The Americans have a habit of first naming their imminent war before the troops march out and it will be interesting to see how this one is going to be christened. There seems some ambiguity about the war ahead in Iraq and Syria – what it is really going to be as it gathers momentum. That probably explains the shyness in naming it.
What began as “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq has since spread from Kurdistan to Baghdad to Anbar and in the past forty-eight hours or so reached Syria with the US president having given approval for sustained air reconnaissance missions in its airspace.
So far, the US’s intervention in Iraq has been episodic but it produced some gains. These gains have been far from consolidated or irreversible, but are important enough. Humanitarian aid has apparently reached the beleaguered Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar and some areas lost to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Lebanon [ISIL] in northern Iraq – Gwer, Makhmour and the Mosul Dam – have been retaken by the Kurdish forces with the help of US air strikes. An ISIL advance toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil has been stalled for the present.
However, there are widely-shared misgivings too that the ISIL might have been bruised but is far from defeated and the spectre of a quasi-state run by a terrorist entity with worldwide networking is presented as the challenge facing the US. The American pundits are quibbling over the efficacy of a “containment” strategy toward the ISIL, but most experts agree that there is no alternative to defeating the network by eliminating its sanctuaries.
Having said that, the challenge is not merely a military one because also that the ISIL banks on key power centres within Iraq – tribes, former Baath military officers, disaffected Sunnis – and in the region and is estimated to have a daily “income” of over $1 million and has a huge stockpile of weapons and considerable financial wherewithal. But the debates view this as a peripheral issue and the focus is on the military part.
Suffice to say, the mobilization seems to have begun for a long-term US intervention. The reports suggest that similar to the scale of effort in the first Gulf War, the US is already moving toward mobilizing a coalition of donors to support its intervention financially. It is entirely conceivable that an international conference may take place in a near future after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Wales on September 4 gets over to bring together the potential donors who would finance the US-led war and to constitute a “contact group.”
By now, it is clear that the theatre of the US intervention is not going to be Iraq alone. Senior American officials have begun briefing the media about the possibility of US intervention in Syria. How the Syrian chapter is going to develop has not been spelled out in detail, but what stands out is that there is open talk by American experts about increasing the support for the Syrian opposition ostensibly with a view to putting pressure on the ISIL from the western flanks. How this pans out remains unclear. The point is, the proposed intervention in Syria is also being cast in political terms.
As a leading figure in the US strategic community on Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad (former US ambassador to Baghdad) wrote last week in the National Interest magazine, “Even if progress is made in Iraq, the ISIL threat will persist in the absence of a settlement in Syria. As in Iraq, the most feasible formula for resolving the crisis in Syria is a unity government with power sharing at the center between the [Bashar al-] Assad government, moderate Sunnis, and Kurds and other groups, and devolution of authority to regions and provinces, perhaps organized on an ethnic and sectarian basis.”
Significantly, Khalilzad, who is closely identified with the neoconservative platform in the American foreign-policy discourses, also argued that “increased support for the national Syrian opposition and timely military strikes against ISIL targets in Syria are necessary both to put pressure on ISIL across all the territory it controls and to lay the ground work for a political settlement.
This is where the catch lies. First of all, all the American attention so far has been on demonizing the ISIL (rightly so) with a view to etching the “enemy” in stark terms. Taking note of the perceptible shift (following the horrific killing of photojournalist Jim Foley) in the domestic public attitudes toward US involvement in the Middle East’s conflicts, a strong case is now being made for long-term US intervention in Iraq and Syria. But no one speaks about international law or the need to associate the United Nations.
Syria has forewarned that while it is willing to collaborate with any party in any effort to vanquish the ISIL, it is also conscious of the bottom line that all foreign powers should respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity under the principles and norms of international law. To quote Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, “Syria is ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror. But any effort to combat terrorism should be coordinated with the Syrian government.”
He then went on to say, “Any strike which isn’t coordinated with the government [in Damascus] will be considered as aggression.” Al-Moallem said air strikes alone won’t suffice for eliminating the ISIL; effort is also needed for “drying up” their resources, including cutting off funding and arming by regional state entities and private donors, as well as controlling the borders and exchange of intelligence information.
Plainly put, Al-Moallem has demanded that the US should also discipline its key regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Qatar, which it now proposes to include as partners in the upcoming ‘war on terror’ against the ISIL. True, sincerity of purpose will otherwise be lacking in the US’ interventionist strategy. After all, the ISIL monster, which poses the newest threat to Western security, didn’t just arise out of the earth. The ISIL needed the money, weapons, logistics, propaganda facilities and regional and international connections to reach where they are now in Syria and Iraq. And there cannot be any running away from the bitter truth that the ISIL got them all free of charge from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf countries.
The US’ regional allies were in a de facto alliance with the extremist groups affiliated with the ISIL in a master plan with the principal objective of forcing “regime change” in Syria. There is deep irony here that Qatar used its good offices just this week to engineer the release of an American freelance journalist who was being held by a jihadist group in Syria. Quite obviously the nexus between the Syrian jihadists groups and the Gulf Arab petrodollar states such as Qatar is very much continuing. And now, despite all that, to associate and co-opt these very same “regional allies” today in the upcoming Syria project as key partners raises suspicions about the real American intentions.
At least 200,000 Syrian people have been killed, 2.5 million Syrians have been turned into refugees, and over 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced in the carnage in Syria so far. Isn’t that enough? Surely, some of that blood at least must be on Obama’s hands?