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The Islamic State and the United States

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • June 08, 2015

    It is difficult for any impartial observer to conclude that the United States (US) has a consistent, well thought-out policy towards the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which latter has its capital at Raqqa in Syria and holds sway over about eight million Iraqis and Syrians. In this regard, one is compelled to recall Barbara Tuchman’s observation in her famous work The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history is the pursuit by governments of policy contrary to their own interests.”

    France hosted a conference of 24 states on 2 June to coordinate the fight against the IS, which has in the past few weeks captured Ramadi, the capital of the huge province of Anbar in Iraq, and the historic city of Palmyra in Syria. Russia and Iran, both with considerable influence over what is happening in Syria, were notable absentees. The Paris conference heard frank complaints from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi about the US not providing enough assistance and support by way of intelligence, surveillance, and weapons. He pointed out that the IS is now “stronger, better equipped, more lethal and more organized than ever before” (emphasis added).

    This just concluded Paris conference reminds one of another conference held on 15 September 2014 on the same matter in the same city and which was attended by 30 states including Russia. It was then announced that the participating states would adopt “whatever means necessary including military action to defeat the global threat from Islamic State.” On that occasion, French Foreign Minister Fabius declared, “It is a movement so dangerous that all those here today consider it necessary not just to make it retreat but to make it disappear” (emphasis added in view of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s statement quoted above).

    US policy towards the IS has to be seen in the larger context of its policy towards Syria. The United States clearly finds itself in a state of singular confusion: It does not know what policy to adopt towards President Basher al Assad. Should it support, militarily and diplomatically, the demand for his exit from office? Or, should it work for a solution, political or military, that includes Assad remaining in position, if possible with reduced powers? Obama does not seem to have been able to find answers to these questions.

    When in early 2011 the Syrians demanded reforms, the Assad regime reacted with brutal force and soon the demand for Assad to step down arose. In August 2011, Obama confidently declared that Assad was on his way out. But he did nothing to accelerate Assad’s exit. All Obama did was to refuse weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which the United States mistakenly thought was secular and moderate and enjoyed considerable support among the population. In fact, the FSA was neither moderate nor secular. And starved of weapons and support from the United States, it lost its cadres to other armed groups. Later, the US announced plans to provide military training to moderate, secular, Syrians and allotted USD 500 million for the purpose. The latest in this regard is that about 50 such men are under training since May 2015, whereas the much bruited about target was to train up to 5,000.

    When reports appeared in 2013 that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons, Obama declared that the US would start bombing and the Pentagon was ordered to be ready for action. However, Obama had second thoughts partly because he had not thought through the matter and partly because the House of Commons, rejecting Prime Minister Cameroon’s plea, disallowed any participation by the United Kingdom. Obama must have also realized that air action alone might not deliver the intended results and he is most reluctant to send in ground troops after the sobering experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this juncture, Russia jumped in with an offer to make Syria agree to parting with chemical weapons through the UN route and Assad got more than a breather.

    Two conferences to find a solution through political consultations and negotiations were organized in Geneva in 2012 and 2014. Although held under UN auspices, both were prompted by the United States. But neither produced any result. Anyone who knew the political and military situation in Syria could have told the US in advance that the conferences would deliver nothing.

    Coming specifically to US policy towards IS, there is reason to believe that US policy is ambivalent as shown by recently released documents of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) following a federal law suit filed by an NGO called Judicial Watch.1 A DIA report for August 2012 notes:

    "The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows: This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI [al Qaeda Iraq] to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory."

    Some of the “dire consequences” are blacked out but the DIA presciently warned that one such consequence would be the “renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi Arena.”

    The general impression that the rise of IS was not anticipated by Western intelligence agencies is thus unwarranted. The documents obtained indicate that the DIA considered ISI, the precursor of the IS as a “strategic asset” to be used against Assad.

    The fall of Mosul to the IS in June 2014 is a significant landmark in its rise. The attack began on June 4. IS took control of the city by the 10th and moved to the strategic Baiji refinery the next day. The important question to ask is: Did the US know about this before it happened and could the US have done anything to prevent it or to slow down the advance of the IS? In his book The Rise of Islamic State, Patrick Cockburn says that on June 7, the US and the Kurdish Ministry of the Interior detected a “large convoy travelling from Syria toward Mosul”. Was it not possible for the US to have bombed that convoy? Instead, the US argued that unless there was a political realignment in Baghdad replacing Prime Minister Al Maliki it was not possible to resist the IS by military action alone. As it happened, Al Maliki resigned on September 8. The question is whether the US could have bombed the IS convoy on June 7 and simultaneously increased the pressure on Al Maliki to resign? The answer is reasonably clear.

    The US began its aerial strikes against the IS only by September 27 when the latter was about to take over Kobani, which had been held by the Kurds since July 2012, and there was a clear danger to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with significant US consular and corporate presence. We conclude that the US for reasons good and sufficient in its opinion decided to let the IS capture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with a population of about 2 million.

    The rising strength of the IS has many consequences. One important consequence is that the political boundaries determined under the Sykes-Picot arrangement, secretly arrived at between France and England in 1916 with the consent of Czarist Russia, is being undone and, even more significantly, Iraq and Syria are disintegrating into smaller entities, often warring against each other. Who benefits from and might have wished for such a redrawing of political boundaries in the region? The answer is obvious.

    In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty with the US acting as the midwife. Egypt got back the Sinai Peninsula. Oded Yinon of the Israeli Foreign Office prepared a plan in 1982 for a Greater Israel. That plan included the breaking up of Iraq, Syria and others in the region into smaller states, preferably fighting among themselves, with Israel as an imperial power imposing peace as Great Britain did impose Pax Britannica over a larger area. In 1996, the famous neo-con Richard Perle wrote a paper titled “Clean Break” for Netanyahu, advocating the same ideas and urging the US to work together with Israel to realize the plan.

    While it might be presumptuous and fanciful to seek an explanation in terms of a single plan put out in 1982, the fact remains that decision makers in Israel and their neo-con supporters in the US are not incapable of acting with long-term goals in mind. At present, it is difficult to figure out the basic motivation of US policy. It might be sheer inability to decide or it might be the desire to lend support to the progressive realization of the 1982 Yinon plan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India