ISIS un­der­scores three strate­gic flaws in US for­eign pol­icy, along with a fa­tal tac­ti­cal flaw.

First, the neo­con quest for US hege­mony through regime change is not only bloody-minded ar­ro­gance; it is clas­sic im­pe­rial over­reach. It has failed ev­ery­where the US has tried it. Syria and Libya are the lat­est ex­am­ples.

Sec­ond, the CIA has long armed and trained Sunni ji­hadists through covert op­er­a­tions funded by Saudi Ara­bia. In turn, these ji­hadists gave birth to ISIS, which is a di­rect, if unan­tic­i­pated, con­se­quence of the poli­cies pur­sued by the CIA and its Saudi part­ners.

Third, the US per­cep­tion of Iran and Rus­sia as im­pla­ca­ble foes of Amer­ica is in many ways out­dated and a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy. A rap­proche­ment with both coun­tries is pos­si­ble.

Fourth, on the tac­ti­cal side, the US at­tempt to fight a two- front war against both As­sad and ISIS has failed. When­ever As­sad has been weak­ened, Sunni ji­hadists, in­clud­ing ISIS and al-Nusra Front, have filled the vac­uum.

As­sad and his Iraqi coun­ter­parts can de­feat ISIS if the US, Rus­sia, Saudi Ara­bia, and Iran pro­vide air cover and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. Yes, As­sad would re­main in power; yes, Rus­sia would re­tain an ally in Syria; and yes, Iran would have in­flu­ence there. Ter­ror­ist at­tacks would no doubt con­tinue, per­haps even in the name of ISIS for a while; but the group would be de­nied its base of op­er­a­tions in Syria and Iraq.

Such an out­come would not only end ISIS on the ground in the Mid­dle East; it could lay the ground­work for re­duc­ing re­gional ten­sions more gen­er­ally. The US and Rus­sia could be­gin to re­verse their re­cent new cold war through shared ef­forts to stamp out ji­hadist ter­ror­ism. (A pledge that NATO will not of­fer ad­mis­sion to Ukraine or es­ca­late mis­sile de­fences in East­ern Europe would also help.)

There’s more. A co­op­er­a­tive ap­proach to de­feat­ing ISIS would give Saudi Ara­bia and Turkey rea­son and op­por­tu­nity to find a new modus vivendi with Iran. Is­rael’s se­cu­rity could be en­hanced by bring­ing Iran into a co­op­er­a­tive eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with the West, in turn en­hanc­ing the chances for a long-over­due two-state set­tle­ment with Pales­tine.

The rise of ISIS is a symp­tom of the short­com­ings of cur­rent western – par­tic­u­larly US – strat­egy. The West can de­feat ISIS. The ques­tion is whether the US will un­der­take the strate­gic re­assess­ment needed to ac­com­plish that end.

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