Prem Shankar Jha

Why is Obama dithering over attacking ISIS ?

THE DOG THE BIT ITS MASTER

ISIS rolled into Iraq in 200 pickup trucks on June 9. Had the US unleashed its air power then; had it even left the Iraqi government with a credible air force when it quit Iraq, ISIS’ convoys could have been blown to smithereens in the open desert in a matter of hours. But Obama dithered, put the blame on Malki for alienating the Sunnis of the north-west, raised the bogey of getting entrapped in an age old Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, and did next to nothing.

Two and a half months later ISIS’s ranks have swollen, by some estimates, to 50,000 fighters. It has entrenched itself in Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi, captured the Baoji oilfield and murdered, raped, and pillaged on a scale that has not been seen since Pope Innocent III’s crusade against ‘heretical’ Cathars of southern France in AD 1209. But Obama is still dithering.

Obama is dithering because ISIS cannot be defeated without denying it safe havens in Syria, and this, as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint chiefs of Staff pointed out on August 21, cannot be done without the cooperation of the Syrian government. Obama is unwilling to concede this not only because it would be an admission of the monumental folly of his towards Syria, but also because it will put him squarely at loggerheads with Israel. Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not bothered to hide his opposition to the destruction of ISIS. On June 22, when Obama briefly toyed with the idea of enlisting Iran in the defence of Iraq, Netanyahu went on MSNBC’s Meet the Press programme and said: “When your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them. Weaken both. By far the worst outcome that can come out of this is for one of these factions, Iran, to come out of this with nuclear weapons capability. That would be a tragic mistake. It would make everything else pale in comparison.”

Obama got the message. So, he swallowed the huge insult of James Foley’s public slaughter, forgotten his own condemnation of the genocide in Rwanda last February and, except for declaring Iraqi Kurdistan off limits and protecting the Americans in Baghdad, doggedly refused to react to the hideous videos of mass slaughter and individualized throat-cutting and beheading that ISIS posts daily on its websites to attract the psychopaths of the world to its banner. Instead, in a much awaited press conference on August 28, he made it clear that the US will not oppose the birth of a Wahhaby ‘Caliphate’ in Northern Iraq and Syria. US policy would continue to focus on ‘making sure that ISIL does not overrun Iraq and on ‘degrading ISIL’s capacity in the long run’. To do this he intended to ‘devise a regional strategy … with other partners, particularly Sunni partners, because Sunnis, both in Syria and Iraq, need to feel that they have an investment in a government that … can protect them … against the barbaric acts we have seen in ISIL”.

In plain language he still wants only to ‘degrade’, not destroy, ISIS. He wants to do this with the help of the very same gulf sheikhdoms, and the same regime in Turkey, that have created, and continue to support the Wahhaby brigades in Syria by pouring billions of dollars into arming a virtually non-existent ‘moderate FSA’ with heavy weapons, including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles that the US and EU had specifically proscribed, And he pointedly made no mention of Syria or Iran. Obama thus announced a continuation of the very same policies that have created ISIS, without saying a single word about how he intends to make them work differently in the future.

Is this lunacy, or is there a more sinister explanation? Regrettably, the answer is the latter. There is strong, if not clinching, evidence that ISIS, and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in particular, are the West’s own creation. When ISIS ‘turned rogue’ and rolled into Iraq, the US suddenly found itself at loggerheads with its greatest friend and ally in the region, Israel.

Baghdadi’s possible links with the West first surfaced on July 15, when a Bahrain newspaper, the Gulf Daily News, published an interview allegedly given by Edward Snowden to IRNA, the Iranian New Agency, in which he disclosed that Baghdadi had been recruited by the intelligence agencies of three countries, the US, UK and Israel to “create a terrorist organization capable of centralizing all extremist actions across the world.” The plan, code-named Beehive, or Hornet’s Nest was designed to protect Israel from security threats by diverting attention to a newly manufactured regional enemy, ISIS. Baghdadi, the Paper claimed, had been given intensive military training, along with courses in theology and speech for a year by Mossad.

Time magazine trashed the story within four days. It pointed out that ‘No mention of a “hornet’s nest” plot can be found in Snowden’s leaked trove of U.S. intelligence documents’, reminded readers that IRNA had been found to indulge in regime-inspired fantasy in the past, and disclosed that even the editor of Kayhan, Iran’s most influential newspaper, had found the story strange because Snowden had fled the country long before the plot had germinated. But Time’s refutation is not conclusive. First, Snowden has not denied giving the interview. If it is a fabrication then it is difficult to see why someone who gave up his country and his freedom to serve the cause of truth, should now choose to become party to a lie. Second, Snowden blew the whistle and cut himself off from his sources on June 10, 2013. This was eight weeks after Baghdadi became Emir of ISIS, and therefore up to 18 months after the plot, if one exists, was hatched.

As it turns out, the ‘Hornet’s nest’ story is not necessary to prove western connections with Baghdadi. When ISIS posted a video of Baghdadi addressing a congregation from the pulpit of the grand mosque in Mosul it set off a worldwide hunt to identify him. Photo analysts found him very quickly, but in the most unexpected of places – talking animatedly to Senator John McCain at a secret meeting with five ‘moderate’ leaders of the Free Syrian army who had been specially assembled to meet him, at Idlib in Syria.

McCain’s visit to Syria had been organized by Salim Idris, self-styled Brigadier General of the FSA, and the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American not-for-profit organization that is a passionate advocate for arming the ‘moderate’ Free Syrian army. There was no room for a mistake because on May 27, 2013, when McCain met him, Baghdadi had been he had been on the US State Department’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists with a reward of US $10 million on his head. He had also been the Emir of ISIS for the previous six weeks and of ISIL for the previous three years.

Nor was Baghdadi the only wolf in sheep’s clothing at that meeting. Among the other ‘moderate’ Sunni leaders SETF had also included Mohammed Nour and Ammar al Dadhiki, aka Abu Ibrahim. Nour is the spokesman of ‘Northern Storm’ an offshoot of the brutal Jabhat Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, whose brutality was a byword in Syria till put in the shade by ISIS. Dadhiki is one of its key members. Only days before Nour’s meeting with McCain, Northern Storm had kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims on their way to Iraq.

Did McCain know that the leaders he was meeting were not moderate Sunni rebels but some of the most murderous and bigoted terrorists in the world today? Probably not. But the same cannot be said of the organization that took him there, The Syrian Emergency Task Force. SETF had worked closely with Idris to set up the McCain meeting, so it had to have known who was being invited to it. It also knew perfectly well that on the ground in Syria no one was bothering to make the hairsplitting distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rebels that it was feeding to Kerry, McCain and hundreds of other policy makers in Washington. When, a fortnight after McCain’s visit, a terrorist leader named Abu Sakkar cut out the heart and lungs of a Syrian soldier and took a bite out of the latter for the benefit of global viewers. Idris belligerently defended his inclusion in the FSA, and asked his BBC interviewer, Paul Wood:“Is the West asking me now to fight Abu Sakkar and force him out of the revolution?”

Yet only two months later its then political director Elizabeth O’Bagy felt no compunction in writing, in a massively influential op–ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that John Kerry quoted to the US Congress: “Anyone who reads the paper or watches the news has been led to believe that a once peaceful, pro-democracy opposition has transformed over the past two years into a mob of violent extremists dominated by al Qaeda;… This isn’t the case … Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces, and they have recently been empowered by the influx of arms and money from Saudi Arabia and other allied countries, such as Jordan and France”.

Why is SETF willing to stop at nothing to destroy the Assad regime? The answer again comes back to Israel. There is a close, but undisclosed, relationship between SETF and the America Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s premier lobbying organization within the US. Till it was ‘corrected’ in 2013, one of SETF’s email addresses used to be “syriantaskforce.torahacademybr.org.” The “torahacademybr.org” URL belongs to the Torah Academy of Boca Raton, Florida whose academic goals notably include “inspiring a love and commitment to Eretz Yisroel” .

The origins of its executive director, Mouaz Mustafa, are obscure, to say the least. His biodata on the SETF website says that he emigrated from Syria to the US when he was 15, but the details of his working life show that he became an aide to Congressman Vic Snyder when he was only 19, the age at which most Americans finish High School. He then worked with Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln, till she lost seat in 2010. On 17 April 2011, possibly after a short visit to Cairo, he became the executive director of a newly formed lobbying group, the Libyan Council for North America. This was a month after the West attacked Libya. He ‘moved on’ again in September 2011 to the newly constituted Syrian Emergency Task Force (again as its executive director), only days after the fall of Tripoli. At that point he was only 25. One doesn’t have to be a Washington Beltway insider to know that he could not have done all this without very powerful, covert support. Mustafa has spoken frequently at meetings of AIPAC, and is a regular contributor on the website of the Al Fikra Forum, which describes itself as an “online community that aims to generate ideas to support Arab democrats in their struggle with authoritarians and extremists”. But according to its email address it is an affiliate of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP is a think tank set up by AIPAC. Its home page sports a link to the Fikra Forum’s website.

Mustafa is a regular speaker and discussant at WINEP. On July 22, 2014 WINEP released (and probably financed) a film titled Red Lines: Inside the Battle for Freedom in Syria which portrays the lives of Mustafa and a female activist – Razan Shalab As-sham. During the discussion that followed Mustafa said: “Helping Iran to provide security in the region is the worst possible idea, because what happens then is that you make it possible for both Sunni and Shiite extremis to develop deep roots in the region. What we need to do is to help the people, who don’t want to be ruled by the Iranians and don’t want to be ruled by the extremists, and they are there.” . Benyamin Netanyahu could not have put it better.

Israel is the only country in the world to whom it simply does not matter what happens to the rest of the Arab world so long as it somehow enhances its own security. In the mid-nineties a consultant group formed under the aegis of the American Enterprise Institute submitted a Plan for ‘furthering peace in the middle east’ to then Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Its key recommendations were for Israel to work for the destruction of Iraq, ‘roll up’ of Syria, and isolate Hezbollah in South Lebanon prior to destroying it. The way in which a majority of the members of the group were inducted into the George W. Bush administration and succeeded in bringing about the destruction of Ba’athist and sternly secular, albeit tyrannical, regime of Saddam Hussein has been well documented elsewhere and need not detain us. It is the sequel that concerns us now.

Within two years of destroying Iraq, Israel realised that it had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Whereas Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been an impenetrable buffer between Iran and Lebanon, Maliki’s Iraq was an open chute for arms to flow from Iran to the Hezbollah. To Israel, this chute, which it called the ‘Shia crescent’ became an arrow pointed at it’s heart. As Hezbollah grew ever more powerful Israel panicked. In 2006 it directly attacked Lebanon and the Hezbollah in order to destroy the latter’s tunnels and arms, much as it is doing to Hamas in Gaza today.

But that operation proved a diplomatic and security disaster, for Hezbollah emerged from it even stronger than it had been before. Since then Israel has lived in mortal fear of the Shi’a cresent. Getting Iran to foreswear the development of nuclear weapons was no longer sufficient. The pipeline to the Hezbollah had to be cut. There were only two ways—destroy Iran or destroy Syria. Iran, however was a far larger and more powerful country than Iraq and even George Bush shied away from attacking it. There was no mass hysteria, moreover, such as had seized the American people after 9/11, to capitalize upon. But Syria was small enough to be ‘doable’.

So in 2008, two gentlemen, Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary in the State department and ardent Zionist, who had served two terms in Israel, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s powerful ambassador to the US, concocted another Plan. This one, called without a hint of irony ‘A Plan for furthering Peace in the Greater Middle East’, proposed breaking the Shia cresecent by creating a ‘Sunni crescent’ that would start in Turkey and end in Jordan. The stumbling block was Assad’s Baathist, secular and fumblingly authoritarian Syria. But 70 percent of Syrians are Sunnis. So three quarters of the Plan, which eventually found its way onto the internet in 2012, describes in chilling detail how to use religion, and for some strata economic discontent and pecuniary inducement, to rise against Assad. In 2011, when the Arab Spring began, 51 television and radio stations located in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, had been beaming Salafi and hate propaganda against Assad to the Syrian people for the previous two years.

Israel came within a millimeter of achieving its goal after the gas attacks in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus in August last year. On August 27, alongside the full text of Kerry’s speech committing the US to bombing Syria for crossing Obama’s Red Line on chemical weapons, the right wing Times of Israel published two reports that detailed precisely how Israeli intelligence inputs had proved crucial in making up Washington’s mind. A third, more ominous, report gave details of how Benyamin Netanyahu not only hoped that this would be a precursor for a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but also intended to use the precedent it would create to launch the attack on his own.

But contrary to Kerry and Obama’s robust assertions to the US Congress and the media, the US had substantial amounts of evidence in August that the Syrian army had not used chemical weapons at Aleppo and Damascus in March and April 2013, and that not only the Jabhat al Nusra but also the then nascent ISIL had the capacity to produce Sarin. Faced with the prospect of being accused of again manufacturing evidence to start a war, both Cameron and Obama found ways of resiling from their commitment to bomb Syria. Israel therefore found itself robbed of ‘victory’ when it was already in its grasp.

Obama’s initial willingness to cooperate with Iran, and therefore by implication, with Syria, has thrown Netanyahu and his government into something close to panic. But its knee jerk reactions are further endangering Israel’s security. Its invasion and six week long pigeon-shoot in the open air prison called Gaza is a case in point. Netanyahu used the pretext furnished by the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three teenagers from the West Bank as a pretext for launching his attack. But six weeks after it began it is apparent that his real aim is to destroy Hamas root and branch and terrorise the unfortunate Gazans into never cooperating with it again.
But Hamas has stoutly denied that it kidnapped the teenagers. As for their murder, it is not only out of character for Hamas which has regularly kidnapped Israelis only to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners, but also suicidal. On the other hand ISIS has claimed over and over again, that it killed the teenagers as a reprisal for Israel’s killing of three of its members last December when they were about to enter Israel, but Tel Aviv has ignored these claims. If ISIS is indeed partly its creation then its reluctance would be understandable.

Like the invasion of Lebanon, Israel’s attack on Gaza is bound to backfire. It has not only isolated Israel in the international community to an extent that was unimaginable only a year ago, but is probably the trigger for Jabhat al Nusra’s sudden seizure of the Syria-Israel border town of Quneitra. ISIS had already all but evicted Al Nusra from Northern Syria. Its shift to Syria’s southern border could signal a strategic decision by the leaders of Al Qaeda to leave Syria and Iraq to ISIS and focus on Jordan and Israel.

If this shift of focus has not already happened, it is bound to happen in the future. For as Salafi preachers repeat endlessly, their ultimate goal is to free Jerusalem and open al Aqsa, the second holiest shrine in Sunni Islam, to all true Muslims. So great is Israel’s panic that it does not realize that Ba’athist Syria is its last remaining bastion against the Wahhaby hordes. Once it falls, thousands of young people who consider themselves victims of their own governments and societies will flock to the banners of ISIS and Al Nusra for the final assault on Jerusalem. Once that happens, life in Israel, and much of the rest of the world (including Pakistan and India), will become truly ‘nasty, brutish, and short’.

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