In the wake of the televised beheading of American journalist James Foley, there have been urgent calls among some in the media for an intensified U.S. military response to the Islamic State group — also known as 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 ISIL has racked up a string of tactical victories in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, culminating in the taking of the giant hydroelectric dam near Mosul.
The principal complaint among the armchair quarterbacks is that the U.S. failed to neutralize the growing threat of Islamic extremism in Syria before it 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. publicly supported the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the holding of free democratic elections in a country that has long been ruled by multigenerational socialist autocracy. 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 regions of Syria. Calls were made for the U.S. to supply arms to the anti-Assad forces and tip the scales in what was essentially a stalemate in the country’s civil war.
However, the Obama administration was wary of arming the anti-Assad forces for several reasons. First, remember that the Assad regime, like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt, had at one time been a 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 Washington.
And so, in many cases, the rebel forces were as likely to be anti-American as they were to be anti-Assad. Our experiences in Iraq and Egypt were quite illustrative of that fact. In Iraq after the invasion, Sunni tribes aligned with al Qaeda against U.S. forces and led to a protracted and bloody war that lasted almost a decade. In Egypt, elections in the wake of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster installed an Islamic fundamentalist government — the Muslim Brotherhood— which quickly allied 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 Syria’s 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 President Obama’s 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 were given, are now responsible for the atrocities in Iraq being committed against ethnic Kurds, Yazidis and Christians.
But the story does not end there. It strains credulity that in Iraq an Islamic State 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 has become 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 Islamist forces to pick up and use.
This was largely seen as a political decision, as the Shiite-dominated al-Maliki government in Baghdad was seen as increasingly corrupt and insular. It appears that, while some local Sunni leaders were willing to concede Iraqi government control to ISIL, they were not joining ISIL 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 ISIL fighters seem to be foreign imports — from Britain and Australia — who are willing to earn their street cred with acts of depraved barbarity.
The question many have raised is whether the U.S. has an articulable strategy in the region, and whether that strategy can work. That’s a fair question, as the Obama administration has mainly relied upon doing as little as possible in the region. However, given the political and ideological cesspool into which the region has recently sunk, one wonders whether more aggressive direct American action would clean up the situation or merely end up getting our own hands dirty as well.
There is also the question of whether Islamic extremists are a threat to the West. The answer is that of course they are. 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 extremists have made in the country. If Iraqis learn to respect and tolerate one another and share their 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 escalate the bombing of ISIL (which is really just bombing Iraq) and/or risk American boots on the ground. 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 sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.