Syria: The Syrian part of the ISIS Question | September 10, 2014
by John Brian Shannon
In President Barack Obama’s address to the nation tonight, which is due in a few hours as I write this, there is no doubt that the question of Syria will come up in his remarks.
I hope the President takes the long view in all of this, as we are likely to be working at cleaning up the mess in Iraq and in the adjoining countries — perhaps for many years to come.
There are matters upon which a politician or a political party can quickly score some points and then move on. This isn’t one of them and I’m sure that President Obama gets that. But sometimes it happens with Presidents that political staff, security advisors, or less likely, military advisors, can persuade a President to a course of action that ultimately fails. The Bay of Pigs comes to mind of course — but that isn’t the only time that a world leader has followed the advice of his staff as opposed to going with his gut instinct.
Let’s hope that won’t happen in this case, as the region is of intense importance to America for exactly as long as the U.S.A. remains addicted to oil.
ISIS, ISIL, or if you prefer, the Islamic State, is a trans-national entity. Which means that although they are primarily active in Iraq at this point in time, were the coalition battling against them to concentrate their efforts against ISIS in Iraq and begin to win that fight, ISIS could simply pick up and move off to some other country where the coalition was not active and had few allies and resources.
Talk about moving the goalposts!
As soon as we begin to win the fight in Iraq, ISIS could move to Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan, or any other country that it chooses. Let’s face it, they are well-connected and they have multi-millions in cash. They can go wherever they want, whenever they want.
That ought to keep the Pentagon and the CIA busy for about the next 30 years
I predict that throughout that time, coalition membership will reduce at some times and increase at others — as ISIS or it’s representatives begin to take on other nations and regions — and that by the time all of this is done, it will have spanned the globe and affected almost every country.
More reason to take our time and get it right
That’s not to say that we should just sit on our hands and hope they don’t hurt us. Far from it! But we need to stop and think about what we are going to do, should this ultimately turn out to be the 30-year and 191-country battle that I’ve predicted.
The legal status of preemptive attack
In law, once you do something 3 times, you’ve set a defacto precedent. Once that precedent gets codified in Law, then it becomes a legal precedent and that is a very profound thing.
For the most part, and with certain regional or national alterations, once a legal precedent is set in one country — whether it’s foreign policy precedent or not — it begins to slowly but profoundly affect the decisions of politicians and diplomats.
This is the case even moreso with international (foreign policy) precedents. Preemptive War, being one of those forming-up to become internationally recognized as a legal precedent for declaring war. It isn’t yet recognized by all countries as a legal course to war.
But Preemptive War is closing in on becoming normal. The Japanese used the concept of preemptive attack in the bombing of Pearl Harbor (although we had been harassing and blocking their shipping for years prior to the attack in Hawaii) and President George W. Bush used the concept of preemptive war to attack Iraq in 2003 — without Iraq ever having attacked the United States of America in any way. And yes, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a very bad man, but that is a completely different thing.
The case can be made that ISIS threatens our oil interests in the Middle East, and it is theoretically possible that they could attack the United States. But they haven’t yet.
By attacking ISIS, before ISIS attacks us, we continue to strengthen the concept of preemptive attack against groups of people. Which is one thing when it’s us doing the attacking. But internationally recognized legal precedents work both ways. Just so long as we remember that.
In the fight against ISIS, most people feel that we are in the right and that we have the right to protect one of the main supply points of our oil addiction. Most people also feel that we have the right to preemptively fight ISIS to degrade their ability to attack us. Therefore, we preemptorily attack them, before they can preemptorily attack us.
Which brings me back to Syria
If we are engaging in a great moral cause, of protecting our oil interests in the region (dubious morality) in the moral cause of assisting the fledgling Iraqi democracy (moral) and the moral case of assisting hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq who have been displaced by ISIS attacks (extremely moral) then we better act morally in our military and diplomatic activities regarding the region. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and it’s ridiculous to argue the point.
What kind of precedent are we setting if we attack targets inside Syria (although our ultimate goal of destroying or curtailing ISIS is worthy and moral from several perspectives) without at least, the tacit endorsement of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad?
Easy answer, that. It sends a message that Western powers don’t care about international boundaries, nor of the requests or demands of democratically elected heads of state or heads of government. And that isn’t moral, no matter what you’re pedaling. Nor is it legal, according to all international law and convention.
We reap what we sow
Yes, it is very important to not confine the battle against ISIS to Iraq only. Otherwise, we will score a 100% victory against ISIS inside the borders of Iraq — but ISIS won’t be there anymore because they will have decided to leave — rather than carry on a protracted fight against a vastly superior rival.
We would win the battle, but lose the greater war against terrorism. Phallic victories are not victories at all, but merely act as enablers to groups such as ISIS to plan forward to enhanced mobility levels and even more asymmetric-style warfare.
The better way
The better way to wage war is with the complete agreement of all stakeholders and with the largest willing coalition possible. If ISIS is as powerful and as well-funded as they say they are, we’ve got a real problem on our hands — and it will be a long term problem.
Not only do we need Iraq’s leadership to buy-in to Western involvement in the fight against ISIS inside Iraq (and it looks like they have) we need every leader in the EMEA region to do so as well. All the countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) have a stake in this fight whether they realize it or not.
Terror attacks are not announced months in advance, although general threats can be made in advance. It’s almost guaranteed that there are ISIS cells throughout EMEA quietly looking up power plants, bridges, marketplaces and other vulnerable points inside any or all of the EMEA nations to see where they might stage an attack to receive the most ‘bang for the buck’ in the world media.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, and if we’re telling the world that we are waging a moral battle against an immoral group, then we better adhere to all laws and legal precedents or we lose our ability to rightly claim that we are engaged in a ‘moral battle’.
If Western warplanes (that includes drones) enter Syrian airspace without permission from the Syrian government, then (important point of international law here) we are thereby committing an ‘act of war’ against Syria. Whether we like to imagine that we are ‘helping them’ or not, that is quite beside the point. That’s international law for you.
Yes, we are more powerful than Syria and the Syrian government would be hopelessly outclassed in any air-to-air engagement, but that is, by far, not the point. If we want to be able to claim that we are acting in some great moral cause, well then, we’d better be able to say that we are following international laws to the letter. Or we’re no longer moral, we’re in danger of being called a bunch of hooligans prosecuting our own interests.
And that is a slippery slope indeed
I hope that U.S. Secretary of State Mr. John Kerry has been actively seeking the approval of the Syrian President and was, or soon is, able to convince him of America’s good intentions in the region and of the good intentions of coalition member nations.
On the surface at least, it appears to be a slam-dunk case for the diplomats where Western coalition forces offer their capabilities to the regional ISIS situation, and agree to work with Syria and abide by any of the standard No Fly zones (such as near civilian airports throughout the country, or above the capital of Damascus) and that the end game for both the coalition and for Syria is the degradation of ISIS capabilities and eventually, the complete destruction of ISIS.
We’ll soon see if John Kerry has been successful in convincing the President of Syria to allow Western coalition warplanes into northern Syria to degrade and drive ISIS out of the country, into the waiting arms of the Turkish or Iraqi authorities, and we’ll see if Bashar Al-Assad sees the value of Western assistance in the fight against ISIS terrorism.
The best possible outcome here would be, of course, a large, broadly-based coalition working to degrade and then destroy ISIS, with the complete support and approval of all the regional governments, Syria included
Taking the fight to ISIS without Syrian approval and assistance, will mean a number of different things:
- ISIS fighters will at some point flee to the Syrian border in an attempt to escape coalition attack. Syria will quite unwillingly become the defacto terrorist haven for injured and fleeing ISIS members. Just what Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t need. And, just what we don’t need.
- Coalition aircraft enter Syrian airspace illegally (manned or unmanned) to track or bomb ISIS militants, bringing protests from the government of Syria (which is a democratically elected government, whether the West likes it or not) and possible censure of the coalition by the UN and other agencies.
- Coalition aircraft (manned or unmanned) enter Syrian airspace illegally, to track or bomb ISIS militants, but may find that the Syrian military fires on them in an attempt to shoot them down, or Syrian civilians may shoot at coalition aircraft. And if that happens, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen to any pilot who parachutes to the ground.
If we are engaged in a great moral crusade against terrorism, then we better remember ‘the moral part’ and ensure that all of our actions are legally defensible — otherwise, we are simply not engaged in any great moral crusade — we are merely protecting our oil supply in Iraq.
My other point is that during challenging and stressful times our diplomacy must be better than ever. If we don’t have Syria’s complete cooperation and assistance, the battle against ISIS will never be won. ISIS fighters will simply flee to Syria where they can blend in with local populations and stage regional or global attacks from there, potentially for decades.
Let’s not deceive ourselves, times-two. 1) Either we are fighting in a great moral cause, OR we’re protecting our oil supply. 2) We need Syria on our side against ISIS.
If, going forward, we A) prosecute the conflict against ISIS from a moral perspective and B) we have Syria’s blessing and assistance, then there is no doubt at all that we will win this fight — although to be fair it will take some amount of time.
Anything less than both A and B, and we will score only limited success against ISIS and its terrorist affiliates in the European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region.