Embracing Assad Is a Better Strategy for the U.S. Than Supporting the Least Bad Jihadis
WORLD POST/ HUFFINGTON POST
The Middle East today is in as big a mess as I’ve seen it in a lifetime. By most measures it still continues to worsen, as ever new enemies to the U.S. pop up onto the scene. It is attracting polarized youthful jihadis from both East and West ready to fight us — all high on the blood aphrodisiac of beheadings and bombings.
The U.S. and most other countries understandably seek to suppress the present savage civil conflicts raging in Iraq and Syria — now exemplified at its worst in the spread of the violent jihadi Islamic State. If so, Washington had best look first to ending the civil conflict in Syria, the most efficacious way to start unraveling the Middle Eastern knot.
After the popular movements of the Arab Spring overthrew the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Yemeni leaderships in 2012, it looked as if the Assad regime in Syria would certainly be the next to fall. The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional states gambled that a small push from the outside would suffice to overthrow Assad — never mind about who exactly would succeed him.
“The time has now come to bite the bullet, admit failure, and to permit — if not assist — Assad in quickly winding down the civil war in Syria and expelling the jihadis.”
In the event, the gamble failed and Assad has proven remarkably adroit in clinging to power, initially against domestic armed opposition, but then against foreign armed opposition backed by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others. The Syrian conflict enticed radical jihadis from around the Muslim world to fight against Assad. Many of these groups are sympathetic to ISIS forces and have facilitated the spread of the Islamic State into Syria — although there are some jihadis who are in fact hostile to ISIS — tactically if not ideologically.
It is beyond the capabilities of U.S. intelligence, or any other western states for that matter, to gain the complex strategic and tactical insight and the instinctive feel to successfully manipulate the conflict in the directions we want. These conflicts are riven by extremely intertwined ideological, personal, regional, religious, tactical, and tribal differences that outsiders cannot control in any convincing fashion.Thus Washington has been reduced to the crude instruments of bombing and providing support to jihadi attacks against other jihadis. Nobody has a score card. And it all grows worse. Washington’s fear of the Islamic State has now come to supersede the fall of Assad as the primary U.S. goal. Yet it is nearly impossible to succeed in Syria when many of the forces we support against Assad also support the Islamic State, directly or indirectly.
“We cannot both hate Assad and hate those jihadis (like ISIS) who also hate Assad. We fight, crudely put, with al-Qaeda in Syria and against al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Assad is not going to be overthrown in the foreseeable future. He is hardly an ideal ruler, but he is rational, has run a longtime functioning state and is supported by many in Syria who rightly fear what new leader or domestic anarchy might come after his fall. He has not represented a genuinely key threat to the U.S. in the Middle East — despite neocon rhetoric. The time has now come to bite the bullet, admit failure, and to permit — if not assist — Assad in quickly winding down the civil war in Syria and expelling the jihadis. We cannot both hate Assad and hate those jihadis (like ISIS) who also hate Assad. We fight, crudely put, with al-Qaeda in Syria and against al-Qaeda in Iraq. But restoration of order in Syria is essential to the restoration of order in the Iraqi, Lebanese, Israeli and Jordanian borderlands. Permitting Assad to remain in power will also restore a Syria that historically never has acted as a truly “sectarian” or religious state in its behavior in the Middle East — until attacked by Saudi Arabia for its supposed Shi’ism.
We have little to lose and much to gain in such a reverse in policy vis-à-vis Assad. If we persist on overthrowing him by force, we will perpetuate the disastrous status quo — an anti-jihadi campaign that the administration has already acknowledged may be morphing into a new open-ended war for years to come — all the while generating tens of thousands of new jihadis fighting new jihads that we cannot bomb out of existence.
RETURN TO THE OLD ORDER
An end to the Syrian conflict and a return to the old order there will make it easier for Baghdad to develop policies aimed at drying up ISIS on Iraqi soil. Turkey, long a prisoner of its own failed gambit to overthrow Assad, will also gain from restored order in Syria, an end to the refugee flow and a chance to get back to serious negotiations with the now newly empowered Kurds.
“At this point, the most urgent task at hand is to bring an end to war, to raging cross-border conflict that only brings anarchy, deeper polarization, more international armed interventions, heightened emotions, rage and recruitment videos for globalized jihadis.”
Yes, it would be nice to bring democracy to Syria, but we surely know now from experience that overthrow of dictators by force — especially by outside force — rarely ushers in peace and demonstrably better leadership. The U.S. has in fact all along been more driven by zeal to destroy an Iranian ally than it has by visions of democracy in Syria itself.
At this point, the most urgent task at hand is to bring an end to war, to raging cross-border conflict that only brings anarchy, deeper polarization, more international armed interventions, heightened emotions, rage and recruitment videos for globalized jihadis. But wait, won’t Russia and Iran both benefit from an eventual reaffirmation of Assad’s power in Damascus? Absolutely. Does that make it the wrong choice then? Should we instead continue to throw good money after bad in the feckless campaign to get rid of Assad? To continue to bomb and bomb and try to find the least bad jihadi group around that will meet the exacting qualifications of hating both the Islamic State and Assad and loving us?
Graham E. Fuller is a former high-ranking official at CIA. His latest book is “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East” (grahamefuller.com).
“Avenging James Foley”
Huffington Post -World Post 25 August 2014
Graham E. Fuller
The ghastly killing of journalist James Foley–more than merely savage–was quite calculated to induce terror and to influence. And it did. Indeed, to discuss his death in a broader political context at this point may seem distasteful, clinical, and disrespectful to the dead and his family.
Yet, this is a region that has been agonizingly drenched in blood, centering around the US military presence, for over a dozen years.
The horror, pain, and immediacy of the Foley tragedy cannot blind us to the reality that death, in the hundreds of thousands, is now part of the landscape of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia and other areas, and may be intensifying. Foley’s death affects us because he is American, because we know of him as a brave and appealing figure, and because we have been treated to the immediate gruesome details of every facet of this one particular death. For endless numbers of other families in the region however, brutal death during this long conflict—air strikes, artillery, terrorism, drones, unleashed sectarianism—each family has its own particular and unique shared agony. Ironically, the greater the number of dead over there, the more such deaths simply become abstractions to us here. But each is tragic.
Yes, we know that war itself is brutal, rarely glorious, or even necessarily effective in resolution of long festering problems. The question is how we break our participation in this endless cycle of violence that has now consumed huge areas of the Middle East. Things are not getting better. They are getting worse.
It is entirely understandable to want to avenge acts like this–savagery by fanatics whose strength at the moment might seem to be growing. It is ironic to think back that, as bad as we perceived the terrorists of the Middle East of the 1970s to be, worse could and did follow. Kill them off and you just might get a new bunch with intensified grievances that made the earlier bunch look moderate. Note how over the last several decades armed resistance/terrorist groups evolved from the PLO and Egyptian anti-regime Islamists, to Hamas, Hizballah, then al-Qaeda. It is possible that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is even more brutal than Bin Laden’s operations.
The fact is, the basic grievances of the region—foreign boots on the ground, dictators supported by the US out of convenience, a failure to end a half century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the treatment of Palestinians as a paradigm for treatment of other Muslims, the US employment of the region as an eternal cockpit for proxy wars—all of this is still ongoing. These convulsive acts of terror are essentially symptoms of things gone very awry. Why should we expect that the symptoms will disappear simply because we can kill or jail those articulating them? Should we be surprised that the same old issues keep coming back again and again, still unresolved? Even if US forces can kill those professing the hateful actions of the Islamic State, will the grievances and conditions that produce it go away?
Still more worrisome: can something even worse than the IS come into being in the next generation of fighters? Hard to believe, but the cancer indeed can spread further, out of the immediate war zones of Iraq and Syria and into places like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Conditions may very well be ripening for just that.
It is understandable that America’s cry for revenge will lead to further armed response to the immediate outrage of James Foley’s execution. (Saudi Arabia has just beheaded 19 prisoners this month. French civilization of course had industrialized the whole beheading process with the “modern” technology of the guillotine that killed at least 40,000 during the French Revolution. Yet death far away in the Middle East today, inflicted from remote western computer screens from afar, lacks any emotional punch, except when Americans are beheaded.)
To grasp this perspective doesn’t remove our specific anger at Foley’s fate. But will the US now respond to that IS action—which was itself a response to an earlier more lethal US military event, which was in response to earlier armed Iraqi resistance, which was in response to something else? The chain of causality never ends. But it must be broken.
As of now it is impossible to ignore the military momentum of the IS in the tortured states of Iraq and Syria. Bottom line is that such a movement cannot now be allowed, as a military force, to seize Baghdad or the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The IS is still probably incapable of doing so. But the incessant tit-for-tat, escalating indignation and rage at each link of the chain of events, is not a solution. Local players must face their own realities.
Certainly in the middle of slaughter it doesn’t suffice to simply talk of dealing with the “root causes” of this conflict, as deep as they are. Indeed, from where does the Original Sin originate? Yet at some point Washington must realize that it cannot simply continue to supply grist for the insatiable and bloody geopolitical mill of the Middle East. The IS indeed revels in confronting Washington. The people of the region– attackers, victims or both–must come to terms with existing conditions and begin dealing with these events themselves. Continued US intervention simply continues to stamp this as “America’s war”–what most in the region believe anyway. James Foley is simply the latest poignant victim of an incalculable number of personal tragedies in the region. But he cannot be made the justification for prolonging these agonies with “just one more strike.” Even Mitt Romney had enough awareness to sense that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com) is a former senior official at CIA; his latest book is “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East.”
The threat of a “caliphate” to the West was central to George W. Bush’s inflamed rhetoric in his Global War on Terror, invoked to justify the launch of several wars in his own “jihad” over the next decade. But just how fearsome a concept should it be to us? READ MORE
I’ve just been sitting up all night reading “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames,” a fascinating biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Kai Bird. Ames was a remarkable CIA officer — and a colleague — who played a key personal role in U.S. intelligence and policymaking on the Palestinian-Israeli issue between the 1970s and 1980s. Ames died in 1983 in a massive blast at the American Embassy in Beirut when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into the entryway.
By a cruel twist of fate, Ames just happened to be in the building at that precise moment, on a visit from Washington. Sixty-two other people died, including many CIA officers.
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Aired March 20, 2003
Strike on Iraq: Interview with Graham Fuller by Wolf Blitzer
Read all of Graham E. Fuller’s Huff Post articles and reader comments here or individually below.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of “A World Without Islam,” a memoir “Three Truths and a Lie,” and the forthcoming “Turkey and the Arab Spring.”
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