Senior US officials told the Wall Street Journal newspaper this week that the Pentagon is «preparing to send surveillance aircraft, including drones, into Syrian airspace to gather intelligence on Islamist targets, laying the groundwork for a possible expansion of the limited US military air campaign beyond Iraq». The daily noted it as «the first tangible signs that the Obama administration may be preparing for military operations in Syria».
The US officials simply shrugged off Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al- Muallem’s suggestion on Monday that his country is prepared to be «the centre of the international coalition to fight Islamic State [ISIL]» and his insistence that the US must coordinate with his government before launching any air strikes on its territory. They said Washington would do what it plans to do «without any Syrian regime approval or authorization».
Their explanation was that «fighting a common enemy [ISIL] doesn’t make the Syrian regime a US ally».
The US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel also maintained last weekend at a Pentagon briefing that President Assad is the «problem» rather than «solution». On Monday, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declared, «Just because the Syrian regime may be taking on the Islamic State… it certainly doesn’t mean we’re on the same side of the coin here».
These statements have an ominous overtone. They hint at the strong likelihood that the US intervention in Syria could well be turned around at some point to advance the agenda of regime change in Damascus. ‘All options are on the table’, as American presidents would say.
Meanwhile, the chatter has become louder among American pundits and regional experts that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which imperial Britain and France negotiated to carve up the erstwhile territories of the Ottoman Empire as their respective ‘spheres of influence’, has outlived its utility. In other words, they visualize the need of ‘nation-building’ in the Middle East. The prominent figure in the George W. Bush administration, Zalmay Khalilzad has, in fact, called for a Marshall Plan for rebuilding the Middle East.
The chatter has reached the White House. President Barack Obama acknowledged in a recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, «I do believe that what we’re seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War I starting to buckle».
Now, as the ebb and flow of history, that’s hard to argue with. Indeed, from an initial stance that it wasn’t concerned with Iraq, NATO too has shifted its stance. The Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said, «NATO has a partnership with Iraq and if there is a request for further enhancement of that partnership, I think NATO allies would consider such a request constructively." He added, «The international community has a responsibility to stop the advance of the so-called Islamic state».
Meanwhile, Britain is pushing for an emergency action plan to be agreed at the NATO summit in Wales next week, focusing on «new threats» posed by the ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The New York Times daily reported on Tuesday that the White House expects that Britain and Australia will join the US in the air campaign in Iraq and Syria. A Pentagon statement also said on Tuesday that seven European governments have agreed to join the US in supplying weaponry to Kurdish forces battling the ISIL in northern Iraq. Defence Secretary Hagel named Britain, Canada, Albania, Croatia, Denmark, Italy and France as the seven countries.
Indeed, the momentum is rapidly building up to assemble an international coalition led by the NATO powers to intervene militarily in the Middle East.
On the contrary, what is needed is a calm analysis on the part of the US regarding the options available to meet the ISIL threat, while taking into consideration the US’s strategic interests and its capabilities. Without doubt, it is a delusion that the US military power is adequate to reinvent the Middle East. On the contrary, the US influence needs to be used through regional alliances and the underpinning for it should be provided by the broadest possible international mandate, which can only come from the United Nations.
The first step in this direction will be not to rush into dispatching drones into the Syrian air space but instead examine coolly the viability of reaching some sort of understanding with the Assad government. An analogy is readily available. Not too long, Washington used to blame Iran for all the problems of the Middle East and yet it is that country, which, perhaps, in the interests of self-preservation, is nonetheless enabling the US to realize a key regional objective, namely, ensuring a peaceful political transition in Baghdad leading to the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government.
The Syrian offer conveyed by Moallem is rational and practical. If nothing else, realpolitik demands it.
The US can ignore only at its peril that Assad has by far the best military capacity in Syria to turn the US-Iraqi counteroffensive against the ISIL into a pincer movement. He also has the grit and the political will to do that, and as the episode of the chemical weapons destruction showed, he does stick by international agreements.
Of course, in military terms, it may be feasible for the US Central Command to press ahead with a punishing offensive against the ISIL targets in Syria, using drones and cruise missiles and cutting edge weapons launched from outside Syria or from the Mediterranean without a formal agreement with the Syrian government and by choosing to ignore the objections by Damascus. But then, what happens thereafter?
In the ultimate analysis, where does that take the US and its allies? Simply put, the US can inflict wounds on the ISIL with drones and cruise missiles. Maybe, even incapacitate the ISIL for a while. But for inflicting a crushing defeat on the ISIL, the key to success lies in mobilizing the ground forces available with the Syrian government to repel the jihadist fighters (just as the US hopes to do with Iraqi forces.)
There is an added bonus here insofar as while working with the Syrian government in the killing fields, the US also gets an opportunity to try to resurrect the Syrian peace talks and explore some sort of resolution to the Syrian civil war.
The alternative that is being talked about is the unsavory prospect of arming and funding the so-called moderate opposition in Syria. That is a road to nowhere. The ISIL surged largely on account of the dismal failings of the moderate opposition, and those failings (which needn’t be recounted here) continue to exist. How effectively can such a motley force take on the ISIL?
What can happen, on the other hand, is that propping up the Syrian opposition will lead to greater fragmentation within Syria and rekindle the slumbering civil war, which of course can only work in ISIL’s favor.
Besides, the US needs to exert maximum possible pressure on its regional allies that have been enabling and financing the jihadists in Syria, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Whereas, it is these very same countries, which the US will have to rally as partners for resuscitating the Syrian opposition. Now, so long as these regional states remain knee-deep in the ‘business’ of regime change in Syria by interfering in that country’s political dynamic and projecting their regional interests, there isn’t going to be any light at the end of the tunnel. Surely, there is a fundamental contradiction here.
Therefore, from present indications, the confidence in the US’ ability to engineer a good outcome in Iraq and Syria is at a low. The real danger is that the ISIL may queer the pitch for the White House in the coming weeks. It is almost certain that the ISIL will release more snuff films in the coming days or weeks, which in turn, will trigger more horror, outrage and anger in the American public opinion and force the Obama administration to drastically expand the military campaign.
A vicious cycle is set to begin once the ISIL and the US get locked in over the fate of the remaining American hostages. We are nearing that tipping point. The video showing photojournalist Jim Foley’s brutal killing has been a carefully orchestrated move by the ISIL to induce emotions and wishful thinking to take over the US policy.
All things considered, therefore, the suggestions that are being made in the most recent days that the US would unilaterally extend its bombings to targets inside Syria are fraught with dangerous consequences, including the tragic prospect of another video appearing showing another American hostage being butchered.
The ISIL is manifestly keen on making this a one-on-one with Washington. Indeed, this is largely the US’ war, since Washington only is responsible for the rise of the ISIL. On the other hand, this is also a war where the vital interests of the world community are involved – Russia, China, Iran, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on.
What is at stake here is preventing a rogue Islamist state emerging in the heart of the Middle East that may provide a rallying point or safe haven for jihadists worldwide. It is, therefore, a global war and not Obama’s war. Nor is it a war to be fought – and most likely lost – by the US and its select allies. The guarantee of victory in this war lies in fighting it strictly in accordance with international law and under the UN Charter.