WE could not do both”; those were the words of Vice President Joe Biden in a recent interview when he was asked why a no-fly zone has not been enacted in northern Syria. Biden essentially explained that the fight against IS and the military’s will to save Syrian civilians from the Assad regimes’ airstrikes were mutually exclusive.
This false choice has been at the center of the Obama administration’s justification for not having an actionable policy in Syria. Administration officials time and time again cited the need to allocate resources to fight IS in Iraq as one of the reasons — if not the main reason — why military action in Syria, beyond limited airstrikes against IS positions, was not feasible.
The reality is that to believe in the veracity of such a claim requires a sudden onset of amnesia. This because as the world’s collective attention remains fixated on the ongoing military campaign to liberate the city of Mosul from the grasp of IS, many pundits and policymakers in the West seem to have forgotten how IS came to capture so much territory in Iraq after being allowed to consolidate and expand in northern and eastern Syria.
Mosul would not have fallen, if Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Abu Kamal, Al Bab, Menbej, Tal Abyad — all cities in Syria — were not allowed to steadily fall one by one to IS that for three years was allowed to consolidate its territory at the expense of rebel forces, while the Assad regime and its Iran-backed militias conveniently avoided fighting IS along the frontlines in Aleppo province.
Daesh did not arise in a vacuum, yet the US-led anti-IS coalition’s entire strategy to fight the terrorist organization is entirely devoid of any understanding of how IS was able to gain its foothold in the first place.
This willful amnesia will all but surely ensure that any tactical success in the fight against IS in northern Iraq will prove to be ultimately Pyrrhic in nature.
Here’s why: In 2008 Al-Qaeda in Iraq — the seed from which IS grew, and from whose ranks many current senior IS military commanders came from — seemed to be all but decimated in northwestern Iraq, from Sinjar to Tel Afar to the strategic Rabiah crossing along the Syrian-Iraq border. Yet it retained a redundant capacity to regenerate precisely because the Assad regime and its military security apparatus allowed remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s logistical and key command and control network safe haven inside Syria.
To his credit, late in 2008, President George W. Bush reportedly authorized a daring cross-border raid deep into eastern Syria in the Abu Kamal area to kill or capture Al-Qaeda’s senior foreign fighter facilitator Abu Ghadiya. But it proved to be a one-off exercise.
The Assad regime calculated back then — just as it does today — that it could leverage a level of tolerance for extremist operations under its watch — if not indirect facilitation — if it could be used as a bargaining chip with the West. Fast forward to 2016, and Assad seems to be getting exactly what he wanted in that regard.
Today, Aleppo has been all but forsaken by the Obama administration; in the false hope that by betting on a military campaign in Mosul that IS could eventually be then dealt with in a separate campaign in Syria.
But this approach is sheer military folly. A linear campaign against an asymmetric adversary is bound to fail.
A military campaign that refuses to take into account the very source that generated IS’s expansion in the first place is bound to repeat the mistakes of the past that left space for extremists to rebound and regain lost territory. Ignoring the siege of Aleppo has real consequences in the fight against IS. Allowing Aleppo to fall to Assad and his Iranian auxiliaries would surely negatively impact the ability to gather the necessary coalition of Sunni Arab fighters needed to take and hold territory once held by IS.
Again, history should serve as a useful reminder on what works and what does not in sustaining success against IS and its ilk. Take for instance when the Obama administration opted to cede to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki — an unabashedly Iranian proxy par excellence — total oversight and control over the Sunni Arab Sahwa forces that had spearheaded the fight against Al-Qaeda in the very same provinces that eventually came to fall to IS.
Maliki wasted no time in persecuting key Sahwa commanders and either tortured, imprisoned, or exiled them all.
The West should have learned then the policy mistake of ignoring the sectarian paranoia of a political leader who was more concerned about proving himself to Tehran rather than re-fertilizing the conditions for Daesh to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.
Yet, alas Assad is allowed to continue his scorched earth policy against Syrian civilians — with the blessings of Russia and Iran — without considering its detrimental consequences in the fight against IS.
Today, an amalgamation of rebel factions are attempting to break the blockade instituted against eastern Aleppo by a mix of Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan Shiite militias and Assad regime’s local militias. To the world, this fight seems to be a sideshow to the made-for-TV qualities imbued in the assault on Mosul.
While those very TV cameras cannot enter the besieged Aleppo, it would behoove us all to remember that as IS plots its international attacks and its comeback, that to save Aleppo may just very well prove necessary to save the world from this evil.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf Affairs.
—Courtesy: Arab News