Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS,” also known variously as “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or simply the “Islamic State”) is metastasizing throughout northern and western Iraq and swaths of Syria. It won’t stop there. Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and other parts of the Middle East are within its sights. Ultimately, its pathological leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned, ISIS is after the United States. “Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day,” he said last January. More recently, an ISIS spokesperson declared “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”
President Obama, after months of dithering, finally authorized air strikes against ISIS, which are helping to slow down their advance against the Kurds in northern Iraq and to provide space for urgent humanitarian relief to besieged minority groups under threat of genocide by ISIS jihadists. However, as welcome as this is, the president still views ISIS as a local Iraqi problem to be dealt with by instituting a more inclusive centralized government in Baghdad rather than seeing ISIS as part of a much larger global ideological threat.
ISIS has a swelling army of more than 10,000 fighters, including jihadists and Sunni sympathizers, and advanced weapons seized from storehouses in conquered territories. ISIS is largely self-financed from such lucrative sources as the sale of oil from seized territories, looting of banks, taxes imposed on subjugated individuals trapped in the conquered territories, ransom paid for abductees, and donations from rich supporters in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
ISIS’s jihadist ideology and methods are barbarous. Its brutality includes summary executions, crucifixions, beheadings, abductions, forced conversions to Islam on penalty of death for disobedience, and the trafficking of girls as sex slaves. But added to their savagery, which knows no bounds, is their command of 21st century Internet technology to widely broadcast their brutal acts as a way of instilling fear in their “infidel” enemies and propagandizing their exploits. An additional worry is the probability that their conquests will enable them to obtain weapons of mass destruction, such as toxic chemicals stored in the conquered territories, as may have already happened. The result, as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on August 12th, is that “the poison of hatred and brutality is spreading.”
Despite the rapid spread of ISIS from its expanding bases in Syria back into Iraq where ISIS had begun its operations, President Obama essentially sat on his hands. Iraqi officials began requesting almost a year ago that the U.S. carry out drone strikes against ISIS while ISIS was still in the process of mobilizing its forces. U.S. intelligence and military experts also warned of ISIS’s rising threat. Drones could have struck ISIS fighters as they were establishing bases in Iraq’s western desert and then moving convoys across the desert – all before ISIS reached any major civilian population areas. Obama refused to take action.
“This was a very clear case in which the U.S. knew what was going on but followed a policy of deliberate neglect,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser on the Middle East. “This miscalculation essentially has helped realize the worst nightmare for this administration, an administration that prided itself on its counterterrorism strategy. It is now presiding over the resurgence of a nightmare of extremism and terrorism.”
President Obama’s assertion last week that U.S. intelligence had under-estimated ISIS is patently false and just a cover for his own indecisiveness.
When Fallujah fell months ago, Obama still did little other than to increase some military aid to the Iraqis. There was still no direct use of American airpower to stop ISIS. The ISIS threat continued to grow exponentially.
When Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was captured by ISIS in June and Christians there were being killed or displaced if they refused to convert to Islam, Obama remained his usual laid-back self. More study and analysis were needed, he concluded. Aside from sending a few hundred military advisors to assess the situation in Iraq and provide training to Iraqi forces, as well as some Marines to help guard U.S. facilities, he continued to watch and wait.
The president waited because he did not want to be seen as sending U.S. military forces back to Iraq after he had kept his campaign promise to withdraw all troops. He has also derided the capabilities of ISIS, comparing it to a junior varsity team. “If a J.V. team puts on Lakers’ uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” is how the president trivialized the ISIS threat. And he has blamed its rise on the lack of an inclusive government in Iraq.
However, President Obama’s hand was finally forced in the last week by an impending genocide of Christians and Yazidis in areas controlled by the Kurds in northern Iraq that ISIS was overrunning, and the imminent risk to American personnel located in the Kurdish capital of Erbil which ISIS forces were fast approaching. Thus, on August 7th, President Obama authorized the U.S. military to launch air strikes against ISIS jihadists in these areas and to airlift emergency humanitarian assistance to Yazidis stranded on a remote mountainside. In remarks he made from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing, President Obama reported that U.S. air and drone strikes have been successful in slowing the ISIS advance. The U.S. is also sending weapons directly to the Kurds, whose Peshmerga fighters have begun to push back against ISIS and have retaken several towns. This decision to bypass Iraq’s central security forces and deal directly with the Kurds is apparently a reversal of previous policy. The State Department had reportedly refused to permit direct shipment of arms to the Kurds from a U.S. company whom had been contacted by the Kurds requesting such weapons.
Yet despite President Obama’s welcome but belated action to intervene more directly against ISIS, the Obama administration still refuses to see ISIS as part of a larger global jihadist threat that is a direct danger to the U.S. homeland. The administration still views ISIS through the lens of a regional conflict over territory and power that has gotten out of hand because the Iraqi government has not been sufficiently inclusive.
Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor, posted on the White House blog a ludicrous attempt to distinguish al Qaeda and its spin-off ISIS (which he refers to as ISIL):
Is ISIL more dangerous than al-Qaeda right now?
While both are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. That’s the direct threat that we have taken direct action against for many years. Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.
Implicit in Rhodes’ comment is the fallacious assumption that ISIS would be content with “their own Islamic State” carved out of territory in the Middle East region and that their caliphate ambitions pose no direct threat to the U.S. homeland. ISIS now already controls territory larger geographically than Great Britain and rules over six million people. But if Rhodes thinks that ISIS would stop there, he is living in an alternative universe. Both al Qaeda and ISIS are driven by the same jihadist goal of a world-wide Islamic caliphate.
In other words, ISIS and al Qaeda follow the same jihadist ideology, with the same objective of establishing the worldwide supremacy of Islam and submission or death of all infidels. Neither has an interest in participating in any sort of inclusive government. Indeed, they both reject the very idea of a self-governing democracy or compromise with those whom they consider infidels. And the only limiting factors on their continuing expansion are their weaponry, number of recruits and finances.
If anything, ISIS poses more of a threat to the U.S. than ISIS’s parent al Qaeda because it has managed to create a well-armed, well-financed army with control of large swaths of territory from which to further expand and to plot much wider ranging assaults. Moreover, as hard as it is to believe, the sheer brutality shown by ISIS reportedly even disturbed al Qaeda leaders.
Rhodes went on in his blog post to deny that the U.S. is at war with the jihadists. That is certainly not the way ISIS sees it. As one of its followers declared in a video released by ISIS, “Our message to the entire world is that we are the soldiers of the Caliphate state and we are coming.”
Rhodes is simply reflecting the fallacious assumptions that underlie President Obama’s feckless policies in dealing with the Islamic supremacist ideology of jihad. It is pre-September 11, 2001 thinking, the same turning of a blind eye when Osama bin Laden had declared war against the United States during the 1990’s. ISIS is doing the same now, and building a more dangerous base from which to launch their deadly attacks against Americans than Osama bin Laden had in Afghanistan.
In short, the strategic objective of the United States in fighting against ISIS is not for the sake of Iraq, whether it has an inclusive government or not. The strategic objective is to cripple ISIS enough to prevent it from wreaking a repeat of 9/11 or worse on the U.S. homeland.
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