Heavy smoke rises following an airstrike by the US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, October 13, 2014. The strategic border town of Kobani has been beseiged by Islamic State militants since mid-September forcing more than 200,000 people to flee into Turkey.
Credit: Gokan Sahin

BOSTON — In times of war, Americans can be counted on to rally behind the flag. And polling indicates that most Americans support President Barack Obama as he leads a new offensive against the so-called Islamic State (or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

But in contrast to George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, it’s been just over a month since the president’s speechon the Islamic State war, and already detractors appear to dominate.

Those who doubt the airstrikes will be effective have been emboldened recently by images of the Islamic State’s black flag flying over Kobani, a Kurdish city less than two miles from the Turkish border — right on NATO’s doorstep. Rebels inside Syria allege that the bombing campaign is simply helping the region’s current murderer-in-chief, Syrian President Bashar Assad, without doing much to thwart the extremist group. Across the Middle East, people are criticizing the US for “[using] force to avenge the deaths of two American journalists, but [standing] by while 200,000 Syrians are slaughtered.”

Back home, pundits from the left and right are pillorying the Obama administration’s nascent offensive as a “half baked” “mess” that lacks a consistent strategy, and could lead to a lengthy “quagmire.” In Washington, Congress is apparently so skittish about the plan that, weeks before midterm elections, it has dodged its Constitutional responsibility to weigh in. 

But spend an hour with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and you’ll get the impression that there is a strategy — and it’s a thoughtful one that may even work, some day. Fresh from talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, Hammond spoke with journalists from GlobalPost and the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday Oct. 9, in the parlor of the British Consulate in Boston. (Read the interview transcript here.)

Hammond argues that the offensive has already achieved some key goals — such as degrading the Islamic State’s ability to sell oil, and saving Baghdad from an Islamic State-inflicted “meltdown.”

“Perhaps more importantly,” he adds, the airstrikes are forcing the Islamic State “to abandon a conventional military approach to something more like the structure of a terrorist organization. That is important because one of the defining characteristics of ISIL’s pitch is that it’s not a terrorist organization, it’s a state: it’s taking and holding territory, it’s running civil government, it’s organizing public services. Attack from the air degrades its ability to do all of those things.”

Meanwhile, the airstrikes are only one part of a “multi-strand approach” that includes “cutting off the flow of resources they receive — that’s external financing, foreign fighters, logistic materiel,” explains the foreign secretary, who served as defense secretary from October 2011 until July 2014, when he assumed his current responsibilities. “We will defeat them by challenging and undermining their ideology, because you can’t bomb an ideology out of existence, you have to challenge it and argue it out of existence.”

Toppling Assad, while fighting his enemies

He adds that the long-term goal is not only to defeat the Islamic State, but eventually to force Syrian President Bashar Assad from power as well: “We have to deal with ISIL because ISIL is the enemy. But in time we also have to deal with Assad because Assad is the enemy.” The UK committed to carrying out airstrikes only against the Islamic State in Iraq in late September when Parliament delivered a strong endorsement of the idea. It has not yet committed to bombing within Syria — either against the Islamic State or the Assad regime. 

Does Hammond fear, as anti-Assad rebels have alleged, that US airstrikes are actually helping the Assad regime, by freeing up his forces to drop barrel bombs on other rebels?

It’s something to keep an eye on, the foreign secretary contends, but it’s not a major concern due to the fragmented nature of the regime’s military, “I think it’s overly simplistic to think of a regime in Damascus making a strategic military judgment, pulling a lever and diverting forces from one thing to another. I think the situation on the ground is a lot more fragmented, a lot more chaotic than that. And actually the number of formal Syrian army forces that the regime is able to deploy as opposed to Syrian army units that the regime won’t deploy because it has fears around their loyalty — I think it’s a relatively limited number.”

A monthly paycheck for friendly rebels

Hammond says the solution for ridding Syria of Assad lies in the $500 million that the US Congress has earmarked for the Free Syrian Army. The money — “a major morale boost to the Free Syrian army” — will be used to equip these rebel fighters, and to train them in groups for 2,000 to 4,000 at a time in nearby countries, with a force 50,000-strong raised in the next few years. The US money will also be used to provide FSA fighters with a monthly paycheck: “Getting these fighting groups away from being ad-hoc groups of enthusiasts or idealists to a regular paid service where people do their training, put on a uniform, accept a discipline, and get a paycheck at the end of the month is a crucially important step forward.” The UK is currently exploring how it may help with this effort.

How can he be sure the right rebels are trained — that the weapons and training won’t catalyze a mujahedeen force that may some day carry out the next 9/11 style attack? “There will have to be a screening process, and there will be a proper training process, and there will be a paid regime. So these people will be employees. We’re not talking about training a bunch of freelancers who go off on their pickup trucks and then we never see them again.”

The trouble in Iraq

And how can he expect that they’ll get the job done? The US, after all, has spent more than $25 billion training and building the Iraqi security forces, only to see troops flee when confronted by the Islamic State fighters earlier this year.

The problem with Iraq’s army, Hammond argues, is primarily political: “The Iraqi army is basically a well-equipped, reasonably strong in numbers force, but it has been undermined by the blatant divineness, sectarianism of the Maliki regime.” That led to “a total alienation of the Sunni population from the Iraqi security forces. And that has to be reversed” — on the fly, as the Islamic State threatens more Iraqi cities.

Fixing this is a priority. On the military side, General John Allen is “now very much focused on how we’re going to deliver on this challenge of using the current Iraqi army both to hold the line and provide the nucleus of a retrained, restructured force.”

Politically, Hammond says the new government of Haider al-Abadi appears promising, although he concedes: “The skeptics have reason to be skeptical.” Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki “was an outrageous, in your face, blatant sectarian, with no pretense of running a single nation for the benefit of all its people.” In contrast, “Abadi gets it. He talks the right game — but 80 percent of the ministers in his government were in the Maliki government.” He adds, “I think Abadi’s heart is in the right place. Whether all of his colleagues in government will be as enthusiastic, we’ll need to wait and see.”

Learning from Iraq

The war plan for Syria and Iraq take into consideration at least two major mistakes made during the last decade’s war there.

First, in seeking to oust Assad, the plan does not advocate western-engineered regime change. Instead, the goal is to strengthen the Free Syrian Army  — not to “storm Damascus and kill everybody” — but rather to tilt the balance to the extent that “sensible elements in the [Assad] regime sue for a political solution …. [avoiding] what happened in Iraq, where the institutions of government were dismantled” and chaos ensued.

In Iraq, “[T]he de-Ba’athification strategy is pretty powerful to anyone who wants to look at it to think hard about the relative merits of retribution versus constructive approach to the future,”Hammond says. “I don’t think anyone wants to go there in Syria. Assad needs to go. The moderate opposition and the regime minus Assad need to sit down and discuss a political solution that leads to free and fair elections in Syria.”

Already, he says the moderate political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, have confirmed that they don’t want dismantle the state or exclude the ruling Alawite minority from a future Syrian political leadership, despite the horrific experience of the last three years.

As for ground troops — which everyone agrees are essential to the fight against the Islamic State, which already holds Mosul, among other major urban areas — he stresses that the plan relies on Syrian forces in Syria, and Iraqi (and Kurdish Peshmerga) forces in Iraq. Deploying Western combat forces “in any significant numbers” would “lead to potentially as many problems as it solves.”

For Iraq, he concludes: “I think having ISIL 30 miles away from your capital city is a pretty big wakeup call, and there is no doubt that the US airstrikes have prevented what could have been a disastrous meltdown for the Iraqis.”

“I think the government of Abadi absolutely understands that if Iraq is on its own, it can get into a very bad place very quickly.”

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