America’s Bizarre Initial Response to the Islamic State

Regime change is a complex and messy thing. Attempts at regime change always involve three parties: the government who desires to carry out the regime change, the regime it wishes to change, and the domestic group meant to replace the current regime or at least facilitate the coup. The history of attempted American coups is littered with disasters that resulted from a third party that was as, or more, nefarious than the regime it replaced.

America’s initial reaction to the Islamic State’s (at the time first al-Qaeda in Iraq then ISIS) attempts to topple the regimes in Iraq and Syria was bizarre and unexpected. As the very force the war on terror was supposed to eliminate from the region cut its own state out of the Levant, America was silent. In ISIS: the State of Terror, terrorism experts Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger say that “the Obama administration gave the problem short shrift” and “dismissed concerns about [ISIS] and other jihadists fighting in . . .  Syria.” They cite an interview conducted as recently as 2014 in which Obama compared ISIS to a junior varsity team that was merely masquerading as major league player. The Obama administration seemed not to be noticing ISIS and seemed to be “caught off guard.”

Such a failing of intelligence would be bizarre enough; however, it was not intelligence, but policy. What was really bizarre was not that America hadn’t noticed but that it had. American intelligence had informed the policy makers about ISIS, and the policy makers chose silence.

Why would America allow the metastasis of the very terrorist force it was committed to cauterizing? America does whatever it wants. So, if it did not oppose ISIS, it’s because it did not want to oppose ISIS. And, if it did not want to oppose ISIS, it’s because, somehow, the ISIS advance was consistent with American interests in the region.

The States has long claimed to be backing, not ISIS or other jihadi groups like Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, but moderate Syrian rebels. In The Rise of the Islamic State, Patrick Cockburn says that Vice President Biden revealed the lie in that claim when he said that “in Syria the US had found ‘that there was no moderate middle.”  Biden’s honest admission came on October 2, 2014. He said:

“The fact of the matter is . . . there was no moderate middle. . . . [O]ur allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. . . . They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis. . . . All of a sudden everybody’s awakened because this outfit called ISIL which was al-Qaeda in Iraq, which when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space in territory in eastern Syria, work with Al Nusra who we declared a terrorist group early on and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”

But there were lies enveloped in Biden’s revelation of the lies. It is not true that “All of a sudden everybody awakened” to ISIS, and it is not true that the Americans tried, but “could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”

America did not wake up too late to the reality of ISIS: America was wide awake but willing to let it happen. It was not that the Obama administration didn’t take ISIS seriously. The reality is worse: they knew the gravity of the situation and allowed it to happen. America was getting into the mess of another third party disaster with eyes wide open.

Though Biden claims that “All of a sudden everybody awakened” to ISIS, as early as August 12, 2012 a classified Defense Intelligence Agency Information Intelligence Report made the rounds through the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, FBI, State Department and CENTCOM, revealing that the government knew that, despite its insistence that the Syrian insurgency it was supporting was dominated by secular moderates and not jihadi extremists, the insurgency was driven by jihadists. Point B of the section of the report called “The General Situation” unambiguously declares that “The salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS and the Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

The DIA report not only reveals that American intelligence knew that the Islamic State was a major part of the insurgency it supported, but that they were well aware of the possible outcome of that support. Section 8.C. of the report astonishingly predicts that “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime. . . .” In the preceding section 7.B., the “supporting powers” are identified as “Western countries the Gulf States and Turkey”. Section 8.D.1. Of the report goes on specifically to say that “ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria”.

So the US knew that the Islamic State drove the insurgency that it supported, and it had a surprisingly good idea what the possible outcome of that support was. It even seems, according to the report, that the West and its Saudi and Turkish allies relished that outcome – relished the birth of an Islamic State – as an instrument for isolating the Assad regime. But that the US suddenly woke up to the Islamic State is not the only lie enveloped in the Vice President’s revelation of the lies. It is also not true that the US tried but could not convince her allies to stop supporting and supplying the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra.

Gareth Porter has reported that when Obama invited the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David in May, the Gulf Princes smelt opportunity. Obama was hungry to assuage the Sunni states over his administration’s impending nuclear treaty with Iran and to win their silence and acceptance. The trade, it seems, was Syria.

And so, Porter reports, “the Gulf States stopped complaining about the Iran nuclear agreement,” and “no one in the Obama administration said anything about Sunni coalition backing for al-Nusra.” Porter then quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who, Porter says, “had clearly been briefed by his administration sources,” as revealing that “Obama and the other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from Islamic State or al-Qaeda.”

Notice that the Obama administration did not try, but “could not convince [their] colleagues to stop supplying” the jihadi opposition, as Biden claims: it accepted their funding of the extremist insurgents as long as they kept their clients under control.

Why would America remain silent and allow jihadi extremists – the official affiliate in the region and the brutal off shoot of the very al-Qaeda the war on terror was supposed to eliminate – to carve out and establish a state in the region? When the facts on the ground don’t match the presumed policy, the facts can’t be changed, so the presumption of policy must.

The US allowed the Islamic State to advance because it desired the outcome of that possibility more than the desired outcome of the war on terror. So, the bizarre nature of the administration’s initial reaction to the Islamic State should dissolve away when the predicted outcome becomes clear. And the predicted outcome is revealed by the pattern in the Islamic State’s advance.

The Islamic State has advanced through Syria and Iraq and has knocked on the door of Lebanon. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have in common that they are Iran’s three great allies in the region. The pattern is not a coincidence. ISIS’s interests coincide perfectly with America’s. America has long been bent on removing Assad from Syria in order to isolate Iran. The coincidence of Islamic State and American interests in this regard is revealed in section 8.C of the DIA report:  . . . there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).” The advance of the Islamic State in the region is consistent with American interests in the region because it amputates Iranian reach in the region. The Islamic State’s advance advances America’s desire to cut off what Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have called Iran’s soft, or proxy, power in the region.

But at the beginning of the Islamic State’s push through the Levant, Syria was not even Iran’s greatest ally in the region any more: then leader Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq was. And US foreign policy was to seek change in that regime as well. Lebanon is home of Iran’s ally Hezbollah, another political force America would not miss. The pattern suggests that America’s bizarre initial acquiescence to ISIS doing its work and subsequent tolerance of Gulf State support to al-Nusra as long as they kept their clients under control was because ISIS and al-Nusra were simultaneously doing America’s work: regime change and weakening of Iran’s allies. Perhaps America was allowing them to do the work that America had previously been unable to do.

Notice that Obama was willing to allow the Gulf States to support Jabhat al-Nusra up to the point that it no longer coincided with American goals: they had to “keep control of their clients so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from Islamic State or al-Qaeda”. Notice too that America would only block the Islamic State’s advance through Iraq if Iraq would oust the al-Maliki regime. Obama made it clear that Iraq was "going to have to show us that [they] are willing and ready to try and maintain a unified Iraqi government that is based on compromise.” That was a clear call for a government other that Nouri al-Maliki’s. “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” he continued. “But we can only do that if we know that we have got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void." That was a clear reference to a new government. Obama used the threat of the Islamic State as leverage for regime change in Iraq.

In both Syria and Iraq, the US government remained still in the face of advancing jihadi extremists to the point that it served America’s interests in the region but no further: Iraq until, but only until, the removal of al-Maliki and Syria until, but only until, the removal of Assad. Once al-Maliki was gone, America stirred in Iraq. Once Saudi Arabia’s “clients” in Syria had removed Assad, they could no longer be supported as the “post-Assad regime”.

The pattern also reveals the paradox in US foreign policy: America allowed the jihadi groups to advance in order to isolate Iran diplomatically in the region, but allowed the Gulf States to support them in order to successfully engage Iran diplomatically.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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