Why ISIS is Winning
By John Davenport
While Donald Trump was speaking in Saudi Arabia about the need to drive out extremists, ISIS operatives in Libya and Syria were apparently putting the finishing touches on the plan for a suicide bomb attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, UK, which killed 23 people and left scores more seriously wounded. Then came the London Bridge attack. Over the past two years, ISIS-led or inspired terrorists have carried out numerous attacks in Turkey, Germany, France, and now Britain, all while NATO did virtually nothing.
This is possible only because of a truly sickening combination of policy failures and, frankly, political cowardice in the form of unwillingness to tell voters hard truths about what must be done to stop ISIS. We could go back to Edward Miliband barely managing to tip the British Parliament against air strikes on Assad after the Syrian regime's chemical attacks in August 2013; this led to the resurgence of Assad's scorched earth campaign in Syria and thus the rise of ISIS on the Sunni side in the power vacuum in northeast Syria. By summer 2014, ISIS was able to pull off its lighting advance to Mosul, from which they are still not fully expelled despite months of fighting by Iraqi forces. But we need not revisit all this disastrous history of missed opportunities to prevent ISIS from arising: the folly of current American policy is obvious even without that.
When Trump took office, he began by reassuring Assad and his Russian allies (who are both also allied with Iranian hardliners) that Assad could stay in power, despite killing a third of a million Syrians. Since then, Trump made one symbolic pinprick strike that did no damage to Assad's air force to express our condemnation of new chemical attacks. But otherwise the policy has not changed: Trump has simply continued air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria, while allowing Turkey to keep attacking the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, even though these Kurds have mounted the only serious ground offensives against ISIS strongholds. We'll see if Trump follows through on the promise to arm these Kurdish Peshmega forces. He has done nothing to challenge the Turkish President Erdogan's great strides in turning Turkey into a single-party dictatorship, which greatly weakens the ability of NATO nations to coordinate against ISIS and defend democratic values.
Meanwhile, Trump and his family members like Jared Kushner are as eager to do business with the Saudis as with the Russians, despite the well-known fact that ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and most of the other terrorist groups threatening western nations as well as the Middle East and Sahel all originate from the Wahhabi and Salafi ultrafundamentalist clerics deriving largely from Saudi Arabia. The President is apparently eager to sell the Saudis billions in arms so they can continue to bomb civilians in Yemen, and thus reward them for doing little to stop Saudi clerics from exporting poisonous perversions of Sunni Islam. That's how we end up with ISIS forming cells across north Africa from which they directed the Manchester suicide bombing and inspired the London Bridge attack. From their safe havens, they fill websites with hatred to corrupt young minds.
Instead, Trump is focused on demonizing Iran as the main enemy, as if hewing to Netanyahu's talking points. Iran has certainly done some terrible things in recent years – principally in sending tens of thousands of fighters (some forced into service) to keep Assad's genocide-machine going. But so have the Russians whom he greeted so warmly in the Oval Office before rewarding them with secrets that may have outed one of our few sources within ISIS. Iran has also given arms and money to the Taliban in Afghanistan; and so have the Russians, according to several reports over the last year! But Iran has complied with the hard-won agreement to end their accumulation of weapons-grade nuclear material, and Iranians have just re-elected their more moderate, pro-reform president, whom we need to support against Iran's hardliners. Most importantly, Iran is a Shi'a nation (almost exclusively, as they have expelled most members of other sects). ISIS, by contrast, is a radical distortion of Sunni Islam. Ergo, Iran has virtually nothing to do with ISIS: focusing on Iran = taking our eye off the ISIS ball. Doing that while also coddling the Saudis is thus double folly, though perhaps great for weapons manufacturers and hotel deals.
Finally, what about Libya, where ISIS has expanded its foothold? A lot of Republican candidates last year, including Trump and Cruz, spoke warmly of Qaddafi as if we should have let this bloodthirsty madmen annihilate tens of thousands in his planned assault on Benghazi, and let him continue burning his political opponents alive by the hundreds. That's demented: the death of the monster who ordered the bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie was a great day for democratic values. What Libya needed was not more Qaddafi but rather serious reconstruction after Qaddafi's fall: NATO should never have allowed Libya to fragment. That along with the errors made with Syria and the Saudis explain how the recent attacks in Britain became possible. Of course, this does not mean that western nations should have paid most of the cost: an effective, unified, strong NATO could have compelled other nations in the Middle East and North Africa to pay for Libya's reconstruction, just as a robust NATO could have compelled these nations to join a coalition against Assad. Instead, we are letting Russian hacking and waves of immigrants caused by these conflicts turn democratic nations against each other, while our leaders fail to educate their peoples, so weary of Middle East conflict, about what genuine solutions really require.
Let's review what the pillars of a truly effective foreign policy would be. (1) First, immediately call an emergency meeting of NATO to commit to serious steps in response to the ISIS threats that have arisen in the wake of Assad's genocidal scorched earth campaign in Syria. Insist that NATO nations form a coalition to surround Raqqa and end ISIS control; demand that Turkey work with rather than attacking the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, on the promise of brokering a final peace settlement between the Kurds and Turkey; force other Middle East nations to support the new coalition with troops and money. (2) Then stamp ISIS out in Syria and Iraq, and promise the Sunni peoples of eastern Syria and north and west Iraq a homeland that they can rule protected from ISIS, Assad, and hostile Shi'a forces on both their flanks. That's the only way to prevent another version of ISIS from returning .(3) Then means ending bombings by Assad and the Russian air force that have driven some Syrians into the armed of terrorist movements and drawn radicalized foreign fighters to the region. (4) The same coalition should also surround the ISIS forces in Sirte, Libya, and destroy them. Libya should be reconstructed and the militias there disarmed. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and other Gulf state should supply the troops and money for at least 30,000 peacekeepers to stay in Libya a decade, as with Germany after WW. II. That would also end the main flood of migrants from Africa to Europe on rubber boats that often sink in the Mediterranean. (5) Stop focusing on Iran and instead force Saudi Arabia to close down its most radical schools and jail the clerics who are exporting ultrafundamentalist ideology: for example, threaten a total oil embargo by all NATO nations to begin in six months if they do not comply. (6) Finally, towards Russia, adopt a clear policy on massive cyberattacks and fake news stories aiming to corrupt our elections: do this and we will respond first with attacks on unmanned facilities, and then if necessary with strikes on your air forces and navy. While we're at it, let's force Ecuador to give up Julian Assange for prosecution.
NATO nations need to stop playing around and fighting with each other while ISIS and Putin are trying to undermine and divide us: we need to adopt hard and serious policies that get to the roots of the existential challenges facing us. We owe the victims at Manchester, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul, and so many other places this much. And these are the steps necessary to protect our citizens, our institutions, and our ideals from truly terrifying threats that continue to grow while our leaders dither.
Davenport teaches political philosophy at Fordham University and has maintained a leading web page on the Syrian Civil War for over four years. He has written numerous editorials on Syria, Trump, and Putin.