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Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole (Again)
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There is a peculiar form of insanity in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just beneath the surface. When Alice dove down her rabbit hole to enter a place where smirking cats offered directions, ill-mannered caterpillars dispensed advice, and Mock Turtles constituted the principal ingredient in Mock Turtle soup, she experienced something of the sort.

Yet, as the old adage goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction. For a real-life illustration of this phenomenon, one need look no further than Washington and its approach to national security policy. Viewed up close, it all seems to hang together. Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.

Consider this recent headline: “U.S. to Ship 2,000 Anti-Tank Missiles To Iraq To Help Fight ISIS.” The accompanying article describes a Pentagon initiative to reinforce Iraq’s battered army with a rush order of AT-4s. A souped-up version of the old bazooka, the AT-4 is designed to punch holes through armored vehicles.

Taken on its own terms, the decision makes considerable sense. Iraqi forces need something to counter a fearsome new tactic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): suicide bombers mounted in heavily armored wheeled vehicles. Improved antitank capabilities certainly could help Iraqi troops take out such bombers before they reach their intended targets. The logic is airtight. The sooner these weapons get into the hands of Iraqi personnel, the better for them — and so the better for us.

As it turns out, however, the vehicle of choice for ISIS suicide bombers these days is the up-armored Humvee. In June 2014, when the Iraqi Army abandoned the country’s second largest city, Mosul, ISIS acquired 2,300 made-in-the-U.S.A. Humvees. Since then, it’s captured even more of them.

As U.S. forces were themselves withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, they bequeathed a huge fleet of Humvees to the “new” Iraqi army it had built to the tune of $25 billion. Again, the logic of doing so was impeccable: Iraqi troops needed equipment; shipping used Humvees back to the U.S. was going to cost more than they were worth. Better to give them to those who could put them to good use. Who could quarrel with that?

Before they handed over the used equipment, U.S. troops had spent years trying to pacify Iraq, where order had pretty much collapsed after the invasion of 2003. American troops in Iraq had plenty of tanks and other heavy equipment, but once the country fell into insurgency and civil war, patrolling Iraqi cities required something akin to a hopped-up cop car. The readily available Humvee filled the bill. When it turned out that troops driving around in what was essentially an oversized jeep were vulnerable to sniper fire and roadside bombs, “hardening” those vehicles to protect the occupants became a no-brainer — as even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld eventually recognized.

At each step along the way, the decisions made possessed a certain obvious logic. It’s only when you get to the end — giving Iraqis American-made weapons to destroy specially hardened American-made military vehicles previously provided to those same Iraqis — that the strangely circular and seriously cuckoo Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the entire enterprise becomes apparent.

AT-4s blowing up those Humvees — with fingers crossed that the anti-tank weapons don’t also fall into the hands of ISIS militants — illustrates in microcosm the larger madness of Washington’s policies concealed by the superficial logic of each immediate situation.

The Promotion of Policies That Have Manifestly Failed

Let me provide a firsthand illustration. A week ago, I appeared on a network television news program to discuss American policy in Iraq and in particular the challenges posed by ISIS. The other guests were former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and current CEO of a Washington think tank Michelle Flournoy, and retired four-star general Anthony Zinni who had once headed up United States Central Command.

Washington is a city in which whatever happens within the current news cycle trumps all other considerations, whether in the immediate or distant past. So the moderator launched the discussion by asking the panelists to comment on President Obama’s decision, announced earlier that very day, to plus-up the 3,000-strong train-and-equip mission to Iraq with an additional 450 American soldiers, the latest ratcheting up of ongoing U.S. efforts to deal with ISIS.

Panetta spoke first and professed wholehearted approval of the initiative. “Well, there’s no question that I think the president’s taken the right step in adding these trainers and advisers.” More such steps — funneling arms to Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis and deploying U.S. Special Operations Forces to hunt down terrorists — were “going to be necessary in order to be able to achieve the mission that we have embarked on.” That mission was of critical importance. Unless defeated, ISIS would convert Iraq into “a base [for] attacking our country and attacking our homeland.”

Flournoy expressed a similar opinion. She called the decision to send additional trainers “a good move and a smart move,” although she, too, hoped that it was only the “first step in a broader series” of escalatory actions. If anything, her view of ISIS was more dire than that of her former Pentagon boss. She called it “the new jihad — violent jihadist vanguard in the Middle East and globally.” Unless stopped, ISIS was likely to become “a global network” with “transnational objectives,” while its “thousands of foreign fighters” from the West and Gulf states were eventually going to “return and be looking to carry out jihad in their home countries.”

General Zinni begged to differ — not on the nature of the danger confronting Washington, but on what to do about it. He described the present policy as “almost déjà vu,” a throwback “to Vietnam before we committed the ground forces. We dribble in more and more advisers and support.”

“We’re not fully committed to this fight,” the general complained. “We use terms like destroy. I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.” Zinni proposed doing just that. No more shilly-shallying. The template for action was readily at hand. “The last victory, clear victory that we had was in the first Gulf War,” he said. And what were the keys to success then? “We used overwhelming force. We ended it quickly. We went to the U.N. and got a resolution. We built a coalition. And that ought to be a model we ought to look at.” In short, go big, go hard, go home.

Panetta disagreed. He had a different template in mind. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 had clearly shown that “we know how to do this, and we know how to win at doing this.” The real key was to allow America’s generals a free hand to do what needed to be done. “[A]ll we really do need to do is to be able to give our military commanders the flexibility to design not only the strategy to degrade ISIS, but the larger strategy we need in order to defeat ISIS.” Unleashing the likes of Delta Force or SEAL Team 6 with some missile-firing drones thrown in for good measure was likely to suffice.

For her part, Flournoy thought the real problem was “making sure that there is Iraqi capacity to hold the territory, secure it long-term, so that ISIS doesn’t come back again. And that involves the larger political compromises” — the ones the Iraqis themselves needed to make. At the end of the day, the solution was an Iraqi army willing and able to fight and an Iraqi government willing and able to govern effectively. On that score, there was much work to be done.

Panetta then pointed out that none of this was in the cards unless the United States stepped up to meet the challenge. “[I]f the United States doesn’t provide leadership in these crises, nobody else will.” That much was patently obvious. Other countries and the Iraqis themselves might pitch in, “but we have to provide that leadership. We can’t just stand on the sidelines wringing our hands. I mean… ask the people of Paris what happened there with ISIS. Ask the people in Brussels what happened there with ISIS. What happened in Toronto? What’s happened in this country as a result of the threat from ISIS?”

Ultimately, everything turned on the willingness of America to bring order and stability out of chaos and confusion. Only the United States possessed the necessary combination of wisdom, competence, and strength. Here was a proposition to which Flournoy and Zinni readily assented.

With Alice in Washington

To participate in an exchange with these pillars of the Washington establishment was immensely instructive. Only nominally did their comments qualify as a debate. Despite superficial differences, the discussion was actually an exercise in affirming the theology of American national security — those essential matters of faith that define continuities of policy in Washington, whatever administration is in power.

In that regard, apparent disagreement on specifics masked a deeper consensus consisting of three elements:

* That ISIS represents something akin to an existential threat to the United States, the latest in a long line going back to the totalitarian ideologies of the last century; fascism and communism may be gone, but danger is ever present.

* That if the United States doesn’t claim ownership of the problem of Iraq, the prospects of “solving” it are nil; action or inaction by Washington alone, that is, determines the fate of the planet.

* That the exercise of leadership implies, and indeed requires, employing armed might; without a willingness to loose military power, global leadership is inconceivable.

In a fundamental respect, the purpose of the national security establishment, including the establishment media, is to shield that tripartite consensus from critical examination. This requires narrowing the aperture of analysis so as to exclude anything apart from the here-and-now. The discussion in which I participated provided a vehicle for doing just that. It was an exercise aimed at fostering collective amnesia.

So what the former secretary of defense, think tank CEO, and retired general chose not to say in fretting about ISIS is as revealing as what they did say. Here are some of the things they chose to overlook:

* ISIS would not exist were it not for the folly of the United States in invading — and breaking — Iraq in the first place; we created the vacuum that ISIS is now attempting to fill.

* U.S. military efforts to pacify occupied Iraq from 2003 to 2011 succeeded only in creating a decent interval for the United States to withdraw without having to admit to outright defeat; in no sense did “our” Iraq War end in anything remotely approximating victory, despite the already forgotten loss of thousands of American lives and the expenditure of trillions of dollars.

* For more than a decade and at very considerable expense, the United States has been attempting to create an Iraqi government that governs and an Iraqi army that fights; the results of those efforts speak for themselves: they have failed abysmally.

Now, these are facts. Acknowledging them might suggest a further conclusion: that anyone proposing ways for Washington to put things right in Iraq ought to display a certain sense of humility. The implications of those facts — behind which lies a policy failure of epic proportions — might even provide the basis for an interesting discussion on national television. But that would assume a willingness to engage in serious self-reflection. This, the culture of Washington does not encourage, especially on matters related to basic national security policy.

My own contribution to the televised debate was modest and ineffectual. Toward the end, the moderator offered me a chance to redeem myself. What, she asked, did I think about Panetta’s tribute to the indispensability of American leadership?

A fat pitch that I should have hit it out of the park. Instead, I fouled it off. What I should have said was this: leadership ought to mean something other than simply repeating and compounding past mistakes. It should require more than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed. To remain willfully blind to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness.

Not that it would have mattered if I had. When it comes to Iraq, we’re already halfway back down Alice’s rabbit hole.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is writing a military history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. One might add that the bestial and cruel way in which the nation’s leaders have chosen to treat captured enemies has created an implacable foe which will fight to the last rather than surrender, and believes that the only way foreign occupiers can be removed is by the most extreme means.

    Good for the arms business that so much of our economy now depends on, though, so of what profit is the truth for those who circulate in the donorist controlled revolving door of the imperial city?

    Do “Black lives count?” Do anyone’s?

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  2. rod1963 says:

    Insightful article to say the least but scary as well. It’s clear our so-called “leaders” both political and militarily have learned nothing since leaving Iraq, yet alone admitting their invasion created the sort of environment that ISIS could flourish in and take over.

    This makes them wholly unfit to prosecute a war against ISIS.

    Of course “leaders” like Pannetta can’t admit wrong doing or failure on their part. It’s something fobbed off on others if failure is acknowledged at all. It makes them stupid and worse, dangerous because they have their hands on the levers of power.

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  3. Pat Casey says:

    Andrew Bacevich is simply the best writer in America on military matters. Our New American Militarism (2006) will be cited by historians homing in on the true voice midst the confederacy of dunces. Mr. Unz might consider his next big initiative to be a “Draft Andrew Bacevich for President” drive. I recall years ago watching Bacevich debate David Frum on blogtv or some such, and Frum, not a dumb man, got all hot and bothered because he couldn’t explain why it was necessary for the USA to intervene and mediate the Muslim Reformation, so he copped out and accused Bacevich of spotting sophistry Frum couldn’t understand. That Canadian Zionist always makes me recall Joe Sobran’s line on Buckley: He’s an overrated debater but peerless at making people look bad. Except Frum didn’t make anyone but himself look bad that day. Keep fighting the good fight Mr. Bacevich. Somehow it seems like you are the Marine that was meant to come after Ollie North.

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  4. Question and Answer:

    Q. Is the American government entirely and irremediably corrupt?

    A. Yes.

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  5. Jim says:

    There never was any such country as “Iraq” nor any such people as “Iraqis” any more then there was ever any such country as “Yugoslavia” nor any such people as “Yugoslavians”.

    A foreign policy based on illusions leads to disaster after disaster.

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  6. pyrrhus says:

    But look on the bright side: the military contractors and their “consultants”–i.e. retired generals–have gotten rich beyond their wildest dreams on this catastrophic boondoggle, even as the US and its taxpayers spiral down toward insolvency…..

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  7. Q: Who is the enemy the USA (/ Israeli) government is fighting in Iraq & Syria?
    A: Iran.

    Q: For what purpose did USA create ISIS?
    A: To snatch from Iran that nation’s enhanced influence over Iraq acquired as a direct and predictable result of the USA blunderbuss invasion and destruction of Iraq.

    Q: Why can’t the USA government simply say, “We are going to war against Iran” ?
    A: Because there is no cause for the USA to wage war on Iran.

    Q: Who is the real threat to the security and wellbeing of the USA?
    A: Israel.

    Q: Why are USA politicians incapable of acknowledging to the the American people those two blatant and terrifying facts?
    A: Because they are terrifying.

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  8. The crux is that our Dear Rulers refuse to use the Department of Defense to seal, fortify and defend our own borders which our Dear Rulers insist on keeping wide open, and that our Dear Rulers, in thrall to their 0.1-Percenter GATT-Globalist Donor Puppeteers, use the Department of Defense as the Department of Offense to station U.S. troops in and wage wars of choice in other people’s countries that they FUBAR as badly as our Dear Rulers have by Perpetual Mass Third World Immigration FUBAR-ed what’s left of what used to be our United States.

    Very little of this has anything to do with Israel. Those of you with a Jew-fixation need to back away and gain the long-view, gain perspective, because our Dear Rulers may do some things to support Israel but they do a great many more things all over the globe with their Department of Offense that have nothing to do with Israel. To wit: AFRICOM’s bases and missions all over Africa; troops in the Philippines; troops in Australia; troops in wealthy South Korea; troops in Japan; troops all over Europe; U.S. warships in the Black Sea; troops on Diego Garcia whose native inhabitants our Dear Rulers expelled by force; and in the last ten years troops sent on missions in over 150 foreign countries, most of which have nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with being FUBAR-ed to serve the greed-hegemony of the 0.1-Percenter GATT-Globalist Campaign Donor Class.

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  9. Very little of this has anything to do with Israel. Those of you with a Jew-fixation need to back away and gain the long-view, gain perspective, because our Dear Rulers may do some things to support Israel but they do a great many more things all over the globe with their Department of Offense that have nothing to do with Israel.

    A bit of nuance –

    re: Those of you with a Jew-fixation (1) need to back away and gain the long-view, gain perspective,(2)

    1. “Back away” from Jew fixation lingo.
    It’s not about Jews.
    Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro explained to Gilad Atzmon in this conversation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVVJ6lP0Wqk that zionists “stole Jewish identity” to create the secular, anti-Judaic state of Israel. Israel has nothing to do with the core of Judaism, which is what defines a Jew — namely, having been among those people chosen by god at Mt. Sinai to observe the 600+ commands handed down thru Moses and recorded in Torah. That is what a Jew is. “Jewish is not a culture — there is no Jewish culture; it’s not an ethnicity, or a race. Jewish is a religion.” Zionism is a political movement, a movement based on nationalism, not Torah, the Jewish religion, insisted Shapiro.

    Hitler was quite specific in stating that neither he nor any German person would ever criticize Judaism and Jewish as religion; look it up in Mein Kampf.
    But Winston Churchill was even more damning of “international Jews,” aka Bolsheviks aka zionists than ever was Hitler. You can google that, too.

    Rabbi Shapiro objects to zionism; he objects to zionism strenuously, even angrily. “Zionists have stolen my identity,” said the Orthodox rabbi.

    2. Republican party & the GOP candidates for president met at Faith & Freedom conference the other day.
    One of the speakers (I forget which) said “USA was founded by Old Testament Christians.”

    Gary Bauer explained the guarantee of “inalienable rights” with which Americans are “endowed by god” and that god is the “god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

    Woodrow Wilson would have agreed.
    So would Saint Ronald of Reagan.
    FDR was so corrupt that he used zionism and Russians to destroy Germany and Churchill/British empire — he made a pact with the devil, and that zionist devil had several names & coats of many colors — he was named Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis, Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau JR, Harry Dexter White, Rabbi Stephen Wise ….

    Truman sold his soul to the Abrahamic mythos and lived to regret it but without the courage to recant it.

    Eisenhower stood up to the devil just enough to make you think he had guts and character, but he only nibbled at the margins.

    fill in the rest

    Then there are the Bushes — peer George H W, fille George W, and even convert to his wife’s Catholic creed, candidate Jeb (!) (no Bush).
    They are Abrahamic.

    Recall that Rabbi Shapiro says Jews are those to whom Moses conveyed Commandments.
    Moses did not enter the land of Canaan.
    Neither did the people who were with Moses at Mt. Sinai.
    The Levites killed those escapees from Egypt who worshiped the golden calf.
    And those escapees who kveched about the inadequacy of the manna etc. were condemned never to set foot in the land of Jericho– anyone so wimpy that they’d complain about eating the same stuff for 40 years was not the material Joshua needed to topple the regime at Jericho, kill its men, boys and animals and take away its women. Nosiree, they did not have the spirit of the conquering Abraham, whose first public act was to smash the icons of all other people’s gods and receive from god the promise of the land of Canaan for his own.

    The Gooper crowd at the Omni Shoreham are just as Bauer suggested (sort of*) — Abrahamic. Eager to kill anyone who does not believe as they believe, in order to confer on them “inalienable rights with which they were endowed by the Abraham’s god, dammit.

    The crowd that is running US foreign policy is, indeed, “Old Testament,” and “Abrahamic.” They worship Israel, and Israel is the concentrated form of their creed, the Vatican fortress for their plans of conquest.

    They are neither Jew nor Christian.

    They are Abrahamic.
    That’s the source of all these evil habits. Israel is the holding tank for Abrahamism and US political leaders are Abrahamism’s carry-out boys, its executives, its yes-men — listen to the GOP Faith & Freedom conference.

    2. That’s the perspective that needs to be gained.

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  10. The Talmud makes a “Jew”…hating Jesus makes a Jew into a Jewish….
    stool sculpture deity cult member….get it ?

    http://www.aboutscotland.com/stone/destiny.html

    There are no “Jews” in the Old Testament.

    John 8:44…Jesus is not speaking in Yiddish to Ashkenazim “Proselytes”.

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  11. anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    It’s not clear to me what ‘victory’ in Iraq is supposed to look like. It doesn’t seem likely the Iraqi state as it was under Hussein could be recreated; Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again. Can, or should, different groups of people be forced into the same state with each other by outsiders as was done originally by Sykes-Picot? Is a new third state in the process of being carved out of Iraq and Syria? Anybody think the leaders of the states in the area won’t be dictators of one stripe or another?
    The article mentions “funneling arms to Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis”. Wouldn’t this create other problems? Iraq and Turkey don’t seem likely to support the building up of the Kurds for fear they’ll eventually want their own separate state which would come out of their national territories. Giving arms to Sunnis might be a bad idea as it’s very possible they’ll go over to the other side.
    The war between Sunnis and Shia seems to be of US and allies origin, intended to thwart Iranian influence. The Iraq mosque bombings, such as the one at al-Askari Mosque, seemed designed to touch off sectarian strife. The US has been involved with various jihadi groups over the years leading to suspicions of a deeper involvement than has been acknowledged. Perhaps strife and chaos are in themselves goals, who knows? The US has been bombing ISIS for awhile now yet the results are unclear. Does this talk of more ‘advisors’ mean it’s a failure? Lots of questions, few answers that aren’t rhetorical flourish.

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    • Replies: @SolontoCroesus
    http://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/islamic-state-has-assad-geopolitics-to-thank-for-its-survival/

    It is not the fear of Islamic State nor the desire to eliminate it that defines the strategies of the main players in the Middle East. Rather it is the fear of how the balance of power will shift after ISIS is eliminated. And thus, the main question for major players is how to use ISIS in their favor and how to arrange the process of the group’s defeat and gain from it in the post-ISIS world.

    ISIS is “allowed” to exist because of the current consensus, which has been partly agreed diplomatically “under the table” and partly accepted due to the objective military situation. At the same time, ISIS is not “allowed” to further expand into: Shia-dominated regions; regions controlled by the Kurdish forces; strategic oil fields and refineries; or Damascus and, later on, Syria’s major ports.

    At this stage of the anti-ISIS campaign, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and Western powers are unlikely to interfere significantly if ISIS conquers Assad-controlled territory. All are trying to arrange the situation such that the main ISIS pressure is on the Assad regime. And they do so by making it really hard to expand in any other direction. In short, the consensus is to make ISIS move to the west and then, after Assad regime is doomed, start reducing ISIS-controlled territory from the north and from the east.
     
  12. @anonymous
    It's not clear to me what 'victory' in Iraq is supposed to look like. It doesn't seem likely the Iraqi state as it was under Hussein could be recreated; Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again. Can, or should, different groups of people be forced into the same state with each other by outsiders as was done originally by Sykes-Picot? Is a new third state in the process of being carved out of Iraq and Syria? Anybody think the leaders of the states in the area won't be dictators of one stripe or another?
    The article mentions "funneling arms to Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis". Wouldn't this create other problems? Iraq and Turkey don't seem likely to support the building up of the Kurds for fear they'll eventually want their own separate state which would come out of their national territories. Giving arms to Sunnis might be a bad idea as it's very possible they'll go over to the other side.
    The war between Sunnis and Shia seems to be of US and allies origin, intended to thwart Iranian influence. The Iraq mosque bombings, such as the one at al-Askari Mosque, seemed designed to touch off sectarian strife. The US has been involved with various jihadi groups over the years leading to suspicions of a deeper involvement than has been acknowledged. Perhaps strife and chaos are in themselves goals, who knows? The US has been bombing ISIS for awhile now yet the results are unclear. Does this talk of more 'advisors' mean it's a failure? Lots of questions, few answers that aren't rhetorical flourish.

    http://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/islamic-state-has-assad-geopolitics-to-thank-for-its-survival/

    It is not the fear of Islamic State nor the desire to eliminate it that defines the strategies of the main players in the Middle East. Rather it is the fear of how the balance of power will shift after ISIS is eliminated. And thus, the main question for major players is how to use ISIS in their favor and how to arrange the process of the group’s defeat and gain from it in the post-ISIS world.

    ISIS is “allowed” to exist because of the current consensus, which has been partly agreed diplomatically “under the table” and partly accepted due to the objective military situation. At the same time, ISIS is not “allowed” to further expand into: Shia-dominated regions; regions controlled by the Kurdish forces; strategic oil fields and refineries; or Damascus and, later on, Syria’s major ports.

    At this stage of the anti-ISIS campaign, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey, and Western powers are unlikely to interfere significantly if ISIS conquers Assad-controlled territory. All are trying to arrange the situation such that the main ISIS pressure is on the Assad regime. And they do so by making it really hard to expand in any other direction. In short, the consensus is to make ISIS move to the west and then, after Assad regime is doomed, start reducing ISIS-controlled territory from the north and from the east.

    Read More
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