Hoping Bombs Will Solve Iraq/Syria Mess

Contradictions beset the U.S. war over Iraq and Syria. The principal target ISIS wouldn’t even exist but for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria have benefited from defections of U.S.-backed “moderates.” But now warplanes and missiles are supposed to fix things, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

As the United States embarks on a new air war in Syria, disturbing anomalies abound. Some of them were reflected in the front-page headlines of a couple of major U.S. newspapers Tuesday morning, which probably also reflected slightly different deadlines of the two papers but were substantively telling nonetheless.

The Washington Post’s headline was “U.S. Launches Strikes in Syria.” In the corresponding place in the New York Times, in an edition evidently put to bed before the new offensive in Syria could be reported, we read, “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq.”

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk cruise missile as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, Sept. 23, 2014.  (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Garst)

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk cruise missile as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, Sept. 23, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Garst)

The question that immediately comes to mind is: why should we expect what has failed to dislodge, much less “destroy”, a group in Iraq to succeed if we simply do more of the same thing in Syria? The question is all the more acute given that the United States is aiding and cooperating with the government in Iraq but barely on speaking terms with the one in Syria.

Another disconcerting dichotomy concerns the organizations that were the targets of the newest strikes. The United States announced that it struck not just ISIS but also an al-Qaeda offshoot that has ambitions to conduct terrorist attacks in the West and possibly the United States.

The carefully worded official announcements used the word “imminent” but leave us to conclude that what was imminent was not the carrying out of an actual attack in the West but only perhaps the planning for one, and that striking the group involved hitting a target of opportunity, made convenient by having these strikes coincide with the strikes against ISIS in Syria.

But at least terrorist attacks in the West, consistent with the al-Qaeda strategy of attacking the “far enemy,” are evidently part of this group’s ambitions, underscoring that this is not the case with ISIS, which is following a quite different strategy of trying to build its self-styled caliphate through direct application of force in the Middle East.

So why have President Barack Obama and others spoken so darkly about a terrorist threat to us from ISIS, especially when before Monday they had not even mentioned this other group? (The correct answer to that question can be found in our own fears, politics, and habitual ways of thinking about foreign threats.)

The very complicated lines of conflict and suspicion that are relevant to the ISIS story and are barely concealed by affixing the term “coalition” to a subset of the players give rise to other anomalies. Russia criticized the United States for using force in Syria without obtaining something like an authorization from the United Nations Security Council; Iran made a similar criticism, albeit in a rather mild and pro forma way.

But the regime in Syria, the country the Russians and Iranians have both considered an ally and whose sovereignty they evidently were sticking up for, sounded more positive. The United States, we are repeatedly told, did not “coordinate” with the Assad regime, but it informed that regime in advance about the strikes, and the regime tacitly cooperated by not using its air defense capabilities to mess with the forces conducting the strikes.

That leads to the uncomfortable unanswered question about the desired political end state in Syria. Nothing that has been said since the strikes has helped to answer that question. The operations director of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff essentially changed the subject when reporters asked about whether the air attack would aid the Assad regime.

The “moderate” Syrian opposition, in whom the only apparent hope for answering the unanswered question has been placed, displayed this week some of the divisions that have been a major source of their weakness. The president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition made a positive statement, but the commander of Harakat Hazm, a rebel group often talked about as moderate and reliable enough to be entrusted with U.S. lethal assistance, said “the only beneficiary of foreign intervention in Syria is the Assad regime.”

Those are some of the most obvious anomalies about this offensive. We ought to be at least as disturbed about some of the effects that may be less immediately visible, especially effects in hearts and minds of people in the region.

The U.S. military has again demonstrated its awesome technical precision, in which it seems it is almost capable of firing a missile through the window of a bathroom and killing the person on the toilet while sparing others in the same house. But even with these technical capabilities, casualties among the innocent are inevitable.

Reportedly there were civilian casualties from this week’s strikes in Raqqa, the principal ISIS-held town in Syria. An unemployed university graduate in Raqqa said afterward, “We know the history of American strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. When civilians are going to be killed, sorry is not enough.”

And whatever are the actual facts about collateral damage and casualties, the usual suspicions and cynicism that come into play whenever the superpower uses its military muscle in this part of the world are being aroused by this latest U.S. action.

The sentiments are those of the columnist in Egypt’s Al Ahram who wrote that the United States and its allies “want to divide our lands, destroy our nations, occupy our homelands and monopolize our choices, without shedding one drop of their blue blood. They have no problem that our cheap Arab blood flows in rivers, it it achieves their goals and purposes.”

Such beliefs are grossly inaccurate and unfair, of course, but the beliefs exist. If we are worried about anti-U.S. terrorism, we ought to worry at least as much about such perceptions and sentiments, and about the extremism they nurture, as about the kind of kinetic accomplishments that can be observed with a gun camera or a reconnaissance drone.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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12 comments for “Hoping Bombs Will Solve Iraq/Syria Mess

  1. Louis Proyect
    September 25, 2014 at 11:43

    Why am I not surprised that Robert Parry is reposting an article that originally appeared in the National Interest, a journal launched by Irving Kristol in 1985?

    • Zachary Smith
      September 25, 2014 at 12:27

      I had never heard of the organization until reading your remark, so I checked it out. After a quick look my impression was that they aren’t exactly monsters all the time.

      For example:

      http://nationalinterest.org/feature/hamas-really-blame-the-conflict-gaza-11028

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 25, 2014 at 13:52

      Louis this article was written By Paul R. Pillar…not Robert Parry

    • rosemerry
      September 25, 2014 at 14:57

      In the National Interest is a site against the Israeli takeover of Palestine (and the USA) and of course unrelated to Kristol’s site.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    September 24, 2014 at 21:58

    I urge all of you to go to the provided link here, and read this article,
    The Russia They Lost…..

    http://slavyangrad.org/2014/09/24/the-russia-they-lost/

    This says it better than anything I could write here.

  3. jer
    September 24, 2014 at 21:01

    Trouble on Earth nowadays always begins with very big evil US/western propaganda, followed by huge threats, then acts of coercion and subversion, and finally ending in air force bombs and Navy Tomahawks. Google ‘US involved in 134 conflicts aorund thr world’ and become aware of just what kind of terrible troublemaker the US has evolved into today !

  4. jer
    September 24, 2014 at 20:51

    Trouble on any spot on Earth today always starts with dark US/western propaganda, then followed by issuance of many evil threats, later accompanied by brazen acts of subversion and forceful coercion, and finally ending with bombs, heavy shelling and Navy Tomahawks. Google ‘US involved in 134 conflicts around the world’ and thus become aware of just what kind of troublemaker the US has evolved into nowadays.

  5. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 20:42

    Pillar insists that any sentiments that the United States and its allies want to divide Arab lands, destroy Arab nations, occupy Arab homelands, monopolize Arab choices, and shed rivers of Arab blood to achieves their purposes are “grossly inaccurate and unfair.”

    No further comment is necessary.

    The reason why the U.S. and its local collaborators have armed, trained and financed mercenary, ostensibly ”Islamic extremist’ proxies for decades is to maintain regional and global hegemony. The ‘long war’ for full spectrum geostrategic dominance has included a sequence of regime change projects, most importantly including the United States itself.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    September 24, 2014 at 18:41

    “Russia criticized the United States for using force in Syria without obtaining something like an authorization from the United Nations Security Council”. Perhaps it should be mentioned that Russia’s concern stems from the fact that, under international law, such authorization IS A REQUIREMENT. Under our Constitution, treaties become “law of the land”, meaning that we are bound to abide by The U.N. Charter. Regarding the carefully worded official announcements using the word “imminent”, that stems from a dubious attempt to make the statement sound like it is somehow reflective of the requirements outlined in the War Powers Act of 1973. Seeking to include an enemy with at least a modicum of real or imagined ties to Al Qaida is an attempt to provide a little legalistic shade under the umbrella of the original AUMF. By affixing the term “coalition” to a subset of the players, a very dilute coat of legalese varnish is also applied. But to an adult, it sounds more like the protest of the kid caught throwing rocks on the playground. “But…but…but Johnny was doin’ it too!” You’d think we might have learned something after the 2003 Iraq debacle. The Neocons made complete fools of themselves and many pundits touted their demise. They were being swept aside, swept away or swept under the carpet in order that their despicable conniving and ineptitude wouldn’t jeopardize the 2004 elections. Karl Rove was in charge of that. There were plans to temporarily cashier Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, but to bring him back as – get this – CIA Director! Isn’t that special? Of course, back then, we had good, reliable inside “intelligence” and a vetted “moderate” opposition waiting in the wings to bring “democracy” to Iraq. SOUND FAMILIAR? Today, we’re hearing the same thing about Syria. Magically, as though the Neocon vampires had managed to rob a blood bank and rejuvenate themselves, they’re back, more devious and despicable than ever. And, they’ve managed to do it using the same script. Americans have a short memory. They hear about the “President” of the “Syrian Opposition Coalition”, but they don’t remember the Neocons in 2003 with Ahmed Chalabi and the “Iraqi National Congress”. The legal justification for that intervention was based on a low fraud, The legal justification for this one is non-existent. For a big dose of history repeating itself, see “How Ahmed Chalabi conned the neocons”, Salon, May 5, 2004. http://www.salon.com/2004/05/04/chalabi_4/
    All this legal mumbo jumbo is like throwing a handful of dung at the wall to see what sticks. Apparently, it won’t take much to fool the American public.

  7. bobzz
    September 24, 2014 at 17:00

    If the mini-version of shock and awe is any indication, they spent a lot of money blasting empty buildings. ISIL had moved out to the hills (how did they learn the bombs and rockets were coming?). We did manage to kill some civilians that had left their homes to escape Syrian bombing. The effect on the other al-quaida (sp) affiliate may have been more effective, but as everyone but our policy makers know, our bombs are the greatest recruiters the ‘bad guys’ have.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 24, 2014 at 18:30

      (how did they learn the bombs and rockets were coming?)

      It’s one of life’s mysteries. But speaking of bombs and rockets, turns out the US wasn’t alone in the attacks. Some other countries knew the schedule. From a google news story:

      U.S. aircraft and those from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates struck Islamic State targets in Syria Wednesday, including 12 “modular oil refineries,” the U.S. Central Command said.

  8. Zachary Smith
    September 24, 2014 at 16:18

    Such beliefs are grossly inaccurate and unfair, of course…

    Of course they are. We’re just to darned good and pure for it to be otherwise.

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