In the wake of the "Islamic State" beheading of a U.S. journalist on Aug. 19, talk of U.S. military intervention in Syria has risen to a fever pitch in Washington and among some European allies. But it is spurring worries of another misguided U.S. military undertaking, escalating war and chaos, with the people of the region bearing the brunt.
Intervention advocates say that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, presents such a threat to the U.S. and the West that the U.S. and its allies must not only widen military involvement in Iraq but also move into Syria with airstrikes and related military ventures, including revving up military aid to "moderate" rebels there.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Pentagon briefing last week that ISIS is "beyond anything that we've seen," and represents "a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, ""We consider this terrorist group is of a different level of dangerousness than others. It is in the business of destruction. Today it is Iraq, but the caliphate is the entire region, and beyond it is obviously Europe." His boss, French President Francois Hollande, said, ""We can no longer keep to the traditional debate of intervention or non-intervention." (France is no stranger to intervention in the region, as it was neo-colonial ruler of Syria and Lebanon for two decades following World War I.)
In the name of defeating ISIS, Germany is shipping weapons to Iraq's Kurds. The BBC calls it a "major departure" for Germany, which since World War II has not participated directly in foreign military conflicts. Italy too is said to be ready to supply weapons.
The military clamor from these former imperial powers brings to mind the western grab for the Middle East at the end of World War I. Some wonder if we are seeing a new grab for the geostrategically important and oil-rich region - this time by the U.S. and Europe allied with reactionary regimes in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, using the viciously brutal ISIS as an excuse.
The U.S. is entangling itself in a murky situation. U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which backs reactionary "Sunni" groups in both Iraq and Syria, is known to have funded ISIS/ISIL elements, and is eager to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Former Saddam Hussein officers, also favored by the Saudis, are among the top leaders of ISIS/ISIL. Assad himself allowed Syria to be a haven for Iraqi Baathists, and is said to have promoted ISIS as a way to divide the opposition to his rule. On the other hand his forces are now under attack from ISIS, and Syrian officials have expressed willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in defeating ISIS.
Pentagon officials are said to be pressing the Obama administration to carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets in eastern Syria. A White House decision on this is expected later in September. The New York Times reports that the White House has begun "a diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbors in the region to increase their support for Syria's moderate opposition and, in some cases, to provide support for possible American military operations." The White House says it has already begun air surveillance over Syria in preparation for such actions.
The administration is ruling out cooperation with the Syrian government on defeating ISIS, even though it is now seeking cooperation with former enemy Iran to defuse the situation in Iraq. Instead, President Obama seems to be bowing to the same interventionist advocates of regime-change in Syria that he resisted last year.
And unfortunately, the administration is continuing to deal with both Iraq and Syria simplistically as a collection of religious/sectarian groups - an approach that has done much to create the current crises there. For example, in explaining why the White House is rejecting working with Assad, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, claimed: "Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIL." Not stated is who speaks for the "Sunni population." Groups backed by Saudi Arabia? Meanwhile, the efforts of nonsectarian Iraqi or Syrian civil society get little or no attention.
U.S. intervention in Syria is a risky business even from a technical point of view. Experts note the difficulty of targeting airstrikes, determining which rebel group to trust, and keeping weapons out of the hands of extremists. More fundamentally, David Cortright, co-chair of Win Without War, points out, "U.S. military intervention created the chaos in Iraq 11 years ago, and it cannot be a solution to the crisis now."
"Past U.S. interventions for supposedly limited purposes have turned into prolonged interventions and in some cases have made matters worse, creating conditions of extended chaos and instability," he says.
The White House is apparently debating whether or not to seek congressional approval for expanding military action, both in Iraq and now into Syria. A battle may be shaping up over the issue. Some in Congress are voicing concern over what exactly the goal of military action would be. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in an Aug. 25 statement, called on the administration to "clearly define the strategy and objectives of its mission against ISIL, then bring it to Congress for a debate and authorization vote." A petition at Moveon.org calls on the president to seek congressional and United Nations Security Council approval for bombing Syria or expanding airstrikes in Iraq. Ultimately, however, pressure is needed to block those in foreign policy circles who promote military intervention and sectarian manipulation as the way to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Photo: President Obama visits the Pentagon soon after his inauguration, Jan. 28, 2009. U.S. Army photo