[Subsequent to e-mailing this piece to China Matters subscribers, I went back and added a paragraph about the “28 pages” and the legal jeopardy they might pose to Saudi Arabia in US courts, and some thoughts about the “anti-IS campaign” as a harbinger of a new US approach to pursuing limited goals in the region. CH, 9/16/2014]
Ever since President Obama gave his crISis ™ speech, I’ve pushed back against what I considered to be simplistic predictions of the effort’s doom, along the lines of “air power cannot occupy” and “arming anti-Assad ostensibly moderate Syrian rebels is always an exercise in futility”. On September 12, I wrote:
The depressing part of the US strategy is that, as far as I can tell, it views the anti-IS campaign as a Trojan Horse, a chance to favor, strengthen, and advance anti-Assad forces. So instead of cooperating with literally the only Middle Eastern state willing to field an army against IS—Syria—the US is refusing to work with Syria and instead will train and equip an anti-Assad and anti-IS force, reportedly in Saudi Arabia, that is less of a US-backed militia of venal “insurgents” and more of a controlled and disciplined military strike force created, controlled, and deployed by the CIA and, unlike our most famous previous experiment in this vein, the Bay of Pigs invasion, this force will have lots and lots of airpower.
The idea, presumably, is that as IS is pummeled by drones and air strikes (and its fleet of tanker trucks ferrying crude oil to Turkey is destroyed) and retreats, the US-backed force will advance and occupy the vacated territories before Assad can. And hopefully, the force will attract the fairweather allies of IS who prefer a US paycheck and immunity from air strikes to getting plastered. And then the US can orchestrate demands from a finally viable Syrian opposition for Assad to step down in the name of national unity, full US support, and an all-out war against IS. Victory!
My admittedly imperfect knowledge of US government decision making implies to me that somebody had to bring President Obama a proposal like this for an American win in Syria—or at least a borderline plausible case for a chance for an American win in Syria–before he made the politically unpalatable decision to re-enter the Middle East quagmire.
A clear harbinger of this approach was the statement by the Free Syrian Army that it would not join the anti-IS coalition. You got that right. Not join. Even the FSA is totally getting its ass handed to it by IS and could certainly use some US help.
The group’s founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, stressed that toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is their priority, and that they will not join forces with US-led efforts without a guarantee that the US is committed to his overthrow.
Most likely, Colonel al-Asaad was justifiably suspicious of the new US initiative since it was clear that the CIA was already dealing and negotiating directly with his most viable and capable commanders to poach them from the FSA.
Patrick Cockburn had the story on September 9, with some help from McClatchy:
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), once lauded in Western capitals as the likely military victors over Mr Assad, largely collapsed at the end of 2013. The FSA military leader, General Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, who defected from the Syrian government side in 2012, said in an interview with the McClatchy news agency last week that the CIA had taken over direction of this new moderate force. He said that “the leadership of the FSA is American”, adding that since last December US supplies of equipment have bypassed the FSA leadership in Turkey and been sent directly to up to 14 commanders in northern Syria and 60 smaller groups in the south of the country. Gen Bashir said that all these FSA groups reported directly to the CIA.
Well, excuse me for a brief victory jig. The fat lady has bawled her lungs out on this tune, fer sure.
From the Guardian on Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey’s testimony before Congress:
In Syria, the US is seeking to train “vetted” Syrian rebels to capture Syrian territory from Isis. Hagel and Dempsey acknowledged that an initial cohort of 5,000 Syrian opposition forces would not be ready until eight months at the earliest.…“Five thousand is not going to be able to turn the tide, we recognize that,” Hagel said. Neither he nor Dempsey ruled out requesting additional authorities and funding for building a Syrian proxy army in the future.
As for Assad, I think it’s pretty clear that if the strategy is “Isil-first”, it’s “Assad-second”:
[Dempsey] and Hagel demurred when asked by Senator John McCain…if the US’s new allies would receive American air cover if attacked by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“We’re not there yet, but our focus is on Isil,” another name for Isis, Hagel said.
Dempsey – whose resignation McCain has called for, owing to the general’s reluctance to use the US military against Assad –conceded that “if we were to take [fighting] Assad off the table, we’d have a much more difficult time” persuading Syrians to join the coalition, but said the administration nevertheless has an “Isil-first strategy”.
The Guardian, as I did, had a certain amount of difficulty coming up with the suitable nomenclature for this force. I don’t think “proxy army” cuts it, because I expect this army, though composed of Syrians and not a US military unit, will be under the day to day command of the CIA and it will not be allowed to slip the leash and pursue its own political, strategic, and tactical agendas as happened with the feckless Free Syrian Army.
“Third Force” is perhaps the mot juste here.
I don’t necessarily think this strategy will work, and certainly has less chance of working than enabling an alliance with the three actors actually putting the famous “boots on the ground” and committing effective forces to battle IS in major engagements: the Syrian and Iranian governments and the Syrian Kurds. We’re basically hoping that money, airstrikes, CIA direction, and fairy dust will push back IS enough for the US to turn its baleful attention to the Assad regime and demand regime change—cloaked in calls for a “government of national unity” as in Iraq—as the price for additional US anti-IS effort.
The U.S. has tried its luck with “Third Force” strategies before, but US backing, while ensuring short-term success, has often turned out to be the kiss of death for the local force’s legitimacy and ultimate viability. Assad, ISIS, Iran, and Russia are all busily preparing counter-measures to make sure that the slowly-evolving US strategy doesn’t bury them.
But I think it’s an important reminder of how President Obama and government bureaucracies, indeed all bureaucracies, work.
Failed policies like the blunder of outsourcing the overthrow of Assad to jihadi-dominated rebels aren’t simply repackaged. Not just because President Obama is a cerebral, failure-averse guy. Also because there is a whole support network of government, military, and think tank planners whose job is to come up with a plausible plan that has some chance of success—even if the only reason it has a chance is because its infeasibility has not already been clearly demonstrated by prior failure.
It might also mean that the United States has decided to wean itself of its reliance on proxies and release of uncontrollable regional forces to remake the Middle East when the Powell Doctrine of massive, decisive US power could not be brought to bear, and use a limited force largely under its control to pursue, and maybe even achieve, limited goals. That will have certain implications for countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have relied on their willingness to do–or fund–America’s ambitious dirty work in order to inflate their own regional stature.
So criticize President Obama’s plan all you want. But if the critique is “this has failed before”, nobody will listen. Because the whole point of this iteration is, if the United States does fail, it will fail in new and novel ways. And the fact that the grinding process is scheduled for at least three years—and failure, if it does occur, will be delivered in a bloody package on the doorstep of presumptive next President Hillary Clinton—has perhaps not escaped President Obama.
As a P.S., since the China Matters crystal ball appears to be in reasonably good working order, I am beginning to think that the alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may have reached its sell-by date. A key indicator will be whether President Obama follows through on Candidate Obama’s promise to release the 28 pages redacted from the 9/11 Commission Report.
The general outline of the redacted material is quite well-known and addresses the culpability of individuals and apparently officialdom in the KSA in the 9/11 attacks. Since this material was considered to be embarrassing to the Bush administration, because of its close ties to Saudi Arabia and its willingness to let key Saudi figures escape the US via an emergency airlift to avoid FBI questioning, the unwillingness of the current administration to proceed with the release and, for one thing, stick it to Dick Cheney and his cynical and irresponsible criticisms of the Obama anti-terror policies, has been considered something of a mystery.
However, I suspect the key to the mystery is that Saudi Arabia formed a protective alliance with Israel, whose ability to get things done in Washington vastly exceeds that of “the Kingdom”. As I see it, the cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia is founded on a joint desire to keep Iran safely in pariah status, and away from a normal relationship with the United States, one that would push Israel and Saudi Arabia toward the periphery of US Middle East policies.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, determinedly stokes the crisis in Syria, since Iran’s need to support Assad puts it at odds with the United States. Israel beats the drum concerning Iran’s nuclear threat and, I suspect, makes the case to the Obama administration that attention to the Wahabbist and anti-American excesses of the Saudi government–like the redacted pages of the 9/11 Commission report–would destabilize Saudi Arabia and give aid and comfort to Iran.
When one considers that throwing the 28 pages into the US anti-terrorist, criminal, and civil law mix might expose the Saudi government–and extremely wealthy and powerful members of the nation’s elite–to imprisonment and literally hundreds of billions of dollars in civil penalties, it seems plausible that the Saudi government would want to keep a lid on the redactions despite Prince Bandar’s public protestations to the contrary–and perceive further incentive for shaping its regional diplomatic and military strategy around an otherwise reckless anti-Iran/pro-Israel play.
Now, however, IS has slipped the leash in another bloody embarrassment for Saudi Arabia’s brutal and inept campaign of regional subversion; the US fracking boom has convinced the United States that its energy security is no longer hostage to KSA and ostentatious groveling to an odious regime that beheads people for “sorcery” is no longer a US imperative; President Obama would like to see rapprochement with Iran as his legacy; and it is possible that Obama is also repelled by the base opportunism he was compelled to exhibit in the matter of the Israeli push into Gaza. And of course, Barry and Bibi detest each other.
Maybe President Obama decides it’s in America’s interest to keep that Sword of Damocles hanging over Saudi Arabia, continuing to use the threat of releasing those pages to wring value from the Saudis.
But maybe, if President Obama thinks he can thread the needle, conclude the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and maybe even convince Iran to throw Assad under the bus at the cost of the deal!, he might decide it’s time to pull the plug on a colossally toxic relationship with Saudi Arabia–a deadly folly punctuated by the 9/11 attacks and has encompassing 15 years, over two trillion dollars, and millions of shattered lives–and let those 28 pages find their way into the world.