We’re giving them $5 billion to stop ISIS. Aren’t we?
Honestly, I’m so confused by White House policy towards Syria at this point that I’m not sure whether O will consider this a bug or a feature of his strategy.
The letter – issued as Congress began voting on aid and assistance to the rebels – affirms “the Free Syrian Army’s continued commitment to removing the twin terrorists Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from Syrian soil,” and directly calls upon the U.S. Congress to help them accomplish that task…
The letter responding to [Rep. Rick] Nolan, from Brigadier General Abdul Ilah Al-Bashir, the chief of staff of the Supreme Military Command for the Free Syrian Army, stated, “The heroes of the Free Syrian Army have sacrificed thousands of brave souls in the fight against the impostor ‘Islamic State’ over the past year. We fully plan to continue this fight until Baghdadi’s complete and utter defeat.”
Al-Bashir did not in any way hide that the Army would use the aid to fight Assad. In fact, he directly linked Assad to ISIS. “The Assad regime collaborates with ‘Islamic State’ and other terrorist groups like Hezbollah that seek our extermination,” he wrote. “We will be unable to finish off ‘Islamic State’ without also acting to stop Assad’s barbaric assaults. We call upon the world community, and the United States Congress in particular, to fulfill their humanitarian and security responsibilities by providing the Free Syrian Army with robust support to bring a Syria free from terrorism in all its forms.”
Serious question: Is this part of Obama’s plan or a deviation from it? Officially, the mission is about stopping ISIS. Officially, it’s also the policy of the United States that Assad must go, a pronouncement issued by President Redlines back in the day when sarin was our big worry in Syria. Now, though, knocking out Assad would be counterintuituve. No one on the battlefield, in theory, has a stronger incentive to liquidate ISIS than he does. No one knows ISIS’s Syrian strongholds better than his troops do. If, as everyone expects, our plan to train the “moderates” is destined to fail pitifully, Assad’s infantry may be the last best hope of finishing ISIS off on the ground.
But wait. There’s an argument to be made that putting the hurt on Assad should be a prerequisite to destroying ISIS. McCain made that case yesterday, in fact, during his exchange with Martin Dempsey, as you’ll see below. At a minimum, you’d want to take out Assad’s anti-aircraft weaponry to minimize the risk to U.S. airmen who are targeting ISIS. More broadly, if the White House is serious about creating space for some sort of peace settlement in Syria eventually, Assad needs to go just as much as ISIS does. Either one of them is apt to engage in sectarian cleansing of the other’s side if they gain a decisive advantage. If you want to protect Shiites, you destroy ISIS; if you want to protect Sunnis too, you destroy Assad. Only when they’re both gone and, ideally, some U.S. partner is in a position of strength will we have leverage to forge a peaceful-ish compromise between the different factions. (It worked out well in Libya, didn’t it?)
Plus, don’t forget that Assad has a weird sort of alliance with ISIS. The two of them are killing each other, true, but Damascus is suspected of having laid off the most hardcore jihadis in the early days of the war knowing that the stronger they got, the less eager western powers like the U.S. would be to see him overthrown. He may not have created this Frankenstein but he let it out of the lab, guessing — correctly — that the U.S. would have no choice but to form a de facto alliance with him to destroy it, thus preserving his own rule. If Obama wants to counter that play, then his best option is to task our new “moderate” partners with destroying not just ISIS but Assad as well. Otherwise, Assad will simply repeat his hands-off-jihadis tactic as necessary in the future whenever he feels western pressure. In fact, I think that’s the biggest flaw in the argument above that Assad’s troops could be the ones to finish off ISIS if we degrade them from the air. Why would they do that? Their continued presence in Syria is Damascus’s insurance policy against the “Assad must go” factions in the west.
So yeah, the Free Syrian Army is going to end up fighting ISIS and Assad, most likely with Obama’s blessing. But … in which order? The White House wants ISIS gone first because they’re the side most likely to shelter terrorists with their eye on hitting America, but logically, it’s Assad that the Free Syrian Army would want to target first (assuming they want to target ISIS at all). He’s their mortal Shiite enemy; if they were to wage war on ISIS first, the two Sunni rebel groups might degrade each other so much that Assad’s troops could swoop in and finish off both of them, with Sunni civilians powerless against the regime’s reprisals. Besides, despite his supposed “alliance” with America against ISIS, Assad is more likely to train his fire on the newly equipped FSA than he is on ISIS for the reason I gave above — namely, a powerful FSA is a viable replacement for his regime in western eyes whereas ISIS isn’t. So what’s the FSA supposed to do once Assad starts pounding them? Continue fighting ISIS as if nothing is happening? And what’s the Pentagon supposed to do once Assad is pounding our proxies on the ground? Hard to see an outcome here where we’re not bombing Assad too, if only in defense of our “moderate” allies.
But let’s not worry too much about this. No doubt, inside the White House, these are all problems for the next president. Good luck, Hillary!