Exclusive: In the last debate, Hillary Clinton vowed to follow up the defeat of ISIS in Iraq’s Mosul with a march on ISIS’ capital in Raqqa, except that’s in Syria, a suggestion of a wider war, says Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
Attentive viewers may have noticed something curious about last week’s presidential debate. Asked if she would send troops to help stabilize Iraq once ISIS has been expelled from of the northern city of Mosul, Hillary Clinton replied that U.S. intervention would only make matters worse by providing Islamic State with a rallying point.
But then she said: “The goal here is to take back Mosul. It’s going to be a hard fight. I’ve got no illusions about that. And then [we should] continue to press into Syria to begin to take back and move on Raqqa, which is the ISIS headquarters. I am hopeful that the hard work that American military advisers have done will pay off and that we will see a really successful military operation.”
Move on Raqqah? What did that mean – that Clinton wants to follow up victory in Mosul with a push into Syria? That she envisions a coordinated military thrust into Syria from Iraq? The answer is not quite, although the results could hardly be more dangerous than if she did.
While the press focuses on the latest Donald Trump groping scandal, few reporters have noticed the explosion of violence from Mosul all the way to Afrin, a Syrian Kurdish stronghold some 380 miles to the west. What Clinton sees as a simple two-pronged assault – first the U.S. and its allies wrest back Mosul, then they take Raqqah, and then they mop up whatever remains of ISIS in between – is already turning into something far messier, i.e., a multi-sided power struggle among Kurds, Turks, Shi‘ites, and Sunni Salafists. All are terrified that they will be shut out of the new post-ISIS order, and all are scrambling to gain an edge on their rivals.
Ironically, the winner could well turn out to be Islamic State, as ISIS is also known. The group is hyper-alert when it comes to divisions among its enemies and skilled at using them to its advantage. The greater the turmoil, the more likely that ISIS will be able to regain its footing once the battle of Mosul is over.
If so, ultimate responsibility will lie with the U.S. After all, it was the United States that tipped the region into chaos by invading Iraq in 2003 and then did seemingly everything in its power to compound the damage in the years that followed. Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama’s decision to pull American forces out of Iraq in 2011 allowed Al Qaeda to expand and regroup is not entirely incorrect [although the withdrawal timetable was actually negotiated by President George W. Bush’s administration at the insistence of the Iraqi government].
Still, after all but destroying the Iraqi state in 2003, U.S. withdrawal undoubtedly created a vacuum that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was quick to exploit. But the Obama administration’s decision to back an insurgency in Syria that it knew was dominated by Al Qaeda was no less significant in enabling such forces to regroup.
[Recall that ISIS is an Al Qaeda spinoff, originally called “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” although, in Syria, Al Qaeda’s official affiliate has been the Nusra Front, recently renamed Syria Conquest Front, a key part of the militant force holding east Aleppo.]
Making Matters Worse
The crisis in Syria was compounded by the decision under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to give Saudi Arabia full backing in its growing anti-Shi’ite sectarian war. This was Bush’s policy shift that investigative reporter Seymour Hersh famously labeled “the redirection” toward overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a policy that Obama embraced in 2011 amid the Arab Spring protests.
After the collapse of the 2011 Arab Spring, U.S. support for the Saudi sectarian conflict has been no less important in fueling conflict across the region despite warnings from the Defense Intelligence Agency that the strategy would benefit radical Sunni jihadists in Syria.
[Obama partially shifted U.S. policy again in 2014 when ISIS began beheading Western hostages and capturing cities in Syria and Iraq, causing U.S. public outrage that prompted Obama to target ISIS for destruction but not Al Qaeda, whose jihadists were by then deeply enmeshed with the U.S.-backed anti-government rebels in Syria.]
Now the U.S. has launched its long-anticipated anti-ISIS offensive around Mosul. The problem is not so much the goal as the methodology. War-weary and overstretched, America is loath to commit significant numbers of ground troops. Instead, its strategy is to leverage its imperial power by enlisting a range of local actors to do its bidding.
This is a policy that Hillary Clinton helped craft as Secretary of State when she enlisted more than a dozen states to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and then encouraged Saudi Arabia and others to fund the anti-Assad revolt in Syria. But the strategy has repeatedly backfired. Employing regional actors means empowering them, and that means triggering a host of secondary conflicts as differences multiply.
The most obvious such example is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been on a rampage since last July’s attempted military coup. The U.S. has backed operation Euphrates Shield, the code name for last August’s Turkish incursion into northern Syria, even though it brought pro-Turkish forces into conflict with Kurdish fighters whom the U.S. also supports.
But now, with his “neo-Ottoman” ambitions in full flower, Erdogan is casting his eye on Mosul. He declared last week that the city and its ethnically variegated hinterlands are within Turkey’s legitimate sphere of influence. When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on him to withdraw from a military enclave that he has established in Bashiqa, a small town seven miles northeast of Mosul, he told him to “know your place.”
“The army of the Republic of Turkey has not lost its standing so as to take instructions from you,” Erdogan said. “You are not my interlocutor, you are not at my level…. It’s not important at all how you shout from Iraq. You should know that we will do what we want to do.”
Erdogan’s motives are many – imperial, ethnic, and religious. Not only does he claim a special right to intervene in Mosul, but he also sees himself as a champion of the Sunnis. He is up in arms, consequently, that Shi‘ite militias known as Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, are to take part in the “liberation” of a predominately Sunni city of more than 1 million inhabitants.
“They say 30,000 Shia militants are coming,” he warned last week. “They should be prepared for what they will face.”
Unfortunately, Erdogan’s concerns are not entirely baseless. When Iraqi government forces took back the central Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS in April 2015, the same Popular Mobilization Forces looted, torched, or blew up hundreds of civilian houses and buildings, according to Human Rights Watch, and detained some 200 men and boys, at least 160 of whom remain unaccounted for.
Videos circulated of Shi‘ite militants beheading at least two Sunnis and using a sword to slice strips of flesh off the charred and burning remains of a third “like a shawarma.” After taking back Fallujah in June, Shi‘ite militias reportedly executed more than a dozen Sunnis and beat and abused hundreds more taken into custody.
It is hardly reassuring, therefore, that the same groups are now looking to take Mosul or that a Shi’ite militia leader named Qais Al-Khaz’ali recently proclaimed that the battle will provide an opportunity for “vengeance and retribution” against Sunnis responsible for the death of Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson who is a major figure in Shi‘ite martyrology, more than 1,300 years ago. It’s as if a Christian warlord had vowed vengeance on the Jews for the death of Christ.
Al-Khaz’ali even suggested that Erdogan, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, and Atheel Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni former governor of Nineveh province who commands his own militia, were all descendants of those responsible for Hussein’s death, words not likely to calm fears inside Mosul or to dispel passions across the border in Turkey.
Undoubtedly, the Obama administration is now leaning on Baghdad to keep the Shi‘ite militias under control. But Obama would undoubtedly love a clear-cut victory by Election Day, so he’s probably not leaning all that hard. Moreover, it’s not clear what he can do. Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi’s government relies on the Shi‘ite militias for support, so U.S. leverage is limited.
After the fall of Tikrit, a Sunni political leader named Hamid al-Mutlik says he confronted al-Abadi “numerous times” about Shi‘ite abuses, but to no avail: “I told him, ‘you are the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi forces. The militias have kidnapped hundreds of innocent people. What is your role?’ He replied simply, ‘These militias have embarrassed me so much.’”
If Al-Abadi was powerless then, he’s not likely to be more forceful now. So the Shi‘ites are on the march, and the Turks as well.
And then there are the Kurds, the X-factor across the entire region. Kurdish peshmerga forces clashed with Shi‘ites last spring in the northern Iraqi town of Tuz Khurma while Sunni Arabs remember the massive looting that erupted when Kurdish units swept into Mosul on the heels of the U.S. invasion. Neither side is particularly happy to see the Kurds return, and neither is Erdogan.
The Kurdish Clash
But this is nothing compared to how Erdogan feels about the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, across the border in Syria. The YPG is his bête noire because it is closely allied with Abdullah Öcalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party, which heads up the Kurdish revolt inside Turkey. Hence Erdogan sees the Kurdish battle against ISIS in Syria as virtually part of the same insurgency.
Erdogan’s worst fear is that the U.S. will rely on the YPG to spearhead an assault on Raqqah, thereby enabling it to solidify its position in northern Syria and channel aid across the border to its comrades in arms in Turkey. His goal, therefore, is to shut out the YPG by taking Raqqah himself.
Last week, Turkey pounded YPG positions near Afrin with airstrikes and artillery, killing 200 fighters, according to Turkish sources, although Kurds put the losses at just ten. When the assault continued a day later, the YPG accused the U.S. of providing aid behind the scenes. Given the YPG’s long-standing cooperation with the U.S. in the war against ISIS, it was indicative of just how much alliances are splintering and tempers are beginning to fray.
Former Secretary Clinton’s idea about a simple two-pronged offensive is thus pouring gasoline on the ethno-religious fires. So why does the U.S. do it? Why doesn’t it pause and reconsider where it is heading and consider a different strategy?
The answer is that it can’t because all other options are even worse. It can’t abandon the fight against ISIS because that would leave its clients in Baghdad in the lurch and leave them with no choice but to turn to Iran and Russia for aid. The Obama administration also can’t join forces with the Syrian government to defeat ISIS — no matter how logical that might seem — since its regional partners, Israel and Saudi Arabia, want Assad out and Obama has been promising to remove him since late 2011. Reversing course now would be inconceivable.
The U.S. also can’t buck Turkey, a NATO member and an important regional power, and it can’t afford to alienate the YPG either since it is the only reliable anti-ISIS force that is still on the U.S. side.
Deep in the Big Muddy
So America has no choice but to continue with the present strategy. It’s neck deep in the Big Muddy, yet can only push on. Since pushing on is Hillary Clinton’s specialty, she is the perfect choice for the job. As she once told a roomful of angry Pakistani students, according to her memoir Hard Choices: “It is difficult to go forward if we’re always looking in the rearview mirror.”
History, in other words, is irrelevant bunk. So stop dwelling on a long list of foreign-policy disasters and just keep pressing on.
As Gordon Adams and Lawrence Wilkerson, veterans of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, observed recently in The National Interest, Clinton’s penchant for military intervention and her deep belief in American exceptionalism put her in tune with Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, which is “why a large number of neoconservative national security experts have endorsed Clinton over Trump.”
But the fact that foreign-policy experts agree with her doesn’t make her right. Since their view is increasingly at odds with reality, reality, all it means is that hers is as well. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Exceptionalist’ Warpath.”]
“This ‘consensus’ judgment of foreign-policy makers,” Adams and Wilkerson write, “which Clinton’s views reflect and support, not only fails to perceive the changed world we live in correctly, but executing its strategy risks producing precisely the opposite result from what is intended.
“A no-fly zone in Syria seriously risks putting US military forces at the heart of the conflict, creating the third US invasion in the region since 2001. There is no gain to such a step; there is only high risk of more American lives being lost in an unwinnable war as well as exacerbating regional hostility toward the United States.
“Similarly, a direct confrontation with Russia in central Europe and Ukraine increases by orders of magnitude the paranoia already infecting the Russian leadership that the United States intends to put itself right at the periphery of Russia and perhaps beyond. Not for nothing have Russian military exercises for three years running emphasized attacks by NATO – even on Russian territory itself.”
The search for stability, in other words, leads to less rather than more. Yet Clinton forges ahead regardless.
“I’m going to continue to push for a no-fly zone and safe havens within Syria,” she vowed during last week’s debate with Donald Trump, “not only to help protect the Syrians and prevent the constant outflow of refugees, but to frankly gain some leverage on both the Syrian government and the Russians.”
Cooler heads may well prevail by the time she gets into office, not only because of the 70,000-plus military personnel who would be needed to institute such a “no-fly” policy, but because the advanced anti-aircraft systems that Russia has recently installed in Syria would raise the stakes immeasurably.
But that doesn’t mean that conflict will have been averted. To the contrary, closing one door merely assures that conflict will enter via another. The United States would have to engage in an immense effort merely to begin undoing the damage it has done since 2003. But if Obama has not been up to the task, a deep-dyed American exceptionalist like Clinton will be even less so. If she is elected, the chaos can only intensify.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).