Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s ongoing problem of ISIS recruiting and jihadist growth; why are the Twin Cities the U.S. capital for young people seeking to join ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terror groups? What has Minnesota done to push back against the problem? Read the full article by clicking here.
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Despite an intensive campaign of air strikes—including U.S. warplanes, Arab nation fighters, armed drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—the full scope of the rapid advance of ISIS has now become abundantly clear to the surrounding nations of the Middle East. By some American and British intelligence and military estimates, ISIS forces now number nearly 30,000.
Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, ISIS fighters in northern Syria—battling with Kurdish fighters—advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Turkish border. The intense fighting was so close that Kurds, Armenians, Yazidi, and Christian Syrians seeking refuge inside Turkey could watch the firefight from knolls and hilltops only a hundred yards inside the razor wire and chain link fence separating the two countries.
Television camera crews from news organizations captured the dramatic images of ISIS militants, clad in black, moving in small groups across the rolling landscape, while Kurds exchanged fire using small arms, mortars and a few vehicle-mounted guns. A CNN camera operator was so close to the firefight that crowds of Kurdish refugees nearby could be heard cheering and clapping when the Kurds would open up with heavier rounds of fire. Walking between the refugees and the razor wire were Turkish soldiers, heavily armed, watching nervously as the battle drew ever closer. Phil Black, CNN’s correspondent at that location, estimated the militants to be within a mile of the border (though my experience with the lens capacity and optical range of professional TV cameras suggests that the distance between CNN’s tripod and the closest ISIS fighters was less than 400 yards).
The war between ISIS and the rest of the world has now reached the doorstep of Turkey, a major European power and a NATO member state. The question becomes: how and when does Turkey respond, and under what circumstances?
Fareed Zakaria, speaking later in the day on CNN, suggested that the breathtaking proximity of Turkish soldiers and ISIS militants means that Turkey—up until now an ambivalent witness to the meltdown within Syria and Iraq—may have the security catalyst and political motivation it needs to provide the much-discussed injection of “boots on the ground,” so categorically dismissed as an option by U.S. President Barack Obama, and so scrupulously avoided by representatives of scores of other countries—even those supportive of air strikes.
The air campaign, in part, has shifted toward cutting off a measurable share of ISIS funding. U.S. warplanes have again struck oil facilities and oil distribution sites within Iraq and Syria. The goal: starve ISIS of the quick cash it receives from the sale of oil from facilities under its control. By some estimates, ISIS collects nearly $2 million per day through the sale of oil on the black market. Many of the same middlemen who bought oil from Syrian or Iraqi companies only months ago now buy it directly from ISIS, often paying cash, and frequently at a deep discount; ISIS is not concerned with profits by the traditional definition, but instead seeks to insure a steady supply of operating cash to fund its rapidly-moving army.
But all the air assets of the United States and its five partner Arab nations—Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were unable to assist the Kurds in their fierce battles which now rage so close to the Turkish border. ISIS has been engaged in a systematic campaign to consolidate its territorial gains throughout Iraq and Syria, but it has exerted particular effort within the last week to push Kurdish fighters back along a long line of towns and villages across the northern rim of Syria. The Kurds have fought valiantly, but the ISIS advance has continued, often only by a few miles each day. The Kurdish stronghold of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), which sits on the border checkpoint just south of Suruc, in Turkey, has been under siege all week as ISIS militants slowly encircle the town.
Kobani has previously served as a safe-haven for civilian refugees fleeing ISIS, and its own population has swollen as the Syrian Civil war had raged. But the steady advance of ISIS has caused panic in Kobani and in a dozen smaller towns across the northern rim of Syria, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled into Turkey to escape the wrath of the radicals. Many have arrived with stories of atrocities they have witnessed before their escape. Humanitarian groups and U.N. observers say that roughly 200,000 refugees have entered Turkey just within the last seven days. Thousands more enter the country each day, and the total number of Syrians who have fled their own country by crossing into Turkey now numbers nearly 1.5 million.
The Syrian civil war, now well into its third year, has rapidly morphed into something much more dangerous and complex than anything White House policy-makers could have envisioned six months ago. ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), formed out of the chaos and lawlessness in northern Syria as anti-Assad rebels fought with troops loyal to Damascus. ISIS co-opted other radical groups, including some al Qaeda units in Syria and northern Iraq. Coalescing around those units most heavily-armed, the newer, larger ISIS army sprang into action this spring, sweeping across Syria, crossing the border into Iraq, and moving with astonishing speed across wide swaths of Iraq. Ahead of its advance, the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces collapsed, abandoning weapons, tanks, small vehicles and ammunition. The collapse of the Iraqi army, and ISIS’s rapid advance to within 40 miles of Baghdad, threatened to unravel Iraq as a nation, and created stresses along the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Later, after U.S. air power began to intervene on behalf of thousands of besieged Yazidis trapped on and around Mount Sinjar, ISIS militants raised the stakes and escalated the brutality and violence. ISIS radicals beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a week later killed a British aid worker. The United States began a full-scale air campaign against ISIS inside Iraq, but not Syria. Later, after a week of discussion and debate over whether ISIS could be degraded using only airstrikes in Iraq, the United States—along with five Arab partner countries, and some French air assets—began a campaign of attacking ISIS positions deep inside Syria.
Air power, though largely welcomed by the government of Iraq, and now receiving tacit approval from Assad’s government in Syria, has arrived late to the landscape of fractious, war-torn Syria, where tens of thousands have died in a brutal, bloody civil war. Not all of the anti-Assad rebel factions are in favor of intervention by the U.S. or other western powers. Some rebel groups, in fact, fear the worst: U.S. air strikes will have only a modest effect on ISIS while shoring up the Assad regime in Damascus. Other rebels groups support U.S. air intervention, but only if such strikes can be surgically targeted to strike ISIS positions without collateral damage. Indeed, some observers on the ground in Syria have reported that U.S. strikes have caused extensive damage in civilian areas.
Still, in predominantly Kurdish areas of both Iraq and Syria, the air strikes are welcome. Kurdish fighters have been engaged along a variety of fronts with ISIS, in some cases battling for survival. Reports of ISIS atrocities—beheadings, mass shootings, crucifixions, amputations, kidnapping, and rape—have spurred panic among the general population, and entire villages and towns have emptied out ahead of the arrival of ISIS forces. The struggle has been particularly intense across parts of northern Syria, where ethnic and religious minorities proliferate (Kurds, Yazidis, Syrian Christians, Armenians, even Turks).
ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate—a broadly-defined sovereign land, in defiance of existing borders, ruled by a radical Sunni interpretation of some parts of Islamic law (most Muslims eschew ISIS’s extremist calibration of the religion), and this has led to horrifying results in many towns and cities now under ISIS control. Vendors and markets must pay tribute to ISIS collectors, schools are banned, women and children are to stay indoors, Shiite mosques are destroyed, and ethnic or religious minorities (Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, Kurds) must disavow their beliefs and express absolute loyalty to the ISIS definition of religious law. Those who do not comply are summarily killed.
The beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, have become part of a gruesome pattern of publicity meant to instill fear outside of the immediate reach of ISIS, and discourage foreign intervention on behalf those whom ISIS is terrorizing. But the beheadings may have been the catalyst which brought about the start of the U.S. air campaign. After weeks of debate, Britain’s Parliament voted to authorize U.K. air power in Iraq (but presumably not in other areas of the Middle East) in the fight against ISIS. The same day as the British decision, both Denmark and Belgium also passed resolutions offering military help.
The matter of boots-on-the-ground remains tenaciously unresolved. There is still no consensus in Washington over how to approach the next phase of what will surely be a long struggle. Almost everyone—military experts and military analysts, foreign policy wonks, the Pentagon brass—agrees that the air campaign can only go so far. Without trained, disciplined eyes on the ground, air strikes remain vaguely focused, and can often lead to unreliable levels of success. (Some recent U.S. strikes may have produced much material damage, but few actual ISIS casualties). The more narrowly-defined mission to defang the Khorasan Group, a terror-within-the-terror cell enclave of bomb-makers and hardened fighters, may also yield spotty results if left exclusively to air power.
So the question becomes: whose troops can be effectively deployed to provide an on-the-ground army to confront ISIS? For many weeks, some have suggested Saudi Arabia, a country with vast wealth, and a nation which also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and technological assistance from the United States. But the Saudis are unlikely to want to engage on the ground, and will likely demure if pressed to participate beyond the air campaign now under way.
Today’s fighting along the northern rim of Syria, within view of Turkey’s army, may offer a clue as to the best possible direction. So reluctant is Turkey to provoke ISIS, that is has used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to quell mass disturbances near the border checkpoints and the point-of-entry stations. Kurdish men on the Turkish side of the border want to heed the call of their besieged brethren inside Syria. So even as thousands flee Syria, thousands more seek to enter the country to fight ISIS. (Today, there were reports from some Turkish towns that hundreds of Kurds, able to witness some of the fighting taking place less than a mile away, have begun to overwhelm the Turkish soldiers; Kurds have, in several places, reportedly broken down the border fence or used cutting tools to break through the razor wire, and in one area Turkish military officers reportedly did not intervene in the incident).
After changing its mind about allowing U.S. and French airplanes access to Turkish bases, while still agreeing to more to seal off its porous border with Syria—a loosely-patrolled line which many would-be militants from Europe apparently cross in search of jihadist violence—Turkey may soon have reason to rethink, again. Days ago, it completed a hostage trade with ISIS, a straight-up prisoner-for-prisoner exchange which included no quid pro quo on invasion or military action. In other words, Turkey may no commitment to its ISIS contacts regarding hostilities.
Turkey is a NATO member state, well-funded, and its army is professional, well-trained, disciplined, and relatively free of corruption. And with ISIS fighters only a few hundred yards from the border, and with Turkey now bearing a heavy share of the humanitarian load wrought by ISIS’s atrocities, the time may be ideal for Turkey to choose sides in a deadly fight it was trying to avoid only weeks ago.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The United States and its closest Arab allies began attacking ISIS targets inside war-torn Syria on Monday. Using a mixed campaign of fighter jets, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles launched from battleships, the coalition pounded specific ISIS positions in northern Syria—a country torn by civil war for more than three years.
U.S. and French fighters had already been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq for weeks, but the dilemma faced by the United States had always been whether or not to extend that air campaign into neighboring Syria, a country which serves as the home for the militant army which sprang into action earlier this year. Critics of President Barack Obama have said for weeks that the air strikes in Iraq would be insufficient to degrade or defang ISIS since so much of the terrorist group’s activities are based in northern Syria.
All told, the U.S. had completed about 190 air strikes inside Iraq when the Syrian air campaign began late Monday night. Other air missions had been carried out by French fighters over the weekend.
U.S. military officials stressed that the air campaign in Syria and northern Iraq would be the work of a coalition of forces, and the new U.S. attacks in Syria have been joined by air power from at least five other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Internationally, there has been a slow but generally positive consensus that direct action would need to be taken against ISIS, even inside Syria. Russia has complained, however, that airstrikes inside Syria would be a violation of international law.
U.S. officials also said that about eight of the air attacks were targeted at the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a militant faction with closer ties to al Qaeda, and made up of al Qaeda operatives not specifically aligned with ISIS. Intelligence experts believe that these militant groups were in the advanced stages of developing terror attack plans against the United States and its allies. The Pentagon described the threat of a terror attack by Khorasan as “imminent,” though the U.S. military’s top press liaison, Rear Admiral John Kirby, declined to give specifics on the nature or the location of the terror attacks.
Members of the Khorasan Group, numbering between 50 and 60, have been thought by intelligence experts to have been based in Aleppo. The Pentagon says it can confirm only that key targets were hit, but it cannot confirm the total number of militants killed in those heavy attacks. Intelligence experts think that the Khorasan Group may be one of several terror groups developing and experimenting with new bomb-making techniques—explosives which may require no metal or other easily-detectable components. This type of non-metal bomb was first developed by al Qaeda groups in Yemen, and the design for such devices may have been exported to Syria.
The Khorasan Group was obscure until last week when its existence was confirmed by intelligence and military spokesmen in the U.S. and the U.K. The group consists of seasoned remnants of al Qaeda fighters and operatives from places as far away as Paksitan, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Other air strikes were carried out to destroy munitions depots and weapons caches near Aleppo under ISIS control, stockpiles being currently used with great effect by ISIS fighters engaging Kurdish troops along the fringes of northern Syria near the Turkish border. There, in and around the city of Kobani, ISIS militants and Kurdish fighters are engaged in a desperate battle for control of one the last safe havens for Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities. ISIS units are attempting to consolidate control over their territorial gains.
Over the last five days at least 135,000 civilians have crossed the border into Turkey. Hundreds more, mostly Kurdish men—answering the call by their fellow Kurds fighting along the front—are attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to join the fight against ISIS. Turkish police used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas in a massive, coordinated attempt to push the Kurdish volunteers away from the border fences and border checkpoints. The vast majority of those fleeing from northern Syria are women, children and elderly, and U.N. workers and aid groups report that thousands are arriving each day.
Meanwhile, ISIS spokesmen have made a worldwide call for Islamic men to take up arms against the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani broadcast an audio-video statement via social media and several networks in which he also called for Muslims to kill non-Muslim civilians anywhere in the world. “If you can kill a disbelieving American,” the message said, “or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”
This past weekend, Algerian radicals kidnapped a French civilian and threatened to behead him if the French government did not withdraw its military support for the coalition. The French man’s name is Herve Gourdel, aged 55 and a native of Nice. French authorities were aware of Gourdel’s disappearance last week, but have not been able to confirm that he was abducted by individuals claiming an allegiance to ISIS.
But many Islamic spokespersons, and many scholars even in Arab countries, say that ISIS’s worldwide call is not likely to have a great effect except on those already radicalized—as was the case in last week’s plot by a group of Australians who had planned to capture and behead one civilian each week. U.S. law enforcement experts say that they intend to crack down on the information and travel pipelines which may lead more Americans to attempt to link-up with ISIS in the Middle East. The FBI is looking specifically at three U.S. cities which have already produced radicalized fighters now working alongside ISIS: Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles.
The enlarged campaign of air strikes began around 8:30 p.m. (EDT) on Monday, which would have been before sunrise in the Middle East. Most of the airstrikes took place in and around the city of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, and near the towns of Al Tabqah and Deir ez-Zur. Some of the airstrikes employed the use of American F-22 “Raptors,” high-tech stealth fighters capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and mostly undetectable to radar. This was the first battlefield deployment of the Raptor, which has met with controversy for its high price tag. But some military analysts say that the plane nevertheless proved its mettle during its debut combat operation.
U.S. and allied Arab fighter attacks were supplemented by at least 45 cruise missile launches from the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Philippine Sea, positioned in the Red Sea and in the North Arbian Gulf, respectively. The Pentagon said that a variety of drones—armed and unarmed—were also involved in the operations.
Monday’s round of firepower was the most intensive operations since the aerial campaign began in early August after the death of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Although the government of Syria has not officially endorsed or approved the airstrikes within its borders, most analysts agree that neither Bashir al Assad nor anyone in Damascus will openly confront the allied air attacks which are taking place since Assad has as much to gain from the destruction of ISIS as the other participants. Still, U.S. military planners are taking great care to use only that airpower which has the best chance of avoiding or evading Syrian air defense systems in those areas under the command of the Syrian army, and those areas within the reach of Syrian radar. The U.S. government spokespersons say that there is no official line of communication open between Washington and Damascus on the current military campaign.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
For U.S. policy-makers and a variety of U.S. allies, the introduction of airstrikes inside war-torn Syria is a tricky balancing act. Only months ago, Syrian President Bashar al Assad was the enemy of the civilized world—a once quasi-reformer who had regrettably morphed overnight into a tyrant during the Arab Spring. Rather than work with the opposition within his fractious country, he cracked down, triggering a violent civil war which has now lasted for more than three years. Tens of thousands died, millions of civilians were displaced, and lawlessness and chaos eventually prevailed across half of the country.
Assad, by then a pariah responsible for a collateral genocide, was the enemy. But that was then, and this is now.
On Wednesday, the United States and five participating Arab nations continued intensive bombing of targets inside Syria, targets believed to be crucial to ISIS operations. Among the targets in ISIS-controlled areas: oil facilities and oil distribution assets. ISIS generates, by some estimates, millions of dollars each day from its control of the flow of oil.
ISIS burst onto the scene, wreaking havoc across the wider Middle East with its scorched-earth warfare and its inflexible radicalism. The terror group—full name the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—emerged from the very lawlessness which Assad had wrought in two thirds of his war-torn country, and within the span of only a few short weeks its fast-moving army swept across Iraq, sending the Iraqi army into a mass retreat, sparking sectarian violence, and terrorizing the population of every town and village along the way with barbaric acts of vengeance and retribution.
ISIS’s swift advance was so breathtaking that it looked as if Iraq—a nation in which thousands of Americans died—would slip away from the tenuous democracy it had become and fragment completely. Worse, ISIS threatened the very stability of the entire Middle East and sent shudders through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and now Turkey.
Suddenly, there was something far worse than Assad. And against the background of other flashpoints—the Ukraine, a Cold War style Russia, Israel versus Hamas in Gaza, unresolved tensions between China and Japan, provocative moves by China in the South China Sea—the threat from ISIS quickly trumped all other fires.
International politics is sometimes triangular, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so the old expression goes. Today, Assad’s government says it welcomes international military efforts to eradicate ISIS from within his country’s deeply-scarred, fractious borders. ISIS calls Syria its home, and ISIS considers Raqqa—in northern Syria along the Euphrates River—the capital of its expanding caliphate. Assad even included in his statement of support a welcome of U.S. intervention through air strikes, targeted missiles and drones. Anything, in other words, that might rid him of the most violent of the rebels operating inside Syria.
Under practically any other foreign policy circumstance, the endorsement—tacit or otherwise—of the presumptive leader of the country being bombed by U.S. warplanes would be a welcome turn of events. But in the deadly, chaotic barroom brawl that is Syria, to be on the same side as Assad is to invite a multitude of problems.
On Monday, the United States and five Arab countries initiated a massive air campaign directed against ISIS. At 8:30 p.m. EDT, a swarm of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters, dozens of stealth bombers, destroyer-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, and armed drone unleashed more than fifty direct attacks against ISIS positions on the ground in a dozen locations across Syria. The Arab countries participating included Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. military also sent the F-22 into its first combat operations, using the high-tech stealth fighters—capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and invisible to radar—to attack targets deep inside ISIS-controlled areas.
The U.S. also launched withering air assaults on specific buildings and structures believed to be the headquarters of a previously-obscure al Qaeda spin-off called the Khorasan Group, a terrorist enclave made up of hardened fighters from a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Iran, and Lybia. Intelligence officials believe that embedded among the Khorasan Group’s 50-plus members are highly-skilled bomb-makers, trained by notorious explosives experts in Yemen. American officials, while being non-specific, have said that this independent faction was in the advanced stages of a terror attack against the United States. Security and intelligence experts believe that Yemen-based bomb-makers may have developed a way to build bombs entirely out of non-metal components, and there is evidence to show that those bomb schematics have found their way to members of Khorasan (a group some fear may be more deadly than ISIS).
Monday’s air attacks inside Syria came after many weeks of complex debate and evolving policy regarding whether the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European or Middle Eastern nations should intervene directly in Syria. Intervention against ISIS in Syria, some foreign policy experts warned, would be a slippery slope—and a de facto violation of international law if Assad did not openly authorize such incursions. On the other hand, as many military analysts have pointed out, any long range plan to defang and degrade ISIS would require some form of direct interdiction inside Syria—the country of the terrorist army’s birth, and the area it calls home.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that there would be no easy resolution to the battle against ISIS, and warned that trying to quantify the number of air missions, the kinds of ground forces required, or the time frame of the battle, was unproductive. Kerry stressed that the fight against ISIS would not be easily measured in weeks or months. Only a day earlier, Jordan’s King Abdullah also said that the fight could last for many months, even years.
Damascus issued a statement saying that it “stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called—whether Daesh, or Nusra Front (ISIS), or Khorasan, or something else.” Syria also vowed to help with the fight against ISIS, saying that the militants represent an existential threat to both Syria and Iraq.
Many of the rebel factions inside Syria have expressed cautious support for the air attacks. Some have not. The rebel group called Harakat Hazm—a relatively moderate group in the fractious landscape of northern Syria—said that the air attacks by the United States and the other Arab nations were clear violations of Syrian sovereignty, and disruptive to the overall campaign of ousting Assad from power.
“The only party benefitting from the foreign intervention in Syria,” Harakat Hazm said in a statement released on Facebook and Twitter, “is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of a real strategy to bring it down.” Other rebel factions said that despite the amount of firepower being unleashed on ISIS and other groups, no attempt has been made by the U.S. or its partner nations to force Assad from power. Both Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, and Hamas, the anti-Israel group in Gaza, have issued condemnations of the airstrikes. Hezbollah said that military participation by the other Arab countries in the attacks was a mere ruse to mask an attempt by the U.S. “to dominate the region again.”
Assad has met recently with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as with envoys from Iraq, in an effort to coordinate efforts against ISIS and in a show of consensus among Muslim nations.
But some of Assad’s closest supporters and allies have expressed unvarnished disapproval of the air strikes, and have scolded Assad for offering an endorsement of U.S. intervention. Iran, long a key Syrian ally, condemned the attacks. This is the same Iran which openly supports the U.S. and French air attacks in Iraq, where such intervention has helped to slow the advance of ISIS militants, who are predominantly Sunni, and in many cases violently anti Shiite. Iran supported the rise of Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Speaking to reporters in New York, outside the United Nations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S. and Arab air attacks illegal.
Russia, another longtime ally of Syria and a frequent source of weapons and airplanes, has also loudly condemned the U.S. airstrikes as “unilateralist” and “dangerously arbitrary.” Over the years, Russia—dating back to the days of the Soviet Union—has provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware to Syria. And Assad, it is widely assumed, must keep that generosity in mind.
Thus, many military analysts say that the current air campaign—though certainly necessary to defang and destroy ISIS—may in fact carry a high risk of further destabilizing an already fractious and lawless region of the world. The air attacks may also have the inadvertent effect of shoring up the Assad regime.
The humanitarian dimension to the war continues to grow each day. Over the past weekend more than 135,000 civilians fled to the northernmost border of Syria and entered neighboring Turkey. All told, some 1.3 million refugees have made their way to the frontier, and roughly half may already be inside Turkey—seeking refuge from the fighting and fearful of the violence inflicted by ISIS. Kurdish fighters are caught in a desperate battle to retain control of the remaining cities and towns along the northern rim of Syria, and they have called for Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities to join them in their fight against ISIS. ISIS units are using tanks, artillery and heavy firepower in its assaults in places like Kobani, near the border with Turkey.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis now unfolding as thousands crowd into refugee camps in Turkey, there is the problem of people trying to get into the war zone. Heeding the call of the brethren, thousands of Kurdish men are now attempting to enter Syria from the north. Their intention is to join forces with the Kurds already fighting ISIS along several fronts in Syria and Iraq. Turkish police and military, fearing a rapidly expanding war within miles of the border, are using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to dissuade the influx of would-be fighters.
Last week Turkey changed its mind about allowing the use of its airfields by U.S., French or British fighters in the air campaign against ISIS, but Turkey has steadfastly promised to regain control of its largely porous border with Syria and Iraq. Law enforcement officials in the U.K. and the U.S. believe that many hundreds of Europeans have travelled across the continent, then, slipped across the border into Syria or Iraq along Turkey’s poorly managed border. British intelligence experts believe that as many as 500 European citizens may now be fighting alongside ISIS units in Syria and Iraq.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations general assembly, asking for the world’s help in a campaign to eradicate terrorism worldwide, but stressing the specific threat from ISIS. Obama also scored something of an international victory during a meeting of the Security Council when he was able to wrest unanimous approval for a resolution calling for nations to crack down on citizens who travel abroad for the purposes of engaging in terror.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Aside from the obvious and high-profile actions of the terrorist army known as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, sometimes referred to as ISIL), such as its horrific acts of violence against civilians, its proclamations of a radical interpretation of Islamic Law, and its widely-publicized beheadings of journalists and aid workers from the United States and Britain, the militant group has now triggered what may be the largest humanitarian crisis in decades.
Millions of people in Syria and Iraq and on the move in a desperate attempt to flee both the fighting—ISIS militants at war with Kurds or other moderate groups—and the terror wrought by ISIS itself. The number of refugees moving en masse from villages, towns and cities now under ISIS control now exceeds 1.5 million, according to several international aid organizations and United Nations’ estimates. Some towns along the extensive border between Turkey and Syria have seen such an influx over the last ten days that the migration has spurred logistical problems on a vast scale.
Just within the past four days more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds, along with civilians of other ethnic and religious identities, have crossed the border from northern Syria into southeastern Turkey. Even some towns inside Syria have come under intense siege as the ISIS militants—using artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons—seek to overrun areas previously regarded as safe havens for Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, and other minorities. In the Syrian city of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), a city in the Aleppo province previously spared from the worst of the war, tens of thousands have fled the shelling and the intense fighting. Kurdish fighters have called upon the world to come to its defense as it faces one of the heaviest counterattacks by ISIS forces in the region.
The heavy attacks on these towns in northern Syria are forcing many men to take sides, and driving almost all others to flee north with what few items they can carry. Many arrive to the Turkish border on foot, without food or even water. Thousands more are crossing from northern Iraq, fleeing skirmishes and fighting taking place north of Lake Mosul, across the small Syrian panhandle, and into Turkey near Al Qamishli.
All told, the refugee population may now exceed 1.5 million, and the Turkish government, numerous aid organizations, and a variety of non-profit humanitarian groups are straining to keep up with the thousands arriving each day.
Complicating matters has been the recent onslaught of Kurds (and other minorities), mostly men, attempting to cross from Turkey into Syria. Answering the call for help now internationally spread through social media, they have been arriving by the hundreds, hoping to come to the aid of the moderate forces fighting ISIS along all fronts. Many of the Kurds seeking to join the fight against ISIS are coming from Kurdish villages and communities inside Turkey, or from neighboring enclaves in Armenia or Turkey has been discouraging the migration of more people into the war zone, the lines of which may in fact, ironically, moving rapidly closer to Turkey.
Then, there is the troubling reality of small groups of radicalized Europeans, many of them from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands—now moving on foot or by small vehicle in an attempt to link up with ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey, which just last week changed its mind on its previous agreement to allow to the United States and other countries to establish forward air bases inside Turkish territory, has pledged nevertheless to establish some form of control over its long, often porous border with Syria. Law enforcement and intelligence experts in several countries are concerned that radicalized individuals may join with ISIS, fight alongside it in the Middle East, then return to the home country with plans to bring deadly militant activity with them.
But it is the vast humanitarian problem now facing Turkey which is causing the most urgent crisis in the area north of the fighting. The number of people fleeing the violence of ISIS has reached a critical mass similar to what the world saw last month as tens of thousands of Yazidis fled violent attacks and retribution by ISIS fighters. United Nations personnel say that the influx is worse than anything they have seen in recent years.
“I don’t think in the last three and a half years [of the Syrian civil war] we have seen one hundred thousand cross in two days,” said Carol Batchelor, a UN representative working near the border inside Turkey. “This is a measure of how this situation is unfolding, and the very deep fear people have about the circumstances inside Syria, and, for that matter, Iraq.”
Turkish officials say that many of the refugees report seeing ISIS militants beheading villagers, shooting entire groups of people, and stealing stockpiles of food and water from markets, shops and houses. Other refugees say that ISIS radicals would put the severed heads on display for villagers and passersby to see, and to use as a warning to those unwilling to submit to their imposition of radical interpretations of Islam—including crucifixions and beheadings of civilians. Aid workers say that hundreds of refugees have reported seeing people stoned to death in public spaces, and hundreds of homes and businesses have been burned by ISIS fighters.
ISIS has been fighting with increased intensity, abetted in some cases by recently-arrived recruits from other areas, and boosted by their acquisition of additional heavy weaponry—much of it confiscated or captured in the wake of retreating Iraqi or Syrian army units. In many cases, the use of the new heavier firepower has tilted the battlefield balance in favor of ISIS in its nine-month-old struggle with Kurdish fighters. ISIS has apparently battled to within about eight miles of Kobani, a town once considered a safe-haven for refugees and protected by Kurd fighters.
Kobani is very near the border with Turkey, and just east of the Euphrates River, along a long stretch of border protected by a tall fence, coils of barbed wire, and a gravel and sand clearing roughly 200 feet wide, flanked by service roads. But other parts of the vast frontier are more lightly protected—marked only by cattle wire and wooden posts—and many intelligence experts fear that individuals and small groups may be crossing that border each day into Syria to join forces with ISIS.
By some estimates, the more-than-three-year-old Syrian civil war—triggered during the Arab Spring—has displaced many millions within their own country. At least 2.8 million have fled Syria entirely—some into Lebanon, some into Jordan, and some into northern Iraq (before Iraq began its more recent meltdown). But in northern Syria, where the fighting has been the worst since fighting broke out between the forces loyal to Bashir al Assad and a variety of opposition groups, most civilians have had little choice but to find refuge by moving north toward Turkey. Kobani’s population grew by an additional 200,000 during the last two years of the war. But now, with ISIS only a few miles away and advancing each day, many of those are fleeing the wrath of ISIS by crossing into Turkey.
Seeking to control the border areas and hoping to stave off chaos, Turkish authorities are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in an attempt to discourage more Kurds from crossing into the war zone, even if their intentions are to rush to the assistance of fellow Kurds fighting ISIS units. There is panic and chaos on both sides of the border checkpoints and thousands of desperate civilians—among them many women and children—seek to enter Turkey as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the violence.
Some European observers and U.S. officials worry that if Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, militants will then gain control of another key border checkpoint, and Turkish soldiers will be eye-to-eye with heavily armed ISIS units. Turkey does not wish for the war to spill into its territory, and some within the Turkish government fear that if too many Kurds are massed along the physical border, it could spur violence which could easily spiral out of control.
The United Nations has said that the majority of those crossing the border from Syria into Turkey have been women, children, and elderly men unable to fight. A British non-profit agency called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that it estimates that ISIS has taken control of at least 60 towns and villages in northern Syria just within the last four days. Many of these towns are within a one to three day walk from the border with Turkey.
ISIS units have launched major offensives within the last week in an attempt to consolidate territorial gains made during their campaign which started last spring. ISIS formed out of remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, and after melding with some Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Assad, sprang across the Middle East, taking wide swaths of territory and spurring a general retreat by Iraqi military and security forces. After ISIS murdered several American journalists and a British aid worker, U.S. forces and other forces have begun targeted airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. French airpower was used last week, and the British have also pledged support.
At least 1.4 million refugees have found their way into neighboring Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan told CBS News that the region’s leaders should welcome the participation of western powers in the fight against ISIS. King Abdullah told Scott Pelley that ISIS does not represent true Islam.
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Compiled by Thursday Review editors
Not since Earl Perkins’ long form retrospective look at Lynyrd Skynyrd has an article or review generated as much comment, reaction and backlash as Alan Clanton’s recent You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy. Scores of readers forwarded the article to friends and associates, and we registered a much higher-than-average rate of clicks as a result. We also received lots of comments via email, Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.
Among those who wrote us were liberals, conservatives, neocons, peace activists, defenders and detractors of President Barack Obama, and even a few who complained about the contraction gonna’ which we used in the headline (an indication, perhaps, that they didn’t bother to read even the first paragraph of the article).
Some of the comments were pro-Obama. The core of those complaints were that we failed to fully attribute blame to the long-term Middle Eastern environment to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who—along with the neocons of his administration (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, et al)—took the United State inadvisably into two simultaneous wars for which there was no clear or coherent exit strategy, and one of which may have been based on faulty information or manufactured evidence (Iraq). Fair criticisms. And fairer still is the evidence that in the haste to purge Baghdad of all Baathist after the fall of Saddam Hussein, American policy-makers in-country set in motion the Sunni versus Shia sectarian divide once predicted by Colin Powell, a dissenter among Bush’s inner circle.
Other Thursday Review readers suggested that we went too easy on Obama—in essence giving him a pass on his failure to act more proactively during the early days of the Arab Spring, absolving him of responsibility for the chaos and disorder which inevitably followed in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and mollycoddling the President on his profound reluctance to enforce his “red line” in Syria and his reticence to take decisive action on Iraq’s Nouri al Maliki. Others pointed to the President’s unwillingness to quickly address the problem of refugee children entering the U.S. by the thousands during the spring.
In the meantime, President Obama and a score of other NATO leaders met in Wales this week to discuss the rapidly-evolving events in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Somalia, and other world hotspots. Though no specifics have yet to emerge from the NATO summit, there was, at least, agreement on the talking points, especially sanctions against Russia and a long-term commitment to confront and destroy ISIS.
Either way, our article sparked discussion and debate. Here is a sample of some of those comments, sent to us via Facebook, Google +, Linked-In, Twitter, or in dozens of emails:
John Herndon, Fort Collins, CO: Any objective assessment of the foreign policy of the years 2009-2017 will review how progressive weakness, driven by ideological presumptions and an unwillingness to learn from reality, brought the United States to a position of really unparalleled ineptitude and invited chaos to reign, emboldening the forces that have nothing less than the destruction of Western culture as their goal. When reviewing the foreign policy disasters of Britain and her allies in the middle-late 1930s which came to the disaster of 1939, Churchill wrote that “no war was more preventable” than the one which raged for six years, bringing civilization to the brink by 1945. We can only hope that a serious change in our course occurs soon, lest some contemporary of ours say much the same thing of the current age. [Mr. Herndon wrote a longer piece on this subject, an article which we plan to publish this week].
Mike Lanning, Minneapolis, MN: My father, a Korean War veteran and a liberal, blames this [the current spate of crises] on George W. Bush. But arguments which rehash the same old “it’s the last guy’s fault” line miss the point: the United States should have acted with precision and care at the outset of the Arab Spring. Instead, the White House under Obama’s watch chose to adopt a wavering “wait-and-see” approach, so fearful of war that it could not fathom any direct action other than harsh words, fake outrage and imaginary red lines.
Deborah with Gmail: Putin and ISIS are clearly part of the same larger template. They do not fear us [the U.S.], and they don’t respect our allies, for that matter. And [they] have less regard for human life. After Benghazi Hillary [Secretary of State Clinton] got mad, spewing out “what difference does it make?” Now we see the answer to her question.
Roger with Gmail, Melbourne, Australia: As long as the developed nations of the world (and those countries in various stages of economic expansion) depend on oil, these struggles will remain with us, violently. Russia wants to bargain with oil and gas, using it as leverage to make the EU compliant. ISIS, aside from its apparent goal of murdering anyone it encounters, actually seeks control of oil wells and refineries so it can generate its own economy and currency. The U.S. and the U.K. suddenly realize ISIS is within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—another potential disruptor of oil. Iran decides to become well-behaved…why?…they don’t want ISIS commanding their oil fields. Flare-ups in the South China Sea [could be said to] be about oil and energy. Spend a fraction of the money used to make war and use it instead to develop other energy sources. Then, watch this stuff fade away.
Cynthia, Phoenix, Arizona: It’s easy to blame President Obama for all of this, but that blame game fails to address the short-sighted policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Don’t blame the clean-up crew for the condition of the house the morning after the big party. Iraq was a time bomb set to explode a decade earlier.
Mel Garrett, Atlanta, GA: Well-written and thoughtful piece, and helps to explain some of the more confusing aspects of what I see in the news each day. These things seem so far away, but clearly this stuff could very easily appear on our doorstep very soon.
Elias V., Port Charlotte, FL: The neo-cons have been somewhat vindicated by the events of the last three years, and this was all a predictable outcome in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Obama’s conciliatory approach works nicely when it involves photo ops with the leaders of trading partners and economic allies, but it’s “a day late and a dollar short” when it comes to facing threats. The pendulum swung too far, from too much war to too little backbone.
Mauricio (with Yahoo), San Antonio, TX: I didn’t support going into Iraq in the first place, but once we were in, we should have understood the consequences for the whole region. We broke this, now we own it. Some of those ISIS maniacs are just part of Saddam’s old guard, party members we banished to the hinterlands. In 2004 they were just secular political hacks, now they got religion (or so they claim) and half of the weapons we left behind.
Angela (with AOL), Auburn, AL: Benghazi was a warning of things to come. What happened to having a proactive strategy in place, and why is that no one is accountable in the White House? Candid or not, the correct response of a U.S. President should never be “we just don’t have a strategy in place.”
Rick with Yahoo: ISIS murdered thousands in their race across Syria and Iraq, but it took the killing of an American journalist (at the hands of a British terrorist) to spur Washington into some kind of action. And when did Joe Biden become the White House hawk?
Ann in Richmond, VA: I’m old enough to remember when Presidents like Johnson, Nixon and Ford wanted to take decisive action, but then ran afoul of lazy bureaucrats and government lard. Now it’s the other way around—inaction and hesitation inside a White House that never meets a problem head-on, unless it is bypassing Congress.
Cory (with Gmail) in Boulder, CO: Never considered all of these troubles being connected somehow, but your story makes it clear [world events] are a part of a pattern, one conflict feeding off the other. The Butterfly Effect. Not sure I agree Obama is at fault for all of it, but clearly the rest of the world is looking for a leader.
David (with WOW!) in Naperville, IL: Found this article on Facebook. Two points. Unfair to blame Obama for the actions of bullies in other places, for there will always be bullies and aggressors. But I agree that this is the moment for the President to roll up sleeves and get tough, as long as we [the United States] have some partners on this. Putin, ISIS, Israel versus Hamas, Somalia…can’t go alone on these things, and we can’t afford all-out war.
Brett (with Hotmail): Dead dinosaurs. Why do we keep fighting over dead dinosaurs? Think it’s coincidental that ISIS went straight for the oil wells and refineries, even a hydro-electric dam? Think it is coincidence that Russia’s first move was not tanks but the threat of cutting off oil to Europe? Think the Saudi kings and princes want ISIS in their backyard?
Joan in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: ISIS is exactly the sort of butcher army the world should expect when U.S. non-policy leads to chaos and mayhem in some parts of the world, and when the President’s weak responses in Europe and Asia invite a return to the Cold War. Vladimir Putin got what he wanted in the Ukraine, and his next moves will be calculated with Obama’s weakness in mind. As for Syria and Iraq, the White House has waited for three years and tens of thousands of dead to finally act.
– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ReaderCommentsForeignPolicy.html#sthash.gSxMxNd8.dpuf
By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The foreign policy situation now facing the White House is not funny, but humor sometimes helps to clarify and analogize.
In the famous 1975 Stephen Spielberg movie Jaws, the local cop, played by Roy Scheider, utters what is arguably one of the most famous movie lines in Hollywood history. Aboard a small fishing boat, and after seeing for the very first time the true size, power and intensity of their adversary—a 25-foot, three-ton great white shark whose menacing bite seizes the bait only inches from Scheider’s hands—he backs slowly across the boat and into the cabin. Without turning, he softly informs the boat’s captain, played by Robert Shaw, you’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.
Indeed. There are times when the United States needs a bigger foreign policy. Scheider’s famous line was improvised, and its understated, nervous energy sealed the scene’s effectiveness. But foreign policy is not a business best managed by improvisation.
Though the rapid deterioration of Iraq had been predicted not long after it was clear that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had no genuine intention of opening up his government to Sunnis, Kurds, or to other Iraqi minorities, the rapid escalations inside the Ukraine came as an unwelcome surprise to U.S. President Barack Obama, as did Vladimir Putin’s now menacing attitude about his neighbor to the west.
Likewise, a surge of child immigration along the border between Texas and Mexico challenged security and stability of entire communities, as thousands upon thousands of children and teens crossed into the U.S. to escape intolerable violence in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. The crisis came as a shock to the White House, where it had been safely assumed that illegal immigration had become yesterday’s problem.
A horrific war between Hamas (in Gaza) and Israel has left more than 2150 people dead—the vast majority of them Palestinian civilians. At first, the White House seemed shocked by the violence, unable to craft a swift or coherent policy response. As the crisis quickly escalated, it became clear that the already frayed relations between Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu would suffer even more as neither John Kerry—nor anyone else, for that matter—seemed to offer a solution to the terrible spiral of rockets and missiles.
Likewise, new tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea, and along the international waters between the Philippines and Asia, have challenged the assumption that China has moderated its methods and tamped down its ambitions. Not only have our Cold War adversaries Russia and China decided to flex their muscles in provocative and dangerous ways, new hotspots have developed with breathtaking speed, in some cases challenging even our most cherished post-911 assumptions.
Such is the case with ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a terrorist group now being fully redefined by U.S. President Barack Obama, the State Department, and the Pentagon as a fully-operating, well-funded army. No longer the band of “misfits” and loosely-armed militants we were exposed to less than seven months ago (many in the White House had never even heard the acronym ISIS until late May and early June), ISIS is now engaged in a proactive military sweep across the wider Middle East.
The sudden explosion of ISIS momentum truly took the administration by surprise. ISIS, which formed out of the lawlessness and chaos of northern Syria, and drawing in elements of al Qaeda and other radical groups, sprang across the porous border between Syria and Iraq, advancing rapidly and capturing Iraqi cities and towns. Along its path it brought terror and despair: summary executions, beheadings, mass shootings, rape, torture, and the immediate imposition of extremist interpretations of Islamic Law. Shopkeepers and merchants were extorted, women told to stay indoors, violators threatened with amputation and death. The Iraqi army collapsed, abandoning a billion dollars’ worth of American-made hardware: tanks, armored SUVs, Jeeps, personnel carriers, armed GMC trucks, guns, even uniforms. ISIS captured weapons caches, oil fields, oil refineries, communications assets, and even looted banks. In late July, ISIS forces seized control of the dam at Mosul (though weeks later, after a brutal fight between ISIS and a mix of Kurdish forces and Iraqi soldiers, the dam was retaken).
This past weekend, ISIS fighters seized the Taqaba air force base in the Raqqa province in northern Syria. And though the government of Bashir al-Assad in Damascus says that the air force had moved all its planes away from the air base, the loss of such a key military asset after heavy fighting is considered another example of the deeper, more serious threat of ISIS—an organization characterized by President Obama only months ago as a “junior varsity team.” In the process, ISIS also captured a dozen Russian-made tanks and two dozen armored personnel carriers once part of the Syrian army’s assets.
ISIS has battled other rebel groups in Syria for control of the Islamist movement, gaining strength and consolidating its dominance over other, more moderate anti-Assad rebel groups. ISIS has also captured territory as far north as Syria’s long border with Turkey, and has now swept across hundreds of miles of Iraq, seizing control of the border checkpoints and military outposts on the frontier with Jordan, pushing south to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and battling north and eastward into Kurdish areas. ISIS pushed so swiftly and so completely across much of Iraq that its advance has brought the stability and cohesion of Iraq into question, threatening to fragment the country and rendering the gains of a costly and deadly war, in which thousands of Americans died, meaningless in the pages of history.
Then, a week ago, the world was stunned to watch a video which showed the gruesome beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. The voice of the masked militant spoke with a distinctly British accent, and authorities in the U.K. and the U.S. say that that voice may belong to a British rapper and musician who left England last year to join with radical fighters in Syria. (CNN has reported that the man who spoke in the video and the man who appears to have carried out the execution may be different people, separated by a subtle edit point in the video; the man whose voice we hear speaks in what is known as multicultural London English, a melting pot accent unique to certain areas of London.) Now, intelligence sources in Britain, the U.S. and other countries say that there are hundreds of non-Arabs who have joined ISIS. The FBI says that at least 100 U.S. citizens are fighting with various militant groups in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and another 100 militant fighters may be British citizens. At least 24 Americans are known to be fighting inside ISIS units.
Among those drawn into this world of warriors and radical Islam was Douglas McArthur McCain, an American from Minnesota, killed last week in a firefight in an ISIS held area of Syria. Reuters and CNN have also reported that another American (his identity has not been released) was killed in the heavy fighting between ISIS and Syrian troops at the Taqaba air force base. Even more troublesome than the evaporating border between Syria and Iraq: the apparently porous Syrian-Turkish border—hundreds of miles of frontier marked only by a cheap wire cattle fence or chain link fence. Reporters for NBC and the BBC, there to report the huge refugee population crossing from war-torn Syria into Turkey, have also shown a number of Europeans—carrying little more than backpacks, brand new copies of the Koran, and bottled water—moving in small groups south, passing through the same gaps in the fences, entering Syria or Iraq from the north. When interviewed, these soon-to-be-ex-patriots answer with apparent honesty: they are going to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS. Their accents range from British to French, from Dutch to Danish.
American and British intelligence officials now fear that the number of U.S. and European citizens willing to join the radical Islamist and terrorist movements may sharply increase during the next six to 12 months. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel no longer minces his words: no longer content to operate in small bands and small cells, ISIS represents a new and more transcendent threat to Americans and Europeans abroad. Indeed, some terrorism analysts have gone as far as to suggest it is only a matter of time before radicalized citizens now training and fighting in Syria and Iraq return home to participate in homegrown military actions in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries.
Like previous ISIS victories, its recent conquest of the airbase in northeastern Syria was followed by the public execution of Syrian soldiers and other captured personnel. More than 500 died in the fighting near Raqqa over the weekend—and the majority of those killed were Syrian soldiers (initial reports from Syria said that of the 500 killed, only 170 were members of the Syrian Army or Air Force; but later reports have reversed those numbers). Another 20 soldiers and officers may have been executed for the cameras; images and videos posted on social media and on websites by ISIS show shootings and beheadings of captured soldiers and air base personnel, and some of those executed appear to be officers.
This crisis has quickly driven the White House and the Pentagon into a rapid shifting of gears and policy toward the central Middle East. ISIS has now clearly become a serious threat not only to Iraq and the United States’ end-game of stability and cohesion (in a land where thousands of U.S. soldiers died), but also to the wider Middle East. ISIS makes no secret of its intention to take its war in nearly all directions, and its seizures of border checkpoints and military outposts along borders with Jordan and Turkey, and its deep push across Iraq toward the frontier with Saudi Arabia indicate the militants have no inhibitions about political borders. If ISIS is able to spread its outreach and strength into northern Lebanon, its successful pattern of co-option and subjugation of rival groups means that heavily-armed ISIS units will be within striking distance of northern Israel. If Syria collapses completely, ISIS will have direct access to the Golan Heights and the very border with Israel.
Both the White House and the Pentagon have quickly expanded the air missions over northern Iraq—at first meant to halt further advances into southern Iraq, as well as offer cover and protection for the imperiled Yezidis near Mount Sinjar—to include specific air strikes on ISIS positions in northern Syria. The crisis has also forced U.S. policy into a convoluted and contorted state of affairs: Syria’s Assad, once an enemy of humanity for his civil war atrocities, is now a quasi-friend, if for no other reason than he and the U.S. share an equal desire to rid the region of the ISIS movement. A secret U.S. helicopter effort launched six weeks ago to rescue James Foley and others went unanswered by Damascus, through clearly Syrian radar watched the unsuccessful mission unfold on their screens. (One explanation is that the helicopters used in that operation flew below radar, or were perhaps equipped with stealth technology). Officially, Assad says he does not approve of unlimited access to Syrian airspace by U.S. drones or U.S. fighters, but he has also been clear that he will cooperate with any and all international efforts to combat ISIS and other radical terror movements.
Thursday Review spoke to a source at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa (the source requested that he not be identified) who said that U.S. military policy has faced a radical change of heart, driven entirely by the swift events of the last six months: Ukraine, Russia, China, Gaza, but most importantly ISIS and the very real possibility of the collapse of Iraq.
“Force majeur,” the contact told us, “all previous bets and arrangements are off, and all previously stated alliances are subject to change without notice. It was all in there, in the fine print. We just thought we were out of Iraq. We just thought Putin was our friend. In January we hated Assad, now he may be our best friend. That’s why Kirby [Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press liaison] had to do so much shuckin’ and jivin’ at the press conference.”
The source was referring to Tuesday’s meeting between Kirby and reporters at the Pentagon, in which Kirby faced uncomfortable questions about U.S. policy toward China, toward Syria and Bashir al Assad, and in Iraq, where U.S. forces now number roughly 1000 “advisors.” Some military analysts feel certain that the number of Americans in Baghdad and Iraq will continue to grow as pressure forms to launch more air missions and on-the-ground priorities require more U.S. assistance. At that press conference, Kirby was clearly forced to offer convoluted explanations for rapidly shifting priorities and contorted rationales. Among other things, Kirby had to square the circle, as it were: explaining why we still have a good military relationship with Beijing despite aggressive and provocative actions by Chinese air force pilots, and squirming noticeably when asked why air-strikes in Syria were off-limits six months ago when we were verbally berating Assad, but now the exact type of strikes may be used to defend Assad’s army against further ISIS advances.
For the much-maligned neo-con school of thinkers, this was all a predictable outcome of a reactive—rather than proactive—foreign policy stance, and a military whose role is so reigned-in that the White House spends more time explaining what the U.S. will not do, rather than an administration which leaves overtly muscular options on the table. U.S. reluctance to intervene, in any way, in Syria, opened the floodgate to lawlessness and terror. It’s not just neocons who say this. As even many moderate and liberal foreign policy experts and military analysts have pointed out for months, the Obama administration’s wait-and-see, watch-and-wait policy no longer applies in a world in which radical movements now have access to so many weapons, so much social media, so much cash, and so many tools to use to attract budding jihadists.
ISIS has a ready supply of cash and other liquid forms of funding which have changed the template. ISIS has the unique advantage of being a terrorist organization now in control of not only oil fields, but also oil distribution. It has raided and looted banks in a dozen cities in Iraq, clearing out cash and gold. It has used kidnapping and extortion to its advantage across a wide range of the area it controls. And no longer dependent entirely on smuggling its weapons and ammunition into its areas of influence, its overstock of captured U.S., Iraqi, Syrian, and Russian weaponry means that it can engage in the sale of weapons to aligned radical groups in Lebanon and Jordan.
As reported recently in Bloomberg and on other news sources, ISIS may be benefitting from a revenue stream exceeding $2 million every day. Al Qaeda never once had access to that much cash flow, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have traditionally been funded by wealthy patrons or rogue state sponsors such as Libya and Iran. And because ISIS does not engage in traditional banking, the militant group cannot be squeezed by the usual short-list of sanctions designed to freeze assets or capture electronic transactions. ISIS has an abundant supply of oil which can be sold for cash—in many cases directly to the same distributors who bought it from Iraqi middle-men and Iraqi suppliers. And its oil can be sold at a substantial and obvious discount, a fact that will surely inspire other less-scrupulous buyers to do business with ISIS.
One of the most sobering statistics about ISIS: it now controls the output of a dozen major oil fields, and the combined total output of those fields now reaches about 40 thousand barrels per day. At full capacity, those same fields will yield 80 thousand barrels a day, but because of structural damage or limitations to tools and support staff, ISIS is operating these sites at about half strength. ISIS cash can buy additional tech support and staff, and can leverage repairs, meaning the output will soon reach its peak.
All of this also means that ISIS is not only self-sustaining in terms of cash-flow, but also self-sufficient on the ground. That oil, once refined, can be used to power its now-formidable fleet of tanks, mobile guns, Jeeps, weaponized SUVs, and personnel carriers. And its rapid acquisition of heavy weapons left in the wake of a retreating Iraqi army have given it a technological strength and muscle unprecedented among post-911 terrorist groups.
In this sense, the terrorist movement is no longer an asymmetrical threat. ISIS is a fully-functioning army, as well-funded as that of any standing army among at least 100 countries.
And in the increasingly complicated cultural puzzle that is the wider Middle East, and U.S. and its allies can no longer depend entirely on the moderate states for reliable expressions of stability. The American journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released last week in part because of intervention by Qatar (and possibly Saudi Arabia). But the evidence is strong that certain rogue elements in those same countries have provided money directly to ISIS. Since donors and receivers use circuitous channels to funnel the money, the host nations have complete deniability, and traditional forms of tracking by the FBI or the U.S. Treasury Department may prove useless. Other moderate states suspected of harboring wealthy patrons of ISIS include Turkey, Jordan, UAE and Kuwait. All of these countries have reason to fear ISIS, and though all have denied publicly that cash has flowed from within their borders into militant hands, the FBI and the U.S. Treasury Department each have substantial evidence to the contrary: that wealthy individuals in the moderate states have been increasing their charitable role in ISIS.
Between the outside sources of cash, and the newly-seized forms of self-funding, ISIS has proven to be largely outside the template of U.S. military and intelligence planning or thinking.
As for Iraq’s fragmentation, conservatives and liberals alike have raised concerns for two years that Nouri al Maliki’s narrow, sectarian style of governance would lead to deeper fractures and potential violence. Also of concern for more than three years: Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war, which—escalating as it did without a coherent U.S. policy at the start, or the end, of the Arab Spring—fostered an environment ripe for the emergence of a more terrifying form of extremism. Similar inaction and reticence by the White House led to uneven and disappointing outcomes for much of the Arab Spring, and a shocking lack of proactive thinking by U.S. policymakers and State Department officials could be said to be directly responsible for the disaster of Benghazi.
Clearly the costs of U.S. intervention in two post-911 wars simultaneously produced overreach and intolerable bloodshed in the aught years. But, conversely, the cost of a foreign policy rooted in a wait-and-see approach—forged by a fear that any direct action will constitute a return to the bad old days of neocon unilateralism—has guided President Obama down the path of over-cautiousness and outright risk-aversion. For Putin’s Russia—now acting upon its deep desire to exert its old school paternalism over parts of Eastern Europe—and for China, a communist power unafraid of flexing its muscle, even in sometimes provocative ways, six years of wallflower foreign policy by the United States has liberated them from the confines of a kinder-gentler form of engagement.
No matter how severe the economic sanctions (and Putin may yet yield to those market pressures), Moscow does not fear U.S. military might. And neither Netanyahu nor Hamas, neither the Palestinian authorities nor the Egyptians, have much use for U.S. advice or pleading.
Likewise, the White House and the Pentagon have been slow to arrive to the conclusion that ISIS poses a genuine threat, either to the long-term survival of Iraq as a nation—one in which thousands of Americans gave the ultimate sacrifice—or to the stability of the Middle East, where Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia stand to lose everything if ISIS prevails. The question becomes: can the Obama administration adopt a bigger, stronger, forward-looking policy before ISIS becomes a direct threat to the United States?
– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BiggerForeignPolicy.html#sthash.DZ6GDubS.dpuf
By R. Alan Clanton | published June 16, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor
The ongoing rivalries between radical Islamists groups have sometimes worked to the advantage of the United States and its allies, sometimes not. Those grudges and rivalries have insulated the kings and princes of the oil-rich nations from internal disruption, just as they have prevented any one Middle Eastern strongman from exerting disproportional influence over the region, or any one part of the region. Plus, those rivalries have often kept any one terrorist or militant group from gaining the upper hand militarily.
But that was then, and this is now. The Arab Spring set in motion a sequence of events which is altering the landscape and the political boundaries, literally. Borders drawn by the British and the French a century ago may soon become meaningless. And terrorist groups, once regarded as ragtag for their poor equipment, internal rivalries and fragile funding, are systematically re-energizing an al Qaeda network once thought by American presidents to be on the ropes.
Syria’s long and bloody civil war, followed by lawlessness, created an opportunity in its northern and northeastern territories for al Qaeda breakaway groups to exert control. This group, now calling itself ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has become a functioning army, complete with centralized command-and-control, impressive ground speed and strength, and the discipline of a functioning army.
In a period of only one week, ISIS moved quickly across northern Iraq, capturing several large cities, declaring the imposition of strict Islamic law, and vowing to press on toward Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers and security forces—trained and supplied by the United States—turned and ran. Many of the soldiers dropped their weapons, abandoned their heavy equipment and their vehicles, and even stripped away their army uniforms. In the brief battle for Mosul, roughly 850 ISIS fighters were able to cause the retreat of more than 32,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and security forces. ISIS militants met so little resistance that they not only collected millions of dollars worth of modern weaponry, they were also able to clean out local and regional banks. By some estimates, ISIS now has $500 million in its coffers.
The militants now control a vast swath of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey in the northwest, to the threshold of Kurdish lands in northeastern Iraq, to within 80 miles of Baghdad in central Iraq. Despite a surge by Iraqi forces days ago, ISIS says it still controls all areas it took in its lightning sweep across northern Iraq, and it says it still intends to capture Baghdad soon. Just within the last few days, militants have seized control of Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Tal Afar. Today, reports from the battle lines say that militants shot down at least one Iraqi helicopter gunship. ISIS has made available dozens of videos showing grisly, gruesome images of Iraqi soldiers being executed, and analysts say the videos are designed with one purpose in mind—the spread of fear among anyone who intends to fight ISIS forces.
Flush with cash, ISIS has moved into social media and the internet in its recruitment drives worldwide. Unlike al Qaeda, which posted a new video every few months or used the internet only sparingly, ISIS has established a broad retail presence on the web, using Twitter, You Tube, and a variety of other social media applications to spread its message to young men in other countries. ISIS seeks territorial control in its goal of the creation of a caliphate, just as it seeks to spread terror and fear.
Intelligence experts and military analysts say that this combination of factors makes ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, one of the most dangerous moving armies on earth.
But ISIS poses unforeseen threats in other parts of the region as well. The militant group has been unabashed in its desire to recruit soldiers from other Arab countries, and according to a variety of recent reports, ISIS is targeting disaffected men in Saudi Arabia. If these intelligence reports and news reports prove to be accurate, ISIS may be on the verge of beginning an attempt to topple the Al Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi’s are the world’s largest oil producer, and the world’s largest oil exporter. Ninety-five percent of the Saudi economy is driven by oil production, and its government rakes in almost three-quarters of its wealth from oil. The number of countries dependent on this oil is too long to list here, but suffice it to say that any disruption in the oil output of Saudi Arabia would have ripple effects worldwide. Saudi Arabia produces between five million and nine million barrels of oil per day, depending on data found on various energy websites. A sudden shutdown of oil production could have catastrophic repercussions for the world’s economy.
This is why some analysts say that ISIS’s recent overt interest in recruitment on the Arabian Peninsula—the first major move by jihadist groups since the Saudi’s beat back an earlier attempt by al Qaeda in the previous decade—should sound alarm bells among the world leaders. Iraq shares a long, largely unprotected border with Saudi Arabia, and ISIS forces have shown their ability to move quickly and effectively across the landscape.
Although ISIS came to the attention of most people in the world in June, the militant organization has been openly recruiting in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for more than a month. The news that ISIS has been aggressively seeking to form a movement in the largest of the oil states has many economists worried. Iraq is a major oil producer as well, and an Iraq in the hands of a jihadist entity could spell higher oil prices worldwide. Even if the worst case scenario is a segmented Iraq, with the ISIS forces controlling the north, and those loyal to Nouri al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government controlling the south, Iraqi oil production will be surely be disrupted in areas where oil wells and pipelines fall under the control of militants. Likewise, a disruption to the political stability in Saudi Arabia could have massive consequences for oil-consuming nations worldwide.
For many in the jihadist world, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of true Islam, despite the vast country being host to two of the most sacred sites in all of the Islamic world: Al-Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque, Mecca) and the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Medina). For many terrorist groups, the Saudi royal family—and its moderate stance of generally friendly relationships with western powers—has been an unacceptable arrangement, and jihadists have long called for the overthrow of the Saudi family. In 1979, terrorists briefly seized control of the holy site in Mecca, and called for a general uprising. After about a week, the militants were dislodged from the mosque and the Saudi government added additional security, then, cracked down on religious opposition. Those involved in the seizure were executed.
Shortly afterwards, the Saud family extended some gestures toward traditional Islamic law by insisting on the closure of some businesses (movie theaters, for example), and by strengthening certain codes of appearance. But on the whole the jihadists were still dissatisfied with the Saudi government. Militants have threatened to disrupt and overthrow the Saudi government for decades, and Osama bin Laden, himself Saudi by birth, called for a general uprising and the application of terror. Later, in 2008 and 2009, the Saudi army fought a campaign against Shiite insurgents in several areas.
The Saudis may fear the religious extremism of ISIS, but the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is sometimes authoritarian to a fault. Women are not allowed to drive cars, nor have women been allowed to vote, though King Abdullah decreed recently that beginning next year women can vote and participate as full members in political advisory councils. And though women will get to vote soon, there are no elections in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia. Most political issues are debated and resolved within the royal family, and many Middle East analysts liken the process to a large family-owned corporation, complete with factions and rivalries, backroom intrigue, and shifting alliances. Those who do “vote” are those few allowed to participate in tribal councils, advisory panels, and the Ulema, a mostly religious body which includes clerics, teachers and scholars.
The majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims, which worries some Middle East analysts who say that Saudi Arabia may be ripe for political turmoil despite its vast wealth. But there is also a significant minority of Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The ruling family members are Wahhabis, and there has been tension, in some cases promoted by outside forces (as in Iran’s attempts to influence the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia toward uprising) applied on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide on the Arabian Peninsula.
The old borders drawn by the European powers continue to complicate things. Saudi Arabia was generally supportive of Saddam Hussein when he consolidated power in neighboring Iraq in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in its long war with Iran. But later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Saudis were so fearful of Saddam that they asked the United States to intervene militarily, even allowing the U.S., the U.K. and other allied troops access to construct bases on the Saudi Peninsula. This decision further infuriated militant groups and jihadists.
Disruption to oil production is seen by some terrorists as the shortest possible path to dislodge and overthrow the Saud family, whose rule dates back to the early part of the 20th century.
Many jihadists see the Saud family and its governing classes in Riyadh as phony Muslims, cloaked only in the trappings of Islam but obsessed with their wealth and their business relationships with those scores of trading partners who purchase Saudi oil.
But the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows. Saudi Arabia has long been rumored to have been supporting—through backchannels—the mostly Sunni fighters at war in Syria’s northern regions. Saudi Arabia must now contend with the possibility of that same radical movement seeking to spark jihad in its own backyard. Further complicating the messy dynamic: Iran is on the verge of openly supporting the government in Baghdad where it shares a kinship with Maliki and the Shiite’s in the Iraqi capital. Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades, and in the 1980s fought a long, brutal war in which hundreds of thousands may have died. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be open to working with Iran if it helps to bring stability to Iraq.
The majority of those living in southern Iraq are Shiites, as is Prime Miniter Maliki, and the majority of those in the north are Sunni. The ISIS militants, now a formally organized army, are Sunni, and have in part tapped into the deep resentment that Iraq Sunnis feel toward the government in Baghdad.
This sectarian split was never fully resolved during the long U.S. military occupation which followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
After a week of silence, the Saudi government has responded to the crisis in Iraq through a cabinet-level press release. In that statement, it says the escalating crisis in Iraq is the direct result of “sectarian” policies in Baghdad, and the Saudis urge the people of Iraq to settle their differences peacefully and without foreign intervention—which presumably means Iran.
Meanwhile, the White House struggles daily to digest reports on the rapidly-evolving situation. Though President Barack Obama has said that he does not intend to put U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq, he has said that he will consider other uses of force. Among those things being considered by the White House: air strikes, drone strikes, air support and air cover for Iraqi troops, intelligence support from drones and satellite imagery, and offshore U.S. Navy support. The President has sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in anticipation of possible air cover or air strikes, and just today said he was strongly considering inserting a contingent of U.S. Special Forces into Iraq to help train and coordinate the Iraqi army’s response to the threat of ISIS.
But back in Riyadh, the Saudi powers-that-be are worried. If ISIS forces are able, by whatever means, to eventually take Baghdad, there would be little stopping those militants—now heavily armed, well-organized and well-funded—from storming south across the desert, and across the frontier that separates Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
And in that scenario, the jihadists could threaten much of the world’s economic and market stability simply by driving en masse toward those oil-rich sands.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Back to the Future: Iraq’s Descent Into Chaos; Thursday Review commentary; June 15, 2014.
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