In the wake of the televised beheading of American journalist Tim Foley, there have been urgent calls in the media for an intensified U.S. military response to the Islamic State group (ISIS or ISIL) responsible for Foley’s gruesome murder and a host of other barbaric atrocities across northern Iraq and Syria. There is also understandably some alarm because ISIS has racked up a string of tactical victories in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, culminating with the taking of Mosul’s hydroelectric dam.
The principle complaint among the armchair quarterbacks is that the U.S. failed to neutralize the growing threat of Islamic extremism in Syria that has spilled over into neighboring Iraq. But let’s step back for a moment and consider the situation in Syria a year ago. The U.S. publically supported the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the implementation of free democratic elections in a country that has long been ruled by a multigenerational socialist monarchy. The Obama administration became especially alarmed after reports that Syria’s alleged stockpile of chemical weapons was being used to exterminate large groups of civilians in anti-Assad controlled regions of Syria. Calls were made for the U.S. to supply arms to the anti-Assad forces and tip the scales against what was essentially a stalemate in the country’s civil war.
However, the U.S. was wary of arming the anti-Assad forces for several reasons. First, remember that the Assad regime, like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and Murbarak’s in Egypt, had been a long-time strategic partner of the U.S. Many of the alleged atrocities and strong‑arm tactics they employed over the previous decades were done with the tacit acceptance of the U.S. And so the rebel forces were as likely in many cases to be anti-American as they were anti-Assad. Our experiences in Iraq and Egypt were quite illuminating of that fact.
In Iraq after the invasion, Sunni tribes aligned with al-Qaeda against U.S. forces, leading to a protracted and bloody war that lasted almost a decade. In Egypt, elections in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster installed an Islamic fundamentalist government, the Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly aligned with the terrorist group Hamas and other extremist groups to wreak havoc in the region.
What would have been the outcome had the U.S. decided to arm Syrian anti-Assad forces? Well, there’s no need to conjecture, because they were instead secretly armed by the Saudis, who viewed the Assad regime as a regional rival. In fact, the Saudis were so upset about the United States’ refusal to arm Syrian rebels that they made a big public stink about it, even rejecting a coveted two-year appointment to the U.N. Security Council in protest. But those very fighters, and the weapons and tactical support they have been provided, are now responsible for the atrocities in Iraq being committed against ethnic Kurds, Yazidis and Iraqi Christians.
But the story does not end there. It begs credulity that in Iraq, an ISIL force of less than 5,000 fighters managed to overrun a significant swath of the country in a little under a month. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that they had not won any significant battles against the Iraqi military. Instead, the U.S.-trained and -armed Iraqi army commanders in the Sunni regions of Northern Iraq simply abandoned their posts, leaving all of their U.S.-supplied weapons behind for the ISIS forces to pick up and use.
This was largely seen as a political decision, as the Shiite-dominated Maliki government was seen as increasingly corrupt and insular, having failed to include the Sunni majority and honor its resource-sharing commitments to Sunni- and Kurdish-controlled areas of the country. Indications thus far suggest that while some local Sunni leaders were willing to concede Iraqi government control to ISIS, they were not joining ISIS in large numbers in the hopes of forming an alternative government. In fact, as the British-accented voice of Foley’s executioner demonstrates, the most ardent ISIS fighters seem to be foreign imports, particularly from Britain and Australia, who are willing to earn their street cred with acts of depraved barbarity.
The question many have raised is, first of all, whether the U.S. has an articulable strategy in the region and, further, whether that strategy has been effective. That’s a fair question, as the Obama administration has mainly relied upon seemingly doing as little as possible in terms of engaging U.S. forces in the region. However, given the political and ideological cesspool into which the region has recently sunk, one wonders whether more aggressive direct action would clean up the situation or merely end up sullying our own hands.
There is also the question of whether Islamic extremism is a threat to the West or Western interests. The answer is of course it is. Their actions demonstrate extreme barbarity and wanton disregard for the sanctity of life. But the distinction here may be that ISIS is not yet an imminent threat. If the U.S. can help to foster a more unified government in Iraq, it may be able to stem and reverse some of the gains that ISIS has made in the country. If Iraqis learn to respect and tolerate each other and share their more than abundant resources equitably, it will be difficult for outside groups to divide them. In the abundance of water, only the fool is thirsty.
Of course, the knee-jerk reaction would be to go in and step up the bombing of ISIS (which is really just bombing Iraq) and/or risk American boots on the ground. However, we’ve tried that in the past and just ended up wasting money and blood with little to show for it. At this point, instead of trying to lay down the roach powder, it may be more appropriate to clean house.
Armstrong Williams is on Sirius/XM Power 110, 6-7 p.m. and 4-5 a.m. Monday through Friday and S.C. WGCV 4-5 p.m. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.