The quagmire in Iraq and Syria

It must feel terrible for US President Barack Obama to enter the final years of his presidency ordering air attacks against Islamist rebel forces in Iraq and Syria. One can hardly recognize today the idealistic young president who won the Nobel Peace Prize after pledging that he would bring home the last American soldier from the wars begun by his predecessor. He now sounds more and more like George W. Bush. “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL,” he told the American people in a televised address last Sept. 10, the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

This irony is mirrored best in the conflicted role that America finds itself having to play today in the quagmire that has engulfed Iraq and Syria. There are no US ground troops left in Iraq, but a thousand US military consultants are there to provide advice to an Iraqi army that has proven totally incapable of containing the advance of Islamic State militants. The IS jihadists have captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and today they are 26 miles away from Baghdad. The weak government that the United States installed after the ouster of the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein has asked America to rescue Iraq from the jihadists who are determined to form a caliphate from the political ruins of Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, the situation is far more complex. What started out in 2011 as a popular uprising against the hated autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad has metamorphosed into a full-blown civil war with multiple protagonists. The anti-Assad forces led by the Free Syrian Army that America supported with arms and funds have been marginalized by the entry of jihadist elements from all over the world. Calling themselves the Islamic State, they are the biggest, the most disciplined, and, by far, the most brutal of the Islamist groups fighting Assad. By creating global spectacles out of the barbaric beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, they have succeeded in luring the United States into a war aimed specifically at them.

This has given them the notoriety, and—in the eyes of Islamists everywhere—the prestige, previously reserved to the al-Qaida. The CIA estimates their number to be around 30,000. Their successes have served as a magnet to Islamists from various countries who seek not just a focus for their resentments but also a live training ground for Islamic fighters of every nationality. Unlike in Iraq, America finds itself without a state ally in Syria. Indeed, it continues to call for the ouster of the Assad regime. Thus, when it launches air strikes against IS positions in Syria, there is no assurance that the Syrian regime’s antiaircraft artillery would not fire back, particularly if America attacks targets close to them.

For now, America has resolved that the main enemy is the Islamic State because, in its view, it poses the greatest danger to world peace. President Obama is now in the process of forming the broadest coalition for what he bills as a global antiterrorism campaign, even if this means modulating its call for regime change in Syria. Given the complexity of the situation, it is difficult to imagine that this war could be won with just air attacks. Analysts believe that, sooner or later, the IS forces will have to be fought on the ground. But, if the United States and its Nato allies do not commit ground troops, this would mean relying on the scattered and poorly trained moderate rebel groups to do the fighting. Given what has happened in the last few months, this is almost like a prescription for sure defeat.

For good reasons, America has been very careful not to put arms and ammunition in the hands of rebel groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra Front. This group is closely affiliated with the remnants of al-Qaida even as it is also fighting the Islamic State. Unlike the IS, however, the staunchly anti-Assad Nusra counts only Syrians among its members. This was the group that abducted the United Nations peacekeepers from Fiji and besieged the Filipino peacekeeping contingent in the Golan Heights in an attempt to seize their weapons.

The Syrian regime is fully aware of these contradictions, and it is bound to exploit them to lighten Western pressure on the Assad regime. The other day, the Speaker of the Syrian Parliament, Mohamed Jihad al-Laham, wrote to the leaders of the US Congress inviting them to visit Syria to discuss possible collaboration against the jihadists who pose a common threat to America and Syria. No proposal could be more logical in the light of Obama’s call for collective action against jihad terrorists. But, how can America entertain such overtures without conceding the correctness of Russia and Iran’s decision from the start to support Syria’s battle against the Islamic State?

Perhaps more importantly, if America proceeds to bomb IS targets inside Syria without the Assad regime’s consent, will Russia let this pass without protesting it as an incursion into a sovereign state’s territory? Russia is keen to restore the role of the Assad regime in the Middle East equation, and its foreign policy is proving to be more prescient than that of the United States.

Putting aside the selfish interests and motivations that have brought the global and regional powers into this quagmire, we are compelled to acknowledge the limits that democracy movements everywhere confront in their struggle against autocratic regimes. Libya, Egypt, and Iraq all show how far easier it is to bring down a dictatorship than to build a new political order. The lesson they seem to teach is that a new order, if it is to endure, must be forged in the fires of the struggle itself. It cannot be imposed from outside.