Official White House photo by Pete Souza
The Red Line: Intervention in Syria and Iraq
On August 21st, 2013, a chemical attack targets a Syrian rebel-held territory near Damascus, with surface rockets containing sarin, a deadly gas, killing more than one thousand civilians at once, and wounding more than three thousand.
War cries for airstrikes against the Assad regime resounded throughout the halls of Congress in reaction to the chemical attack in Ghouta, largely by the usual GOP members, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but it became a bipartisan holler with Democrats focused on the humanitarian situation. Airstrikes against the Assad regime were threatened by President Obama. Although he staked claim to his authority to do so, he left it to Congress for a vote.
Within days, John Kerry stumbled upon a solution: disarmament of Syria’s chemical arsenal within a week. Vladimir Putin immediately took the opportunity and worked out details for a disarmament deal through the United Nations. Russia is an ally of Assad’s Syria, and so is Iran, and they are important arms suppliers for the force against all of Assad’s enemies, including ISIL.
It is at this point that Assad interviews American journalists and calls out al-Qaida for backing al-Nusra Front, explaining that his enemy is the primary target of America’s war on terror. Obama refuses to accept Assad’s phone calls, holding to the position that the National Coalition for Syrian [Forces] truly represents Syrians.
While it has not been proven that Assad’s military launched those rockets, it is clear that they use chlorine barrel bombs, painfully burning civilians and rebels in gross numbers. It has been speculated that the sarin attack was a false flag operation—either with Turkey’s involvement or entirely devised by Islamic State in Iraq—to force Obama over this “red line” threat of military intervention against Assad if chemical weapons were used against rebels or civilians in the civil war. This would benefit ISI in the same way that Bush’s war in Iraq ultimately degraded American political prowess and generated enough chaos for the spoils of war to benefit jihadist networks above Iraqi citizens. To repeat that mistake in Syria would be the greatest blunder of the Obama administration.
Obama postponed military action and the civil war raged on while UN-backed disarmament moved forward. It is unclear what his primary reason for erasing the red line was and he has been criticized many times for it by hardliners who believe if America says something about a red line then it must follow through with aggression. Even Hilary Clinton, Secretary of State during the early years of the Syrian Civil War and Arab Spring, claims to have advocated for intervention early on. She was also a leader in the cause of intervention in Libya. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, American weapons ultimately landed in the hands of jihadists in Iraq and Syria. In any case, this change of events did not do anything to prevent continued advance of al-Nusra against Assad as well as further tensions between rebel factions.
War Between al-Qaida and ISIL
From April 2013 to February 2014, there ensued a struggle of power between Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani caught in the middle. Baghdadi claimed the will of God to merge ISI with al-Nusra despite the refusal from both Zawahiri and Jawlani. Baghdadi claimed that a new organization called The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would absorb al-Nusra troops. This naturally caused a split within al-Nusra and some confusion among jihadists.
Sewing disorder has always been part of their strategy. Immediately, the process of absorbing territory under Baghdadi began. Partnering with leaders of the Jaish al-Muhahireen Brigade, their name changed to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and by the end of 2013, ISIL was operating on their own.
February 2014, Zawahiri formally divorced ISIL from the al-Qaida organization and months of fighting between al-Nusra and ISIL followed. Zawahiri ordered the end of resistance against ISIL and soon the al-Qaida branch in Syria fell to them. This did not bode well with moderate Islamist Syrian fighters and tribal factions cooperating with al-Nusra, but many fighters had little choice and suddenly became members of ISIL, or else face torture and public execution. This contributed dramatically to the rapid advance of ISIL during the summer of 2014.
It was not merely the absorption of al-Qaida factions that gave so much territory immediately over to ISIL. Although that was a sharp move on the part of al-Baghdadi, they could not hold on to territory like that without advanced weapons. Where and how they obtain those weapons is beginning to truly come out in the news. It is a mix of American, Russian, and Chinese weapons, for the most part. When Iraqi or Syrian soldiers are captured, retreat or defect, weapons are usually transferred to ISIL, including tanks, rockets, mortars, and countless guns. They also occupy banks and commercial zones, hoovering up cash and goods. Pirating is the basis of their business model. There is also financial backing from anonymous sources, but that model is more common with al-Qaida. Also, by acting like a State, they tax their “citizens”, sucking that revenue away from Iraq and Syria.
Weapons and New Revenue for ISIL
Emerging reports have also confirmed that Iraq is littered with buried chemical weapons, including sarin (the chemical used in Ghouta), from the Hussein regime in Iraq. They were discovered and kept secret by American forces from 2003-2011. This arsenal was developed from American and European manufacturers during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s. Apparently nothing dated later than 1991. Regions where stockpiles have been discovered are now smack dab in ISIL held territory. The suggestion is that ISIL has recovered these weapons and employed them. Even if the chemicals are rendered inactive, shells can be employed for IED (improvised explosive device) attacks.
Evidently, the Assad regime was strengthening ISIL by purchasing oil from them as early as 2013, specifically from oil fields that they had captured from Assad regime forces in Syria. This is like stealing a Big Mac and selling it back to McDonalds. But this kind of audacity is precisely what makes ISIL a tremendous foe. And in return, Assad focused his war against home-based factions like the FSA and The Islamic Front. Assad can retain power so long as he is willing to give up something to ISIL, who is less concerned with regime change than controlling whatever territory to establish The Islamic State as a world power.
Formation of the U.S. Led Coalition
Enter the first wave of news stories beginning during June of 2014, when most of us first learned about ISIL. The United States had already been overtly arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and training fighters in Jordan for more than a year, but FSA continued losing territory while ISIL was becoming too strong a force, too effective at stirring disorder, and too steadfast in their mission.
United States interest in Iraq was enough to prompt a new wave of war cries, but the deciding event has been called the Sinjar Massacre. ISIL captured the northern Iraq city of Sinjar in Kurdistan and killed at least five hundred people of the Yazidi civilization, followed by the mass exodus of 50,000 villagers on to Mr. Sinjar. Humanitarian aid was provided by air from Australia, the U.S. and U.K. Additionally, Obama announced his existing authority in the War on Terror to aid Kurdish forces in defense of the sieged region with airstrikes.
After the success of the campaign to fend off advances and help Kurdish forces maintain ground, US military personnel repeated air campaigns throughout Iraq while assigning small batches of specialist troops to train Iraqi soldiers and defend American interests.
The question looming concerned Syria. One year after the Ghouta Chemical Attack, there were two distinct enemies for Obama to deal with: Bashar al-Assad and ISIL, whose jihadists were encroaching ever more toward Turkey. They would need to be confronted in Syria to simultaneously tilt the balance back to the Free Syrian Army and remove Assad.
Extending the War on Terror to Syria
Beginning in August, the ongoing project of forming an international coalition to fight ISIL has been the backbone of Obama’s war. France was the first to launch airstrikes in Iraq in coordination with the U.S. followed by United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, with many other western nations providing some degree of support.
The coalition against ISIL targets in Syria is entirely Arab, with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain each playing some kind of role. The Arab League acknowledges the threat and the United Nations supports action to fend off more international crises perpetrated by ISIL.
The White House justifies the use of force on Syrian territory as an extension the authorization by Congress after 9/11 to fight al-Qaida. The State Department has claimed no military distinction between ISIL and al-Qaida, despite the fact that they are now separately operating groups. It is fuzzy because the personnel of those groups now comprise members of each other’s groups, not to mention the members of so many different militias that have also been designated terrorists by the State Department.
One of the earliest airstrikes in Syria did not attack ISIL—again because the U.S. conceived this as an expansion of the War on Terror—but targeted a group said to be comprised of senior al-Qaida members that have less interest in the toppling of Assad as they do organizing attacks on The West, including of course the U.S. This group said to be called Khorasan was not badly damaged by these attacks and worse, it mistakenly targeted refugees from Aleppo, killing twelve civilians.
The White House continues negotiating with the troublesome Turkey, whose generations old conflict with Kurdish militants in northern Syria and southern Turkey weighs heavily on the political will to fight ISIL. There have also been some connections to Turkey’s support for ISIL because they have political interests in the toppling of Assad.
Assad does not stand a fair chance of sitting in power much longer, however, there is no international coalition to remove Assad, so he’s got a minute. Obama is measuring the blowback of a new war against a sitting government with powerful allies during its civil war. A regime change mission is far more complicated than backing the home grown Syrian rebels overtly. Congress approved another half billion dollars in arms for moderate rebel forces during summer of 2014. Obama is now requesting the authorization of force specifically against ISIL.
It is not a regime change operation like that of ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Ousting Bashar al-Assad could upset Russia and Iran during a period of delicate relations with the U.S. For instance, Iran is in the midst of nuclear talks, a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy to resolve decades old tension and sanctions. Things are nearly untenable with Putin, especially after his escalation of conflicts in Ukraine. Those nations hold to the position that United States airstrikes are illegal and denigrate territorial integrity. However, it seems that Syria is welcoming of these airstrikes after some public bluster, because the strikes are designed to halt the advance of ISIL. If homegrown rebels are supported by America and select Arab nations, and no longer compete against jihadists, then it is far more likely that they can take Damascus. But still, many experts believe the plan is dysfunctional, and each have their own reasons.
Military officials are now stating that airstrikes will not finish the job but Obama continues to rule out boots on the ground. The length of this mission appears to transgress the remainder of Obama’s presidency while uncertainty looms over the continued involvement of American forces in the Middle East.