Maybe Russia didn’t like the shout-out in yesterday’s speech from Barack Obama, who declared, “It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression” in an attempt to bolster his failing leadership credentials. Obama laid out a case for possibly attacking ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq in the speech, although fell short of committing to such attacks:
Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.
That was enough for Russia, however. Taking time out from its invasion of sovereign Ukraine, the Russian government scolded Obama about not honoring international law with his threat to attack ISIS in Syria:
“The U.S. president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the U.S. armed forces against ISIL positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government,” ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
“This step, in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.”
Gee, I must have missed the UN Security Council resolution that granted Russia sovereignty over Crimea, and the invitation to send armor and infantry into eastern Ukraine. For that matter, perhaps the Kremlin could be kind enough to point us toward the UNSC resolution that authorized the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well. After all, Vladimir Putin’s regime appears to be an expert on international law, so …
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is none too pleased either, at least publicly:
Syrian and Iranian officials criticized the Obama administration on Thursday for excluding them from an international coalition coming together in the battle against the Islamic State group, while a state-run Syrian daily warned that unauthorized U.S. airstrikes on Syria may trigger the “first sparks of fire” in the region.
Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group, meanwhile, welcomed President Barack Obama’s authorization of U.S. airstrikes targeting — for the first time — the extremists inside Syria, saying it stands “ready and willing” to partner with the international community to defeat the militants.
But the Syrian National Coalition said that airstrikes need to be coupled with a strategy for ultimately toppling President Bashar Assad.
Kurdish politicians in Iraq similarly praised Obama’s announcement of wider airstrikes and assistance to Iraqi forces.
“We welcome this new strategy,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and one of Iraq’s newly-appointed deputy prime ministers. “We think it will work with the cooperation of the indigenous local forces like Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish peshmerga and other forces.”
At first blush, one might think that Assad would welcome the attacks on his most dangerous enemy in the field. However, ISIS is useful to Assad to remind the world what the alternative might be to his regime — and at the moment, likely would be. As a sovereign, too, Assad can hardly endorse another nation using his territory for bombing runs, especially one that threatened to do the same thing to him exactly a year ago. Besides, Assad knows we’re not doing this for his benefit, but to create a moderate Sunni alliance that can effectively depose him … which is exactly what we tried to do in Libya, one might recall.
With that in mind, Charlie Rose interviewed former deputy CIA director Mike Morell and asked about the chances of success in Iraq and Syria. Morrell’s confident about Iraq, but much less sanguine about Syria:
MORELL: So on the Iraqi side of the border, Charlie, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to roll [ISIS] back. What gives me that confidence is a new political deal that the United States deserves a lot of credit for, putting advisers, military advisers in to assist the Iraqi army and the Kurdish army, and broader U.S. air strikes. I think all those together will make a big difference in Iraq.
It’s the Syria side of the border that I’m worried about. We are going to double down, we are going to go all in with the Syrian opposition and that’s how we’re going to try to win this thing. But the Syrian opposition is a very weak group. They’re much weaker than two years ago. This is the long pole in the tent. This is what’s going to be hard.
ROSE:Is that the only option we have on the ground in Syria, the Free Syrian Army?
MORELL: I think so, unless you want to throw your lot in with Assad who has butchered his own people, which I don’t think we want to do. So I think going with the Syrian opposition is our best chance of success. The chance of success is not high, though. It will take a lot of work.
We don’t have much choice, though, if we’re serious about destroying ISIS. When your enemy goes to ground, you must deny him ground to which he can go. Allowing ISIS to flex back and forth across what is now an entirely aspirational border between Syria and Iraq is a recipe for futility. That means we have to have some boots on the ground with whom to coordinate, and if it’s not going to be ours, then it has to be the Iraqis and Kurds on one side, and either the FSA or Assad’s forces on the other. Unless Assad commits to leaving power in a transition that settles the civil war, no American administration would partner with Assad after the last three years.