Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Arming ISIS: The Danger of Listening to Warhawks

by Nomad

Two years ago, as the Syrian Civil War dragged on, Republican war hawks had the answers about what President ought to do in Syria. Sending weapons to the freedom fighting rebels was the only answer. 
Today we can see the folly of McCain's foreign policy solutions.

Back in February 2012, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were indulging in their favorite hobby, telling President Obama what he ought to be doing in the seemingly insolvable Syrian Civil War.
Their answer was to send American weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.

McCain's Folly
“I believe there are ways to get weapons to the opposition without direct United States involvement,” McCain told reporters at a news conference during a visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, “The Iranians and the Russians are providing Bashar Assad with weapons. People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves.”
“So I am not only not opposed, but I am in favor of weapons being obtained by the opposition.”
In other words, the best policy was to return to the proxy wars of the Cold War.

(Nobody on the Republican side bothered to inform the senators that arming rebels in any country is a violation of international law. The International Court of Justice has in the past ruled that such shipments violated the UN charter. The last time this matter came up was curiously enough in the Reagan era with the covert arming of the Nicaraguan contras.)

According to a Wall Street Journal article (behind a firewall), legal advisers to President Obama repeatedly warned that aiding the Syrian rebels probably "violated international law and risked a direct conflict with the Assad regime."

Furthermore, it could easily lead into a larger conflict involving Turkey, Iran, Russia, Israel and other regional neighbors. The President had every reason to proceed with extreme caution. It's the kind of thing a president- as Commander in Chief- is paid to consider.

It was clear that the Obama Administration was never fully committed to the idea of sending weapons. In any event, it made no sense to openly discuss that option. What is the benefit of publicizing such a policy? 

The then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also a little less hawkish about the idea. However according to one source, (her own recently-published memoirs) suggests that early in the country's civil war, she thought the proposal was one option.
Importantly, she adds, that view was overruled by the president.
"The risks of both action and inaction were high, [but] the president [Obama]'s inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels," she added.
"No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the president's call and I respected his deliberations and decision," she wrote, according to CBS News.
As we shall see,  Hilary's version of events was not exactly the final chapter in the whole story. Ultimately, everybody in Washington and in Europe agreed that the Syrian President Assad had to go but nobody could decide how it should be done.
For the war hawk Republicans, the most expedient way seemed to be shipping weapons into the country covertly. It had worked in other cases. After all, it worked for Reagan and the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan...hadn't it?

The Complicated Truth
Only a month after McCain-Graham's press conference, the Boston Globe reported that the Syrian rebels, a mix of groups with different agendas, were in fact deeply infiltrated with militant Islamists.

Moreover, the rebel-held territories already had the makings of a new Islamic state, according to the article.
In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries, and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work, and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists.
The article went on to quote Ari Ratner, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former Middle East adviser for the Obama administration:
‘‘Some of the more extremist opposition is very scary from an American perspective and that presents us with all sorts of problems. We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime — it must still go — but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels.’’
As the article notes, this is a case of various groups coming to fight together against a tyrant. The Islamist character of the opposition reflected not a small faction but the main constituency of the rebellion.

Obama's Red Line Desperation
Despite that warning alarm and under pressure, Obama elected to give limited support to the rebels. He had run out of options. Any possibility of Russian cooperation at the UN seemed to have come to a dead end. Russian ambassadors for the UN had made it clear that Russia would never sign on to UN-approved military strike against Assad. The red line the horrific use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians made no difference to the Russian position.

According to the Washington Post dated September 11, 2013, the CIA had begun delivering weapons to the rebels, proceeding with caution despite the concerns.  According to that article, the arms shipments were limited to light weapons and other munitions that could be tracked. (No explanation how that tracking was actually done, of course.) The aid also included vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.

The Republican congressmen were overjoyed. They had grown impatient and humiliated.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has pressed the Obama administration to do more to help the rebels, said he felt embarrassed when he met with Syrians along the Turkish border three weeks ago.
“It was humiliating,” he said in an interview Wednesday night. “The president had announced that we would be providing lethal aid, and not a drop of it had begun. They were very short on ammunition, and the weapons had not begun to flow.”
Like McCain, Corker was just another voice on the Right calling on the president to stop "dithering" and to do something to end the suffering of the Syrian people. 

Enter ISIS
Today the fears of arming Islamic militants in Syria seem to have been forgotten. Today McCain, quick to put things behind him, has marched off to another crusade, another area of foreign policy he believes that requires his expertise. Namely Iraq.

The arms shipments to Syria failed to change the balance of power in favor of the rebels.
However, that's not the end of the sorry story.

In recent weeks, the US-supported government of Iraq has been shaken to its core by a group that calls itself ISIS. That stands for The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (alternatively translated as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) 
Since the beginning of civilization, the desert has mocked the borders of nations. The same holds true today on the border between Syria and Iraq. For  any group wishing to set up its own state, that's a perfect situation. 

According to ISIS' own boasts, the Jihadist group claims the territory of Iraq and Syria, with an eye to claiming territory over more of the Levant— which includes Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, and Southern Turkey

The image to the left gives a rough - but a slightly exaggerated- idea of the ISIS territorial control. That covers a lot of oil-rich land.

Although you might not have heard of ISIS, it has actually been around since the beginning of the Iraq invasion and occupation.  After a series of internal struggles, the group re-emerged in April 2013 and now controls (or can operate with impunity) in a great stretch of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. That would make "militarily the most successful jihadi movement ever."
The Guardian also gives this background piece on ISIS.
Estimates of Isis numbers range from 7,000 to 10,000. Its rank and file members are drawn from fighters who were previously with al-Qaida, some former Ba'athists and soldiers of the Saddam-era army.

Atrocities via FaceBook
It is a particularly vicious bunch as the events of the past week have demonstrated. ISIS was reported responsible for carrying a series of crucifictions in public squares in the Syrian province of Raqqa in April. The images were published on FaceBook. (If you have the stomach for it, you can find the photographs here. I refuse to post them on this site.) 
As one source notes:
Shortly after gaining control of Raqqa, ISIS implemented harsh Sharia law on the population, banning music, cigarettes, alcohol and forcing prayer and Islamic dress on the population. ISIS is so extreme that other Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have distanced themselves from them.
Amnesty International issued a heads-up in May of this year about atrocities in Syria - not Iraq- committed by ISIS on 15 civilians, including seven children. The victims were summarily killed on 29 May in a village in northern Syria in part of a struggle of dominance. Civilians as usual were caught in the middle.
“These cold-blooded killings serve as a bitter reminder of how complete impunity for the war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria is fuelling brutality and inhumanity,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
After last week's atrocities in Iraq, we see that these warnings went unheeded. 

The event also demonstrates - if proof were needed- how impossible it would be to keep weapons meant for "freedom fighters" in Syria out of the hands of terrorists in Iraq.

When Mosul Fell
Last week, ISIS made world headlines by rounding up Iraqi civilians and officials in Mosul in northern Iraq and summarily executing them in cold blood.
Extremely graphic footage of executions was uploaded in order to instill the maximum amount of worldwide fear.

Thousands of Mosul residents fled the city adding to the already desperate humanitarian crisis. 
Basically, just when it seemed things couldn't get much worse, they did.

To be sure, any sophisticated US weapons that had fallen into the hands of ISIS fighters will not be used only against the Syrian regime. They will be used to destabilize the entire region.
In the end, ISIS did not require assistance from the US. What it could not get from CIA weapons shipments it took from raiding depots in Iraq.

One unconfirmed report explains that the raid on Mosul netted a cache of sophisticated American-made weapons. The group was so proud of the haul that they immediately began posting images online. (None of this is confirmed, keep in mind.)

However that news was supported by another source. Yesterday Fox News reported- without any necessary background- that
U.S. officials with access to the latest U.S. intelligence on Iraq told Fox News it "appears likely/probable" that U.S.-made Stinger missiles have fallen into the hands of Sunni insurgents.
It is possible that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters acquired them from army bases they have taken over in recent days, the sources said.
The Stinger missile is a shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapon that is used against aircraft.
As ISIS forces have advanced through Iraq, concerns have increased that more U.S.-made weaponry could fall into the hands of the radical group.
(The Stinger missile report is interesting only because BBC reported a Russian General Nikolai Makarov telling reporters that Syrian rebels were in possession of such weapons back in October of 2012, long before the raid on Mosul depots.)

The Fox New article also adds that, according to Iraqi intelligence, ISIS fighters were able to seize two large weapons depots last week. Those depots held some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. The article explained that a quarter of those stockpiles were then sent to Syria in order to "help the group's comrades there."

That phrase is filled with implication if you think about it carefully. It is quite an admission (albeit camouflaged). And there is another detail the article adds nonchalantly.
Also last week, according to a report from the West Point Combating Terrorism Center, the ISIS "now possesses scores of Iraqi military equipment originally provided by the United States, from Humvees and cargo vehicles to small arms."
If that sounds alarming, it shouldn't. After all, that sounds suspiciously like the kind of aid funneled into Syria last year. And that went to "comrades" of ISIS.

What Now, Mr. McCain?
The Obama Administration's long hesitation in offering military support for the Syrian rebels was well-founded. In a desperate effort to find a solution to this humanitarian disaster in Syria, Obama finally caved- at least partially- into conservative warhawks half-baked policy prescriptions.

Now we can see how terribly right he was to have been concerned about arming unknowns.

But what's McCain got to say for himself now? Does he admit that perhaps it would have been wiser to have considered the large view, to think more deeply about the future?
Don't be funny. This is John McCain- a man who has been consistently wrong about Iraq and the Middle East for most of his political career.

It's all Obama's fault, he says. The president blundered, claimed McCain in an interview on Friday, by not leaving more troops in Iraq to handle these flare-ups.  This is the man who, it has to be remembered, pledged to stay in Iraq 100 years if necessary. He called for the firing of every member of Obama’s national security team. 

McCain with his convenient memory now demands that American troops go back into Iraq to protect American interests. That leaves the shocking (yet slightly familiar) prospect of American soldiers fighting well-armed and experienced insurgents who are packing Made in America weapons.