Michael Weiss

Syria doesn’t matter to the United States

The anti-ISIS coalition has one goal: save Iraq

A man watches smoke rise from the Tal Kurdi region (background), west of Adra, as he stands on the roof of his house in besieged rebel bastion of Douma, northeast of the capital Damascus, on October 8, 2014 (AFP Photo/Abd Doumany)

For a while there, he had us going. When President Obama announced last month his long-contemplated strategy for confronting the Islamic State (ISIS), and made it clear that this would necessitate air strikes in Syria, many Syrians rejoiced at the news, believing that any intervention in their ravaged country was better than no intervention at all. Mission creep, it was hoped, would force the United States into an eventual showdown with Bashar al-Assad, a mass-murdering dictator who, as Obama was keen to reassure everyone, was not going to be a US partner in this counterterrorism coalition since he had lost all “legitimacy” through his barbarism and would therefore be negotiated out of power — once the more pressing ISIS menace was dealt with.


Except that there are growing signs that Washington has worked quietly, if indirectly, with Assad to avoid any such confrontation in the skies over Syria. US and Syrian warplanes share the same coordinates in Deir Ezzor, for instance. And as I suggested in a prior NOW column, there is evidence that US intelligence may have only discovered the “imminent” terrorist plot of the so-called Khorasan Group of Al-Qaeda from information first gathered by Syria’s mukhabarat and abettedby Tehran’s release of Khorasan’s commander, Muhsin al-Fadhl, who found his way into Idlib in the last year. (Inveigling Washington into further wedding its anti-ISIS strategy to the prerogatives of the Revolutionary Guard Corps has been a longstanding Iranian mission, one that appears to be yielding results in Iraq.) But now that the air forces of Sunni-led Arab nations are flying alongside US F-16 and F-22s, the actual US policy has come into the clear; it’s suddenly permissible to “manage expectations,” as General John Allen, the US military envoy to the coalition, put it, or revise the marketed plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. In fact, as has been proven in the last week, ISIS’s elimination in Syria is not actually an American objective at all.


According to Leon Panetta, a former US defense secretary and CIA director who has lately joined the lengthening queue of White House retirees eager to declare that their erstwhile boss doesn’t know what he’s doing, the war against ISIS might last 30 years. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, insist that the US Central Command isn’t even trying to eliminate ISIS in its main base of operations.


Here is CNN:


“The primary goal of the aerial campaign is not to save Syrian cities and towns, the U.S. officials said. Rather, the aim is to go after ISIS' senior leadership, oil refineries and other infrastructure that would curb the terror group's ability to operate — particularly in Iraq.”


And here is the Wall Street Journal:


“In Iraq, the air campaign is meant to help Iraqi forces beat back Islamic State fighters controlling key parts of the country. In Syria, by contrast, the airstrikes are meant to rattle Islamic State sanctuaries and disrupt their offensive in neighboring Iraq, U.S. officials said. They aren’t designed to force the group from its strongholds.”


So if these airstrikes aren’t designed to “save Syrian cities and towns,” only “rattle” ISIS in its sanctuaries, then we can extrapolate what the not-too-distant future holds. ISIS will continue to seize more Syrian cities and towns, thereby terrorizing more Syrian civilians. It will continue to wage war against nominally Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels who are already chafing at the perception that they have been seconded as jihadi slayers or cannon fodder by a cynical US government which has promised them real support for three years for the purpose of degrading and ultimately destroying the Assad regime. As former Ambassador Robert Ford noted in a New York Times op-ed, former pro-American Syrians are beginning to burn American flags and denounce these airstrikes, while Islamist factions which have fought ISIS for the last eight months, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are defecting to the latter’s camp either in a show of solidarity or out of brute necessity, since they sense that they, too, might be next on the kill-list. This means that ISIS will continue to present itself to Sunnis in Syria as the only credible alternative to Assad’s reign, in marked defiance of Obama’s ostensible goal of empowering a third-way opposition. (Though the president has belatedly admitted to 60 Minutes that such an opposition cannot hope to succeed so long as the current campaign benefits the regime.)


A lousy first act


If the US campaign in Syria was only ever about fortifying Iraq against terrorism, then how is it performing? Not terribly well, according to most assessments.


The majority of the ISIS installations that warplanes have targeted in Raqqa, ISIS’s regional headquarters, were empty because they’d been abandoned in anticipation of these strikes by the terrorists, who were also smart enough to take their most sophisticated materiel with them. “The strikes are useless so far,” Mohammad Hassan, an activist in east Syria, told the Wall Street Journal. Theoretically, the most devastating sorties should have been against ISIS-controlled oil infrastructure, the source of the group’s billion-dollar revenue. However, the reality is that the financial impact was less than expected.  According to General Richard Zahner, a former senior US military intelligence official who spoke to the Associated Press, ISIS’s income hasn’t really suffered and its strategy of consolidating Sunni territory in Syria is still “well on track.” And so it appears to be in the main arena of Iraq.


In the past week, ISIS fighters have seized the towns of Hit and Kubaisa, both in Anbar Province, forcing the still underwhelming Iraqi Security Forces to abandon their posts and also leave behind a military base filled with ISIS-coveted weaponry. The overall situation in Anbar is said to be “critical.” ISIS has also established a strong presence in Abu Ghraib, to the west of Baghdad. As for Mosul, the fallen city which impelled Obama to finally countenance the civilizational threat posed by the terrorist army, General Allen said last week that operations to retake it will start “within a year.” No rush, then.


As of this writing, there have been 271 airstrikes conducted in Iraq and 116 in Syria, at a total cost that has already tallied at $1.1 billion, after only two months. Foreign Policy magazine reckons that “U.S.-led strikes have destroyed arms and vehicles totaling just $123 million to $173 million,” with most of the vehicles being American-manufactured Abrams M1 tanks and Humvees which were confiscated by ISIS from the Iraqi Security Forces after the sacking of Mosul in June. Some are actually low-grade automobiles such as Toyotas, the depreciated, post-ISIS sticker value of which hardly compares to the $1.41 million price-tag for a single Tomahawk missile. Obama’s war is shaping up to be the most expensive repo operation in human history. And a lot of money is plainly going to waste on other overflight missions, with aircraft that cost between $9,000 and $20,000 per hour to operate. In fact, most of the missions flown thus far aren’t even unloading ordnance on ISIS.


Chris Harmer, a former US Navy pilot who now works as an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, estimates that just 10% of the sorties being flown by the coalition are actually dropping bombs. “On Sunday, for that entire 24-hour period,” Harmer told me, “we had eight sorties that dropped ordnance, including Iraq and Syria. What are you trying to do with eight bomb drops? That’s not even in the ball game.” ISIS militants, he added, are very adept at melting into civilian structures, making them harder to isolate and hit. This is especially true in Syria where there is no proxy ground force to designate targets for Central Command despite two years of CIA training of moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan. Harmer referred to that program, which graduated only 50 fighters per month, as “window-dressing.”


“Three years ago, there was a pro-Western force, a distinguishable FSA,” he said. “Our non-involvement gradually left those independent moderate rebels to radicalize. They all essentially either coalesced back into the Assad camp or into the Al-Qaeda/ISIS camp. There’s very few moderate rebels left.” Groups that are putatively supported by the United States, such as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Division 13, Harakat al-Hazm (the recipient of a handful of TOW anti-tank missile consignments) and the Southern Front, Harmer called “candidates” for the new Pentagon-led train-and-equip program, which Congress authorized a month ago. But this program, too, is woefully inadequate for the coalition’s needs because it aims to graduate 5,000 FSA fighters per year, although it’s not set to begin for another three to five months. Once it does, it will take “years” to implement, according to General Allen — and that’s assuming the blue-sky projections are satisfied, by no means a certainty. “If these guys are going to function as an extension of American policy, they have to be trained to American standards,” Harmer said. “They have to speak English to coordinate with US airpower. They have to be schooled on human rights; what you can and can’t do with prisoners. This is a multi-year process. Best case scenario is 5,000 a year. If we do that, I'll be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, ISIS continues to attract foreign fighters, to recruit very successfully.” How many conscripts will ISIS have by late 2016 or early 2017, when the first batch of American-minted FSA cadets are ready for combat? 60,000? 100,000?


The plight of Kobani


If the last week has demonstrated anything, it is that America’s cynicism with respect to Syria is nowhere better exhibited than in its indifference to rescue a vulnerable ethnic minority in a Syrian-Turkish border town.

Home to 100,000 Kurds, Kobani has so far withstood a three-week siege that has killed around 400 people and sent around 180,000 refugees into Turkey. “Kobani is about to fall,” declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan on a recent tour of a Syrian refugee camp, failing to mention that, according to the US government, he is the reason for why that is the case. Just days after Vice President Joe Biden went on a tour of his own, apologizing to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for having blamed their facilitation of extremists for the failure of a US Syria policy that never actually existed, administration officials are superficially incensed at Ankara for not doing more to save Kobani. A senior White House official told the New York Times, “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border” — essentially offering a sequel indictment of a NATO ally days after Biden rescinded his original and hours before General Allen and his diplomatic counterpart, Ambassador Brett McGurk, were due to arrive in Turkey for high-level talks about its joining in the anti-ISIS coalition.


Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have said that they’re all-too-willing to participate in the current military campaign and even deploy ground troops to Syria — provided that the coalition’s remit is expanded to target the regime and establish no-fly and safe zones. The White House has countered that these are just excuses and that the US-fronted air war in northern Syria constitutes a de facto no-fly zone, a claim belied by the increase of Syrian Air Force bombardments in Aleppo and Idlib since coalition airstrikes commenced. The Pentagon has dismissed Turkey’s conditions for joining up as not worthy of consideration. Secretary of State John Kerry, evidently the last man to receive or read his boss’s memoranda on foreign policy, has said that Turkey’s proposals should be “examin[ed]… very, very closely.” Never mind that those proposals were first advanced in 2012 and just as blithely ignored then.


Erdogan’s approach to Kobani is almost as cretinous as Obama’s approach to all of Syria. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that three dozen Turkish tanks were stationed in a circle on a hill just overlooking Kobani, “apparently ready for action but still not deployed – further [fueling] Kurdish suspicions, which on Tuesday boiled over into angry protests in Istanbul and other cities and left one man dead.” Erdogan demands that the most powerful force in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the proscribed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) — which he has compared to ISIS — do two things before he lifts a finger for Kobani. First, the PYD must renounce its ties to Assad: it was once an indulged paramilitary client of Damascus, activated whenever the regime wanted to aggravate its neighbor to the north, although since the Syrian uprising began the PYD has adopted a mainly self-interested platform, neither with the revolution nor with the regime. Second, Erdogan wants the PYD to join up with the FSA and thereby relinquish any plans for Kurdish autonomy or independence. Turkey’s overriding ambition in Syria is the coalescence of one revolutionary faction in Syria, led by Islamist Sunni Arabs, with Kurds consigned to second-class citizenship, as they are in Turkey, where greater political entitlements are gained through negotiation and shows of fealty to a majoritarian state. His preferred Kurd ally and interlocutor is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, Iraq, which has seen a brisk commercial and energy trade with Ankara in recent years, and maintained a tense relationship with the PKK/PYD, even as the latter came to the rescue of Barzani’s outmanned peshmerga in northern Iraq a month ago to forestall the genocide of the Yazidis at Mount Sinjar. “You’re either with us, or you’re dead” is the current offer from Ankara, and Erdogan seems to think that the PYD will opt not to commit suicide. Built right into this Machiavellian stratagem, however, is the seed of Erdogan’s eventual undoing.


“AKP [Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party] think they are winning because Kobani is being destroyed and the PYD are in a difficult position,” said Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based Turkish journalist. “But what leverage does Erdogan have? Obama says: ‘This is your problem, I don’t care if you don’t help [with ISIS].’”  Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a British think tank, concurs, adding that a Turkish-Kurdish political showdown has been simmering for quite a while: “Kobani was the trigger but it’s not the only cause. The anger at the AKP government from the Kurds has been building for over two years over the Syria policy. It's taken for granted among most Kurds that AKP supports ISIS and ISIS is being used against them. The level of belief is like you wouldn’t believe.”


In fairness, Turkey is caught in a damned-if-it-does, damned-if-it-doesn’t position. If Kobani falls, then the PKK will likely resort to renewed attacks, as the party’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan has more or less stated, setting 15 October as the deadline for ending a two-year peace process that has seen a heralded moratorium in violence. This is no idle threat. “Between 2011 and 2013, 700 people were killed from Turkish-PKK fighting,” Stein noted. A return to the status quo ante would be hugely destabilizing for Turkey, and would eat away at AKP’s political capital. On the other hand, if Turkey were to wage a military operation against ISIS in Kobani, how would it do so? Sending in ground troops would surely mean incurring Turkish casualties. “National parliamentary elections are in June 2015,” Stein said. “AKP, which is already suffering from its unpopular Syria policy, would suffer even more at the polls if Turkish soldiers were killed by ISIS for defending Kurds or Syrian refugees, of whom many Turks are growing tired.”


Another complication for Turkey is that the PYD doesn’t want Turkish soldiers in Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan. “What Kurds wanted Erdogan to do was use fighter jets like the coalition has been doing, and have the Turkish military allow arms to go into Kobani,” Ilhan Tanir told me. According to Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, Kobani is “perhaps solvable with more US airstrikes.” (So far, these sorties have been conspicuously fewer than those waged around Amerli when an ISIS invasion of that Shiite Turkmen-majority town in Iraq loomed a month ago.) And if Turkey would open up a corridor and allow weapons to go to the PYD. Part of the problem is that Kobani is surrounded except for the Turkish border and they can’t resupply at all. They’re not asking for Turkey to go in but to open up the border.” Marcus also said that the PYD is probably the most trustworthy ally for the United States in the Levant. “I don’t think they’re going to turn and support Assad, not if they can have the US on their side. These are the guys you wish were negotiating with the Israelis. They want to make a deal and be accepted internationally.” (The United States seems to be warming to this opinion because, as the Wall Street Journal observed, it “will also selectively aid loosely organized forces in Iraq and Syria, some of whom are linked to groups considered terrorists by the U.S. and Turkey” — and that can only refer to the PKK/PYD.)


But Turkish intervention in Kobani would likely encourage ISIS retaliation. Already, the terrorist group has threatened to “liberate Istanbul” over Turkey’s reduction in the water supply to the Euphrates River, which flows through Raqqa. Additionally, Turkey’s crackdown on ISIS’s oil-smuggling racket in the southwestern province of Hatay has led to internal discontent. The Financial Times reported in September that, for the last six months, Turkish authorities have all but ended ISIS’s hydrocarbon grey market, once the source of enormous wealth for Turkish peasants in border-towns such as Hacipasa and Reyhanli: “At the Reyhanli border gate into Syria a queue of hundreds of trucks laden with flour, concrete and food stretches back for miles. The drivers are refusing to cross the border in protest at new anti-smuggling measures that prevent them from filling up their tanks with cheaper Syrian diesel.”


Whatever Ankara does, it can only invite domestic headaches. Not only does the United States fail to appreciate this publicly, but it has undermined its own case by claiming that the fall of Kobani is no big deal. “This group [ISIS] is not going to go away tomorrow,” Pentagon Press Secretary Admiral John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “And Kobani may fall. We can’t predict whether it will or it won’t. There will be other towns that they will threaten and there will be other towns that they take. It's going to take a bit of time.” Here John Kerry did indeed seem appraised of the command-in-chief’s disposition. “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani,” Kerry said on Wednesday, “you have to step back and understand the strategic objective. Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command and control centers, the infrastructure.” So the slaughter or sexual enslavement of 100,000 Kurds is not a “strategic objective” of the United States. This is edifying.


It also underscores the plain truth that Erdogan’s realpolitik ultimatum to the PYD is identical to the one issued by the US State Department. Foreign Policy reported this week that Washington has been in talks with the PYD for years, “even as it tried to empower the group’s Kurdish rivals and reconcile them with the… FSA.” The Kurdish rivals have been members of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the umbrella organization consisting of a host of moderate Kurdish parties opposed to the PYD in Syria. Beginning under Robert Ford’s tenure at Foggy Bottom and continuing to the present day, these negotiations with the PYD have been couched in exactly the same terms as Erdogan’s own conditions for relieving the siege of Kobani: “Kurdish sources familiar with the indirect U.S.-PYD talks told Foreign Policy that Washington is currently pushing the PYD to distance itself from the Assad regime by joining the Syrian Coalition, working with the FSA, and improving ties with the KNC and Barzani.”


Why should Erdogan overcome reservations about the PYD that Obama still has? Why is the United States shaming Turkey for failing to save a city that it does not see as an integral component to its broader anti-ISIS policy? Furthermore, why is Central Command still reluctant to address the main catalyst for ISIS in Syria, which Ankara has rightly identified as the Assad regime — an entity that Kerry himself once called the “world’s single biggest magnet for jihad and terror”?


As allies fight, a linchpin city is on the brink of collapse. “It’s astonishing to me that we are castigating the Turkish government while the Turkish government is castigating the US government,” said the Institute for the Study of War’s Chris Harmer. “We’re ignoring the mission regarding saving Kobani from falling into ISIS’s hands. It looks like a small piece of the pie. In fact, it's much bigger. It’s a major crossing, a major highway, there are rail-lines that go through Kobani. If ISIS takes Kobani, then there is no possibility of Kurd fighters moving east-west on the Syrian side. The only way is if they operate along the Turkish side and the Turkish government is not going to allow them to.”


How difficult would it be to satisfy the Turkish condition of a no-fly zone for northern Syrian? Not very, argued Harmer: “A no-fly zone takes commitment, the give-a-shit factor. US Navy Aegis-class cruisers and destroyers 20 miles off Latakia and Tartus — they can control the [Syrian] coastlines. Put Patriot batteries along Syrian-Turkish border, and 20 miles in from there you have a no-fly zone. You can jam Syrian radar, drop Tomahawks. It’s an eminently doable mission; you just gotta do it.”


And while the collapse of Kobani would be billed as the betrayal of Syria’s Kurds, the fact remains that the US actually does have known assets on the ground that are worth supporting. Although it’s not been widely reported, the FSA has joined the PYD’s main militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in fending off the ISIS onslaught. Yesterday, I spoke to Abu Saif, the field commander of Raqqa’s Revolutionaries Brigades, who is now stationed in the city. He told me that of an original garrison of around 1,250 fighters, his brigade is now down to 300 — most of them he ordered into Turkey for lack of food or ammunition.


“The situation was quite bad even months ago when we were still fighting Daesh [ISIS] in the suburbs of Raqqa,” Abu Saif told me. “No one gave us anti-tank weapons. We had RPGs but Daesh relied on heavily armored vehicles, after the capture of Mosul. When Daesh pushed against Kobani, the situation became even worse.” The day before yesterday, Abu Saif claimed, ISIS fighters almost took the entirety of Kobani but for the careful placement of car bombs, booby traps and other explosive devices in abandoned residences, which drove them back. And while he doesn’t think that the PYD would ever forfeit its overarching ambition for autonomy in Syria, Abu Saif said that out of expedience the group has begun negotiations to bundle its fighters and arms under the banner of the Raqqa’s Revolutionaries Brigades in order to restart Turkish weapons resupply, which his men received when they were still in Raqqa. But that was at a time when the FSA was at war with the PYD. Since ISIS overtook the provincial capital, and the Revolutionaries Brigades were driven into the Raqqa suburbs and Kobani. A truce was struck, and Abu Saif’s men and Kurds became “friends.” “I am struggling for words right now. When we were in Raqqa, we used to receive assistance from Turkey. These Kurds are also Syrians, and at the end of the day, they are fighting for their land, their women, their children. It’s not as if we are committing a crime here. The international community must come to our aid.”


I switched off wishing Abu Saif luck, but not having the heart to tell him that saving Kobani was not a “strategic objective” of the United States.


Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

Why is Central Command still reluctant to address the main catalyst for ISIS in Syria, which Ankara has rightly identified as the Assad regime? (AFP Photo/Abd Doumany)

The majority of the ISIS installations that warplanes have targeted in Raqqa, ISIS’s regional headquarters, were empty because they’d been abandoned in anticipation of these strikes by the terrorists, who were also smart enough to take their most sophisticated materiel with them."

  • fattyjay.althani

    @HANIBAAL-ATHEOS, what do you mean "what a waste"? The man (Weiss) is a paid hack. He needs to justify the sheckels. That is not a waste for HIM.

    October 14, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    It's "electronic space" waste, and also a waste of time for those stupid enough to read Weiss's dilatory verbiage.

    October 15, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    It's also a waste of the few neurons that inhabit his brain. He should save them for more sublime pursuits.

    October 15, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    10,000 words to tell us what we have known for 5 years? What a waste.

    October 12, 2014

  • al.sheeber

    true, a Facist-Nazi like entity-propped by the USSR-why should Americans die for this nasty entity? Since General Alenby rode into Damascus, the U.S never had any interest in this cursed land! Arab hostility to the U.S deserves nothing but scorn and contempt!

    October 10, 2014

  • dhanishattuck

    The POTUS has no other responsibility than to the citizen's of the United States. It's not his job to unscrew a region that is buried in it's own self-destruction.

    October 10, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    I will tell you the real reason for all of this: Barry Soetoro, the Kenya born Muslim is one of them! Look at the evidence: he allowed Benghazi to be attacked, he was quiet about the Syrian war and let it go until savages took over, and his bombing campaign that he authorized isnt doing squat. If the Zionists felt the need, (although they are enjoying the slaughter more that anyone), they would have hit all their targets and completely annihilated the whole lot. ( not praising Zionists, just stating Barry's capabilities). After the first hostage is beheaded, Barry goes on vacation to play golf and laugh it up. He does nothing of which Clinton, Panetta, or anyone else advised him. He is a Zionists puppet and a Muslim savage. Impeach, because he wins only by voter fraud!

    October 10, 2014

  • fattyjay.althani

    Mickey W: keep encouraging those zionnist puppets you call "Syrian rebels" to destroy their country and state and people. You are paid good money for that I guess.

    October 9, 2014

  • fattyjay.althani

    Mike "da weiss", still serving Israel full throttle. You are laughable! Now a Russian expert I see. Do you have a "doctorate" from Liz O'Bagy's Alma Mater? hahahahaha

    October 9, 2014