August 27, 2014

Syria’s Assad Aided the Rise of ISIL

A story of red lines and the strategies of our enemies.

On Aug. 20, 2012, Barack Obama declared his “red line” with Bashar al-Assad and Syria: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” It was a foolish threat he was forced later to walk back when evidence surfaced that Assad likely did use chemical weapons against his own people and Obama didn’t actually want to do anything about it.

“I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama insisted on Sept. 4, 2013.

We argued at the time that taking out Assad’s regime would not serve vital U.S. interests, because it would leave a power vacuum in the country and we might not like what came next. For an example of why such caution is needed, see the disaster in Libya, created in part by Obama’s careless actions to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power. Jihadis now control Tripoli.

Unfortunately, Assad may have played that fear to his advantage, aiding the rise of ISIL. His support of al-Qaida in Iraq against U.S. forces was known in 2007, but The Wall Street Journal also reports it happened within his own borders: “Earlier in the three-year-old Syrian uprising, Mr. Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West, the Free Syrian Army, said Izzat Shahbandar, an Assad ally and former Iraqi lawmaker who was Baghdad’s liaison to Damascus. The goal, he said, was to force the world to choose between the regime and extremists.” Frankly, pitting his enemies against each other was a smart strategy.

Now, however, ISIL has all but wiped out the Free Syrian Army and any other “moderate” rebel forces, and it has proven to be a serious threat to the Assad regime. McClatchy reports, “Islamic extremists captured a major government military airport in Raqqa, eastern Syria, on Sunday, completing their takeover of the entire province and dealing a humiliating blow to President Bashar Assad.”

ISIL also controls vast territory in Iraq, and in June its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate and shortened the group’s name to just the Islamic State. Its army of perhaps 20,000 fighters certainly poses a threat to the United States. Western fighters, including perhaps 300 Americans, have taken up arms with ISIL. NBC reports, “Douglas McAuthur McCain, of San Diego, California, was killed over the weekend fighting for [ISIL].” British Muslims are joining by the hundreds, as well. Jihadis with Western passports pose a significant problem if they return undetected.

In what could be a major policy shift, the Obama administration may be allying with Assad to fight ISIL. According to Agence France Presse, “The U.S. has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels.”

Naturally, the White House denies the report. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted the U.S. has “not recognized” Assad and has “no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime.” It would be odd indeed to partner with the dictator after the Obama regime sought to aid “moderate” Syrian rebels against him.

The administration’s incoherence on policy regarding ISIL is dangerous. Last week, various parts of the administration made contradictory public statements on how serious the threat was or what to do about it.

Drawing another red line of sorts, Obama promises not to send ground troops back to the Middle East. “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. “I will not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq.”

In fact, he argued, doing so only causes problems: “The answer is not to send in large scale military deployments that over-stretch our military, and lead [to] us occupying countries for a long period of time and end up feeding extremism.” So he won’t tell us what the answer is, only what the answer isn’t.

Though carrying no stick (a nine-iron doesn’t count), he spoke loudly about doing “whatever is necessary” to capture or kill James Foley’s murderers, while employing a broader strategy against ISIL. “Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick,” Obama said. And, he declared, “Our message to anyone who harms our people is simple: America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done.”

That remains to be seen under a commander in chief who would rather attack Republicans or a golf ball than enemies of the United States.

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