Tag Archives: ISIS threat Iraq

We Are All Kenji Goto



Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the legacy of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who just wanted to report on the humanitarian crisis Syria’s civil war has wrought; instead he was used as a pawn by ISIS and murdered. Can journalists safely report in the Middle East? Thursday Review Front Page article: We Are All Kenji Goto; February 2, 2015.

The Cost of Going Back to Iraq

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Though not outwardly acknowledging that the current U.S.-led coalition using heavy air power to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria has proven inadequate for the task, President Obama and Pentagon officials raised the stakes this past week by authorizing the U.S. military to send 1500 additional personnel to Iraq. The new 1500 troops would roughly double the number of American military personnel now in Iraq.

Their mission: to quickly train additional brigades of Iraqi troops and Peshmerga units for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops will train an additional 12 brigades—instructing those units in the use of mostly-American-made equipment, instilling discipline, and preparing the newly minted fighters for direct combat on the ground.

The White House and the Pentagon were consistent in their position that the new troop deployments would be placed neither in combat roles, nor in forward positions that might put them in harm’s way. As a parallel task the new American units would be establishing several training facilities for the preparation of new Iraqi recruits.

The President said he would ask Congress to authorize $5.6 billion in additional military funds to pay for the new deployments, and to fund the cost of the air campaign against ISIS. The White House and the Pentagon made the announcements on Friday, a few hours after the President met with Congressional leaders over lunch. Of the requested money, at least $1.6 billion will be set aside for the “Iraq Train and Equip Fun,” according to the White House.

The current air campaign has included the heavy use of targeted strikes by bombers and jet fighters, as well as cruise missiles and drones. Though the air campaign has helped to stall much of the rapid advance of ISIS, the radical militants have proven more difficult to dislodge from many areas than the previous estimates of the Pentagon and the White House.

ISIS formed in the chaotic environment of the long, bloody Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year. Merging fighters and units once loyal to Saddam Hussein with a variety of al Qaeda groups, along with some anti-Assad rebels, ISIS organized itself into a working army. In spring of this year, ISIS swept through northern Syria and across northern Iraq, moving quickly and bringing terror with it.

In front of the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi army collapsed—abandoning equipment and weapons. ISIS was able to quickly advance to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and it was also able to capture scores of cities and towns once the scenes of intense, costly battles where Americans lost their lives. ISIS also captured oil facilities, seized banks and public offices, imposed laws which reflected a radical interpretation of Islamic law, and murdered thousands of civilians. ISIS’s advance gave the militants control of areas as far north as the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Turkey, and as far west as the border checkpoints at Jordan.

ISIS has said it seeks the establishment of a caliphate, and it does not recognize internationally agreed upon political borders.

Intense fighting has raged along parts of northern Syria at the Turkish border for many weeks, as ISIS seeks to consolidate control of areas once left under the auspices of Kurds and other ethnic minorities. The fight for control of the border town of Kobani has been particularly violent, as Kurdish fighters attempt to resist a continuing onslaught of heavily-armed ISIS militants. On some occasions the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units has come to within a few hundred yards of the border fence which separates Syria from Turkey. The U.S. was reluctant to use air power in the fight for Kobani, but eventually did use some targeted air strikes starting about ten days ago. The air strikes were credited with helping to stall ISIS’ advance, but ISIS still controls many sections of Kobani.

Many military analysts, including ex-military commanders and officers, question whether the Iraqi army can be adequately-trained for the task of confronting ISIS, even after months or years of training by U.S. forces. Others are concerned over what they see as mission-creep: a few hundred Americans are sent in to a combat situation, followed inevitably by a few hundred more, until eventually the U.S. and its allies are committed to a full-scale war. Military analysts and some in Washington point to two clear examples: the long American involvement in Vietnam, which began in an “advisory” capacity but which ultimately took the lives of 58,000 U.S. forces; and the current plan to train the Iraqi army, an almost exact replay of the scenario the U.S. faced as it began its withdrawal from the last Iraq war in 2011. The question is whether the U.S.-led training this time around would be sufficient for what is now a Herculean task.

The air campaign has succeeded in destroying more than 200 armed vehicles once part of ISIS ground operations, and some targeted air strikes have also taken out tanks, artillery positions, weapons caches, and even some suspected key militant commanders. Some air strikes on the first night of the Syrian phase of the operation were targeted at members of the Korasan Group—largely unknown in the West but known to some in the intelligence community as perhaps more dangerous than ISIS. And just this past week more strikes were focused on Korason members, in particular a highly-skilled French bomb-maker who intelligence officials in the U.S. believe had developed and tested a powerful explosive which could be embedded in a working laptop computer. That same bomb-maker was also believed to have developed type of explosive which could be used by soaking clothing in flammable materials. Communications between some Korasan members seem to have indicated that the group was preparing to use the laptop device to blow-up a civilian airliner or other high-profile target.

As of last week, the U.S. and its coalition partners had carried out more than 400 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and 325 air strikes against ISIS and Korasan positions in Syria.

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The Fight Against ISIS: Who Will Provide the Boots?

Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters

Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters

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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Syria: A Complex, Dangerous Puzzle


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.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SyrianPolicy9-24-14.html#sthash.dTwD1yB3.dpuf

The Hunt for ISIS, The Hunt for Jihadi John


By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With the death of British aid worker David Haines, ISIS has made it clear that it regards citizens of countries allied with the United States as sharing the same responsibility and suffering the same potential fate as the thousands of others the group has murdered during its five-months-long reign of terror in the Middle East. Early on Sunday, Islamic State militants released a video showing what appeared to be David Cawthorne Haines, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling beside a hooded extremist holding a knife.

In the video, a black-clad man with a British accent warns England that its alliance with the U.S. will “accelerate your destruction.” After a short speech in which the extremist rails against both Britain and the U.S., Haines is apparently beheaded.

The 44-year-old Haines, who was educated in Scotland and the U.K., was kidnapped in 2013 in Syria while working with the non-profit group Nonviolent Peaceforce, a Brussels, Belgium-based charitable and humanitarian organization, and for the Paris-based Agency for Technical Cooperation & Development. Haines role with those groups was as a peace facilitator—which the organization describes as an unarmed civilian who is sent in to facilitate cease-fires and humanitarian truces in combat zones and in regions of conflict. Haines had been working in northern Syria when he was kidnapped last year. His death was intended as retribution against the U.K. for its alignment with the U.S. in what has now become something of an international war, though it remains unclear which country’s combatants will engage ISIS on the ground.

In the video, the black-clad man stresses that his message is a direct one, aimed at British Prime Minister David Cameron. “If you, Mr. Cameron, persist in fighting the Islamic State then you, like your master Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands.” Later in the video the man threatens to kill yet another hostage.

The Haines video is the latest horrific salvo in a grim war of images. It has also set in motion a manhunt the likes of which the world has not seen since the death of Osama bin Laden.

In the hours and days after the first such video was released in August, a video which showed the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, much of the world expressed shock and horror. That video and its gruesome content—not to mention the direct threat which its masked spokesman made to the United States—may have been the catalysts which drove the Pentagon, the White House, and President Barack Obama into cohesive action against the radical Islamic terror organization.

Indeed, events moved swiftly within the following weeks—the President morphing reluctantly from a troubling position of “we have no strategy,” which inspired the ire even of many liberals, to a new mindset, expressed on the eve of the anniversary of September 11, that the U.S. is in fact at war with ISIS. Over the last 72 hours or so, the language of the U.S. role has been the subject of intense debate and metamorphosis, with Secretary of State John Kerry declaring broadly that “we are not engaged in war,” but with the Pentagon and the White House clearly defining the current U.S. policy toward ISIS as “war.” No matter—it sometimes takes the complex machinery of government some time to get its talking points in order.

Military and foreign policy analysts are in agreement that the President’s now-publicly stated-policy of taking on ISIS head-on makes sense, except that there is no clarity of exactly what role the United States will play beyond what it is doing now—bombing specific targets inside Iraq, using unarmed and armed drones over ISIS-controlled areas, and sharing critical intelligence with anti-ISIS forces on the ground, like the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The question of how and where the U.S. will strike inside Syria remains unanswered (though last week Syrian President Bashir al-Assad indicated through his diplomatic channels that he welcomes U.S. air intervention). There is also the possibility that the U.S. will give direct support to opposition groups in Syria, and to the so-called “Free Syrian Army,” those small units which had previously disavowed their support of Assad.

It’s a treacherous, complicated environment, fraught with the unavoidable morality-check that in some way, shape, or form, the U.S. will be now aiding the regime of the much-loathed Assad—a conundrum for an American president who had promised to extract the United States from two costly wars, and keep the country out of any new conflicts.

Still, on the 13th Anniversary of 9/11, the United States was again on a war footing, of sorts. Indeed, all the previous months and weeks of ambiguity and caution seemed to be at an end. Foley’s beheading set this slow machinery into motion.

But one thing that did evolve quickly after Foley’s murder was the belief by U.S. and British intelligence and law enforcement that the masked, hooded man with the London accent could be identified, and brought to justice. Almost immediately, British intelligence operatives went to work to try to crack the code in what little visual and audio information they had: the eyes which shown from inside that dark hood, the left-handed use of the knife, the positioning of the gun in that holster at his side, the posture and stance, that featureless, bleak landscape, and the voice—an accent revealing that the killer very likely came from an area of London known for its complex patchwork of ethnicities and cultures. The accent, we were told from the start, is something called Multicultural London.

In the United States and in Britain, entire teams went to work attempting to identify that killer, and now—authorities in both countries say that the identity of that knife-wielding militant may be within their grasp.

The narrative of that killer has morphed only slightly over the last two weeks. There were a few erroneous theories that the man’s accent may have indicated a brief residence in Liverpool, but this notion was quickly dropped as experts narrowed the accent to London, then, possibly to specific neighborhoods within London. There was also a flurry of activity when some analysts considered the possibility that the man who did the talking and the acting—right up to the moment in which he moved the knife to Foley’s throat—may not have been the man who did the actual cutting. Some thought the posture and build of the man in those last frames of video was measurably different. If true, it would indicate that the English-speaker was used only for the first part of the video, and was replaced by a somewhat more muscular, stronger man who beheaded Foley as the journalist knelt in the sand. After all, why else would there be that abrupt hard cut in the video?

But little more has merged from this separate theory, and the notion of two cloaked killers has now taken the back seat again to the belief that the English-speaking man did in fact commit the atrocity with that knife in his left hand. There were also rumors that British intelligence experts thought that the knife-wielding man may be a British musician and rapper known to have cultivated a strong interest in extremist views and anti-western militancy. But like the theory of the second killer, little more has been said about this possibility.

The man in that black covering and wearing that black mask is apparently known as “Jihadi John” to his fellow militants within ISIS. Intelligence experts have harvested data indicating the Jihadi John works alongside several other British citizens now fighting among a specific ISIS unit in Syria. In fact, British law enforcement suggests that there may be as many as 500 Brits now fighting with ISIS across the vast stretch of territory now controlled by the extremist army, and many of those travelled by conventional means into Turkey, then walked into Syria by crossing a porous border identified in some cases only by a low chain-link fence. Jihadi John may be embedded in a small claque of other militant, radical Brits—including, some analysts believe, the videographer—unfortunately known among ISIS units as “the Beatles” (about as awful an insult to the Fab Four as one could imagine).

But that masked man’s criminal participation in the gruesome video has been no source of amusement to law enforcement officials in the U.S. or the U.K.

Foley’s death was followed about a week later by the beheading of a second American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, a reporter who worked at various times for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, and Time magazine. Most experts immediately said that the hooded man in the video of Sotloff’s murder was very likely the same man seen in the earlier video, though law enforcement officials in the U.S. and government intelligence experts in Britain have been cautious about confirming that both masked men are in fact the same person. And among reporters and analysts who have examined the video which shows the death of David Haines, there is initial but informal agreement that the voice is, again, likely the same man.

In the meantime, CNN has reported that it spoke to sources in U.S. law enforcement and U.S. intelligence about the identity of James Foley’s killer, and those sources indicated that law enforcement was closing-in on the identity of the masked man—a now infamous killer believed to be working among top ISIS units inside northern Syria.

The stakes are high for both the U.K. and the United States. Foley and Sotloff were American citizens, and civilians—not soldiers. For that reason U.S. law enforcement must follow through on its own investigative priorities. Since the masked man in both videos has an accent almost certainly unique to certain areas of London, and since numerous British citizens have been known to have travelled out of the U.K. and into Turkey, Syria or Iraq to join radical groups, the U.K. is under pressure to identify the killer, or killers, in both videos.  Haines’ death now heightens this pressure.

As it turns out, the world would learn later, the United States military executed a rescue mission to free Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and others from ISIS hands this past spring. The secret mission, which may have involved more forces than those used to kill Bin Laden in Pakistan, failed only because of faulty intelligence: ISIS apparently moved the kidnap victims from the location where U.S. analysts believed they were being held. The Pentagon reported that one U.S. soldier was badly injured, and that at least two ISIS fighters were killed in the brief firefight which took place in the wee hours of the morning.

Though the kidnapped Americans were in fact at the targeted location in the weeks and days prior to the assault, up-to-the-minute drone and satellite data was not ordered or available in the hours leading up to the start of the raid. U.S. Special Forces and Navy Seals, transported in stealth helicopters at low altitudes, were in and out of Syria without detection by Syrian air defense systems (or, as some military analysts have theorized, because Syrian air defense officers, in conference with Damascus, chose to look the other way during the assault).

Now, with the deaths of Sotloff and Foley, the United States finds itself back in a state-of-war, at least in the sense that there is a battle to be waged against a specific army. Though the President has made it clear on numerous occasions that he does not intend to place U.S. personnel on the ground in forward positions against ISIS, the stakes continue to rise in Iraq. This past week, the Pentagon sent an additional 250 military personnel into Iraq—bringing the total number of Americans in country to roughly 1500.

ISIS, which is also sometimes referred to as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), formed out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq and from elements of radical militant groups in northern Syria—some of whom were fighting against the regime of Assad. Syria’s long and bloody civil war spawned a lawless, chaotic region in Syria which stretched all the way to the border with Turkey, and southeastward toward the intersection of the borders of Iraq and Jordan. Earlier in 2014, ISIS sprang into action blitzkrieg-style, sweeping into northern Iraq, capturing cities and towns along the way and quickly imposing an extremist form of Islamic law on all citizens. In the face of ISIS’s rapid advance, the Iraqi army collapsed almost completely—in many cases abandoning hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military hardware. Heavily-armed, ISIS pushed to within about 40 miles of Baghdad before it advance was halted.

Its reign of terror in those areas under its control has been extreme. Thousands have been summarily shot and thousands more beheaded by ISIS militants. Iraqi soldiers, local police, and security force personnel with links to Baghdad have been killed in mass executions. ISIS militants have raped women and forced them into captivity, extorted merchants and shopkeepers, closed schools, issued bans on women being outside of homes, burned and bombed Shiite mosques, looted banks, and even imposed laws against reading and literacy. Violators of these edicts face amputation, torture, or death by crucifixion. ISIS has sought to exterminate religious minorities, killing thousands of Yezidis and thousands of Kurdish citizens in northern Iraq, including children. The campaign of terror against Yezidis forced tens of thousands to flee from scores of towns and villages, and those thousands sought refuge on Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria.

The race to identify the hooded man in the ISIS video has now taken on a resonance and a singularity similar to the hunt for bin Laden in the aught years, and in the United Kingdom that masked man’s participation in the murders has stirred anger and outrage. Now, with the death of Haines under circumstances almost identical to the first two videos, military and intelligence experts in Britain are combing through every digital detail of all three videos in the hope of perhaps isolating the exact location where Haines’ murder took place.

David Cameron called an emergency meeting of his top military, law enforcement and intelligence people early on Sunday to commence an immediate program of action against ISIS. Though there had been a few hours of caution after the initial release of the video, British officials now conclude that the images do show the murder of David Haines—a video apparently shot in the same dry, arid landscape of northern Syria against pastel blue skies and on top of chalky beige and yellow sands. And though most intelligence analysts—working feverishly on the tiniest details of all three videos—won’t say much, some officials have allowed that they are very close to identifying the location where the murders took place.

Haines was among the other western hostages held when U.S. Special Forces attempted their rescue mission in the spring. Some informant assets on the ground in Syria have said that the U.S. raid may have missed the hostages by only a day or so, and a minor, back corridor blame-game later erupted in Washington over why last-minute drone surveillance missions had not been ordered before the U.S. raid. (A few additional details about the raid emerged last week; some military historians have noted the similarity between this most recent rescue mission and a Vietnam-era mission conducted in 1970 to rescue American POWs from a prison compound in North Vietnam. In both operations last-minute intelligence would have indicated that the prisoners had been moved to other locations).

Some conservative lawmakers in London have called upon the British government to authorize immediate airstrikes on ISIS positions as retaliation for Haines’ killing. Cameron’s emergency meeting with his security and military chiefs will likely produce some form of action, though few are predicting what that action will be.

Officials in Germany, France, Belgium and Canada all condemned the murder of Haines.

Haines had worked in hotspots before—in Libya and in southern Sudan. He had also done work in war zones for other charitable and non-violent organizations. His family said Haines had an unstoppable enthusiasm for humanitarian work, especially in dangerous conflict zones where he felt his work could produce the most rewarding outcome.

“You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy”; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014;  http://www.thursdayreview.com/BiggerForeignPolicy.html

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You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy

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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?

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Iraq’s Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia


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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