Politics & Policy

Fighting to Lose

Free Syrian Army fighters in Damascus, January 2013.
An election-eve disaster for America in Syria

Just when it looked like it couldn’t get worse, with the world imploding around us from the Mideast to Ukraine to West Africa, it has managed to get worse. An al-Qaeda affiliate has struck the latest blow, decimating America’s few moderate allies in Syria and capturing their American weapons.

Obama has taken America on a downward spiral in the Mideast and the world at large, by his active policies of promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and by his passive policies of withdrawing American power and avoiding victories by military means.

Never have the terrible lessons of the 20th century been more clearly shown to be right: When America removes its power, it pulls the plug on every part of the world order. The demons come of the woodwork. It does not take long for the consequences to come home.

Fighting a war as if we prefer to lose: It is a recipe for catastrophe, and that is what is happening now in Syria and Iraq.

Here is what the Washington Post reported in its lead article on Monday morning:

U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda

BEIRUT — The Obama administration’s Syria strategy suffered a major setback Sunday after fighters linked to al-Qaeda routed U.S.-backed rebels from their main northern strongholds, capturing significant quantities of weaponry, triggering widespread defections and ending hopes that Washington will readily find Syrian partners… Fleeing rebel fighters said they feared the defeat would spell the end of the Free Syrian Army.

Further on, we find the consequences of Obama’s “leading from behind” and not wanting to win militarily:

“When American airstrikes targeted al-Nusra, people felt solidarity with them because Nusra are fighting the regime, and the strikes are helping the regime,” said Raed al-Fares, an activist leader in Kafr Nabel, in Idlib.

“Now people think that whoever in the Free Syrian Army gets support from the U.S.A. is an agent of the regime,” he said.

Translation: The people fighting on the ground know that in war, there are winners and losers. They know that Assad is fighting to win. They know the Islamic State is fighting to win. And they know the U.S. is not fighting to win, but instead has nursed the fight while the factions kept multiplying, so that it has now grown into a three-sided fight, if not four-sided (Assad, moderate rebels, Islamic State, al-Qaeda). In these conditions, people look around and see which side’s strategy America is in practice helping. They judge us by that — not by our pious rhetoric about steering clear of just about everything and feeling pure and clean about it. There’s nothing pure and clean about helping one or both of our enemies to win.

The loss of northern Idlib province could prove a crippling blow to the moderate rebels. . . . Idlib was the last of the northern Syrian provinces where the Free Syrian Army maintained a significant presence, and groups there had banded together in January to eject the Islamic State in the first instance in which Syrians had turned against the extremist radicals.

It’s almost as if al-Qaeda is our last ally still standing in Syria against the Islamic State. That’s what happens in a multi-sided war when you’re not serious about helping your own side to prevail.

Among the groups whose bases were overrun in the assault was Harakat Hazm, the biggest recipient of U.S. assistance offered under a small-scale, covert CIA program launched this year, including the first deliveries of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles. The group’s headquarters outside the village of Khan Subbul was seized by Jabhat al-Nusra overnight Saturday, after rebel fighters there surrendered their weapons and fled without a fight, according to residents in the area. . . . 

Another Western-backed group, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, on Saturday gave up its bases in Jabal al-Zawiya. . . . A video posted on YouTube showed Jabhat al-Nusra fighters unearthing stockpiles of weaponry at Maarouf’s headquarters . . . 

In a separate video, Maarouf, addressing the Jabhat al-Nusra leadership, said he fled along with those of his men who had not defected, “to preserve the blood of civilians, because you behead people and slaughter them if they do not obey you.”

That’s the rub of the matter. Why should they fight alongside us when it only leads to getting their people slaughtered?

The same complaint has been made by others: By one of those unique tribes in Syria, who fought as our ally and got massacred while we watched. And by Turkey, when we pressured it to send its forces. They can see that the extremists are fighting to win, and we are not. Why should they stick out their necks at our behest?

#page#Under the Kerry Doctrine — enunciated before the rise of the Islamic State, when the issue was Kerry’s rejection of the option of seriously arming the moderate rebels against Assad — the goal is to avoid any military solution, and instead to have a military stalemate with the regime in the ongoing civil war in Syria (in the name of getting to a negotiated settlement rather than that no-no, a military victory). It means that if you align with us, you’re guaranteed not to succeed. And you’re guaranteed to have an ongoing bloodbath.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State both fight to win. They enforce their rule. They kill people who don’t obey. They are happy to be conquerors and proud if they become martyrs along the way. We offer none of those things. Fight with us and you get neither glory nor victory, just blood and tears.

The Obama–Hillary Clinton combination was disastrous for the world. It brought us Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, a recklessly complete withdrawal from Iraq, and a long civil war in Syria that America kept fanning year after year, while always stopping shy of trying to win. But the Obama-Kerry combination has done even worse damage.

Kerry, trying to steer among all of his and Obama’s ideological constituencies, gave America an explicit goal of stalemated civil war in Syria. The rise of the Islamic State to prominence was a direct consequence of this policy of not offending anyone — no one, that is, except the victims on the ground. The administration watched the Islamic State impassively as it grew in Syria and moved on into Iraq.

Then the Islamic State started beheading Westerners and journalists — enraging the administration’s base in the media. It moved to a strategy of containment. That was seen as inadequate. Finally, having let a much worse situation develop on the ground, it officially went to war — but kept the same strategy it had used for containment.

Which translates as: fighting to lose.

The Islamic State punishes those who lose to it. Where it holds territory, it massacres those who didn’t obey. And as long as it holds territory — as long as it has not been defeated and destroyed by us, “the Empire” — it has a bandwagon effect, attracting loyalty from disaffected Muslims at a distance. Its sympathizers around the world are in a position to exact revenge on us, by terrorism against our homeland. The longer we “contain” it, the greater the danger to ourselves.

Liberals have always been ambivalent about winning with military force against enemies of the West, but it has never been this bad before. During the Cold War, many liberals half-identified with Communism as a part of the “progressive” front against capitalism. Even today, liberals half-identify with America’s enemies, if only for the simple fact of their struggle against the West and its “injustice”. The Left warns constantly against “demonizing” the enemies of the West, no matter how demonic they are, or “oversimplifying” about them, or even seeing them as “enemies.” It is not entirely sincere in this, however. It revels in demonizing the Western Right, treating it as the only true enemy — an absolute, intrinsic, almost genetic enemy, one that it positively loves to fight. What it usually berates the American people for isn’t demonizing others, but simply seeing enemies accurately: as enemies. This makes it hard for the Left to recognize and fight against most of the actual enemies of the West.

During the Cold War, the West sometimes had a practical justification for ambivalent rules of engagement: We had to respect the balance of nuclear terror. But even then, we usually fought the best we could within the constraints we set.

Never before now has America fought in a manner so completely rigged for defeat, with so little reason and such great danger. Communism was a global threat, but it sponsored terrorist movements opportunistically; it did not advocate terrorism. It did not, by the mere fact of its survival, attract terrorists worldwide to its banner and inspire acts of mass terrorism in our homeland.

What is Obama spending his time on in the midst of this defeat? He is out on the campaign trail. “If you want something better,” he told a crowd yesterday, “you’ve got to vote for it.”

That is the sad truth. Obama is ideologically driven. He will continue doing as much good for his ideology as he can. And that translates directly into harm to the West. We cannot be expected to get something better until he is deprived of congressional support.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. The opinions expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.

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