As Obama gropes for a strategy, a quest for moderates in Syria

Expect strong words from President Obama on confronting evil and bringing Islamic State militants to justice. But where are the capable allies and plug-and-play moderate rebels?

Charles Dharapak/AP
In this image made through a window of the Oval Office, President Barack Obama speaks on the phone to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from his desk at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, ahead of his address to the nation tonight regarding Iraq and Islamic State group militants.

It's not hard to read the tea leaves ahead of President Barack Obama's big speech on the self-styled Islamic State. He is going to describe the takfiri jihadi army in Iraq and Syria as a grave threat to US interests, and promise stronger action against them, probably by expanding air strikes into Syria. 

You can also expect Mr. Obama to talk about arming and assisting "moderate" Syrian rebels and trying to stem the flow of foreign fighters into IS's territory in Syria and Iraq. These foreign volunteers are inflamed by the call for a second Islamic golden age, along with the heads on spikes and mass graves that IS leaves in its wake.

But what you won't hear is any of specificity about who exactly these "moderates" are. Or an acknowledgement that the Iraqi military is incapable of sealing the border with Syria, just as the US military once struggled to cut insurgent rat lines into Iraq. 

And Obama will probably tiptoe around the fact that NATO ally Turkey is the gateway for would-be jihadis eager to join the fight in Syria and Iraq and that Turkey's government has done a feeble job of stopping them. Will Turkey allow the US to use its airbases at Batman and Incirlik, where supplies have been pre-positioned? If not, why not?

The US public appears eager for a major military campaign against IS, much as they were for an invasion of Iraq after 9/11. The videotaped beheadings of American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff have seen to that, as has the tone of near hysteria in television news coverage of the group. You might think that a head-chopper lurks under every American bed. 

The US invasion of Iraq fertilized the ground in which IS grew. Saddam Hussein was a brutal, vicious dictator. But a secular and nationalist one who had ruthlessly suppressed all Islamist challenges – Shiite and Sunni – to his rule. The US military subsequently found itself fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, which drew on the expertise of a disbanded Iraqi army who resented the Shiite-dominated political order the US installed in Iraq.

A more potent force

Al Qaeda in Iraq, you ask? That group is no more – it evolved into IS, a far more potent military force than anything Al Qaeda ever managed to muster. Such are the unintended consequence of US military campaigns in the Middle East, lessons which are easily forgotten both among the public at large and inside the beltway.

Consider this comment from the hawkish Peter King, a Republican senator from New York, on how the murders of Foley and Sotloff have galvanized the US public into supporting war. "Those beheadings; they were tragic enough, but it also brought back the memories of 9/11,” he said.

Memories of 9/11? Then, 19 Al Qaeda operatives – 15 of them Saudi Arabian – armed with box cutters hijacked airplanes and murdered almost 3,000 people. A spectacular failure of airport security and of intelligence. The tragedy that befell Foley and Sotloff was nothing like that. They entered a war zone known to be filled with jihadis and kidnappers, and paid the price. There is no evidence of an imminent threat on US soil to be found in their tragic ends.

Yet here we are. Should the Obama administration arm the "moderate" Syrian rebels, whoever they may be? That was tried last year – and a depot of US supplied weapons was quickly overrun and seized by IS militants, shutting that effort down. Many of the recent US airstrikes in Iraq have destroyed weapons and vehicles the US had previously supplied to the Iraqi Army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive on Mosul earlier this summer.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has urged Iraq's government to abandon the hyper-sectarianism that its Shiite leaders have favored over the past five years in favor of an "inclusive" government that could win over Sunni Arabs. Yet assertions that the partially formed new Iraqi government is "inclusive" don't make it so.

The new Iraqi government that Ambassador Power refers to doesn't have an interior or defense minister. Why? Because the country's squabbling Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions couldn't agree on the posts at a time of national crisis, and when they've been desperately pleading for the US to do more to bail them out.

Five years ago, they couldn't agree on an interior and defense minister either. Then, as now, Iraq's politicians punted – trusting a Shiite majority promise that those posts would be allocated fairly in due time. Instead, the jobs were never filled, leaving former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in direct control of the military and police. That led to promotions based on loyalty to him and the Shiite Islamist coalition he represented rather than on competence, a major factor in the collapse of an entire Iraqi Army division in June. 

So far, that unfortunate pattern is being repeated. Shiite militias are taking the lead in the fight against IS; many have doubled as anti-Sunni death squads. Then there's the Kurdish peshmerga, whose goal is ultimately an independent state.

The Shiite militias have been receiving substantial support from Iran, as have the Kurds. Meanwhile, the US government is still committed to a policy of regime change for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose fight to cling onto power has left over 100,000 dead and displaced millions of Syrians from their home.

In the world as it is, rather than it's imagined to be, good allies and "moderates" appear to be thin on the ground. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad today to meet with Mr. Abadi and said he was "very encouraged" by the course Iraq is on. 

"A new and inclusive Iraqi government has to be the engine of global fight against (the Islamic State)," Mr. Kerry said after the meeting. He might even believe that's likely. But sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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