A Presidential Pardon for ISIL in Syria?

Having executed an abomination in Paris while promising more to come, the leaders of the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh) in Syria may well have expected the West to shake off its lethargy and build a coalition of ground combat forces to hunt them down and kill them. But perhaps they acted with the expectation of impunity. Perhaps they have taken the measure of the West and decided they could survive enhanced air attacks and strike again. They may be right.

President Obama seemed, in Antalya, to shoot down definitively the idea of configuring a robust ground coalition combat force to crush ISIL quickly and decisively in Syria. One may pray that he is merely gulling ISIL into lowering its guard. If he is, then the formulations he employed in Antalya are diabolically clever and praiseworthy, because they track perfectly with the mode of argumentation he has used throughout the Syrian crisis.

Mr. Obama shared with his audience this startling observation, “We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.” So, creating a coalition-of-the-willing ground combat force capable of closing with ISIL and defeating it in eastern Syria would play into the hands of the enemy. Yes, they might be out of business operationally. But the “narrative” would live on.

Perhaps this is why every effort has been made to avoid anything resembling decisive engagement. Evidently targeting ISIL operatives from the air is not a “routine military tactic.” Neither is employing Kurdish militiamen to harass ISIL on the ground. And what, in this context, would the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army be all about? Hopefully they will not be good enough to beat ISIL, thereby rescuing its narrative. The one “routine military tactic” that cannot work, according to Mr. Obama, is the very essence of warfare: a ground force closing with and killing the enemy. At least now we know the rationale.

Employing the customary straw man—the kind once described as “Nixonian”—the president told press conference attendees, “And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria.” For people of a certain age, the logical next sentence would have been, “I could do that, but it would be wrong.”

Of course, no one is asking him to do any such thing. But the 50,000 straw men were illustratively useful for what followed. “What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya perhaps?” 50,000 here, 50,000 there, and pretty soon the whole Army and Marine Corps are chasing terrorists in remote locations. We cannot have that. One wonders, however, if the president has actually forgotten who the enemy is and where his headquarters are located. This cannot be. Perhaps strategic misdirection is afoot. If it is, it is being done expertly.

The “if I deploy here I have to do it everywhere” riff accords perfectly with the president’s explanation for failing to protect Syrians from Assad regime atrocities: people are dying in Syria, people are dying in Congo. How am I to choose? What am I supposed to do? Intervene everywhere to save people? It tracks perfectly with his dismissal of universal military conscription in Syria, when he described the armed opposition as a clueless collection of farmers and librarians unworthy of meaningful support. It tracks perfectly with his repeated assertion that the only alternative to doing nothing in Syria is invasion and occupation. It tracks perfectly with the satisfaction he found in the failure of his train-and-equip program: it was a bad idea pressed upon him by critics. There is no reason ISIL would not take President Obama’s words seriously, and as unadulterated good news.

But if the purpose is to lull ISIL in Syria to sleep, the president is using the right stuff. It is authentic, vintage Obama in that it seeks to divert attention from basic facts: ISIL is the enemy, the organization Mr. Obama vowed to degrade and destroy; the enemy’s center of gravity is in Syria, its command post is in Syria, and its logistical lines of communication run from Syria into Iraq; ISIL leaders who have taken full credit for the Paris outrages and who have promised more to come are in Syria; killing this enemy in Syria—where its popular roots are shallow—would change for the better the course of battle in Iraq.

And yet the president conflates Iraq and Syria as if the ISIL phenomenon is identical in both places. American forces could, Mr. Obama explained, “march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL,” but “we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is, if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface . . . ” 

By inserting the name of a Syrian city between two in Iraq, Mr. Obama sought to equate the unwelcome imposition of ISIL on Syrians with the political alliances ISIL has struck in Iraq due to Sunni Arab disenfranchisement and disaffection. Through this ruse he is able to blame the people of eastern Syria for their own occupation and persecution. If only they were committed to inclusive governance they would not be in such dire straits. If only they would rise up against ISIL we might consider them eligible for rescue. He is saying, in effect, yes—I could rout ISIL from Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Palmyra, and every place it shows its murderous face in Syria. But the minute I leave those irksome Syrians would put them right back in business.

Whether his intent is to lull ISIL to sleep or to prolong the coma-like slumber of the West, it is important for President Obama to pretend that the human environments in which ISIL works are identical in Iraq and Syria. Surely ISIL cannot be killed in Iraq until Sunni Arabs there are treated as Iraqis. Yet how does this equate to the imposition of ISIL on the people of eastern Syria? If ISIL were swept militarily from Syria, what would prevent Mr. Obama from helping the Syrian opposition he recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people establish itself in Raqqa, forge links with local councils now surviving underground, and begin to provide the kind of legitimate governance inside Syria that he called for at Andrews Joint Base in October 2014?

Nothing at all would prevent Washington from moving precisely in that direction. Yet Mr. Obama has a preemptive, if false, counter-argument:”Ultimately, to reclaim territory from them is going to require, however, an ending of the Syrian civil war, which is why the diplomatic efforts are so important.” Why, one might ask, must there be a political settlement in western Syria—dominated by Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime—to retake territory from and even rout ISIL in the east? What is the meaning of trying to get Kurdish militiamen to pressure Raqqa if this is true? According to the new open-ended diplomatic process he and Secretary of State John Kerry have commissioned in Vienna, Syria is supposed to have national elections in mid-2017. Who exactly is going to get rid of ISIL—narrative and all—by then?

Not content with reassuring ISIL’s leadership in Syria, Mr. Obama had something for Bashar al-Assad as well. In the course of rejecting calls for no-fly zones and safe zones—noting quite properly that those options would require strong ground force protective elements—the president slipped in the following, “And the bulk of the deaths that have occurred in Syria, for example, have come about not because of regime bombing, but because of on-the-ground casualties.” Yes, this is true. Most of the deaths in the Syrian war have been military personnel and rebel fighters. 

But by seeking to downplay the significance of civilian deaths in the context of barrel bombs, gravity bombs, artillery shells, rockets, and missiles, all deliberately vectored into residential neighborhoods, President Obama sought to evade any discussion of his administration’s failure to offer even a modicum of protection to Syrian civilians inside Syria. This failure has midwifed a humanitarian abomination. Even as the president tries to minimize regime bombing, Syria’s neighbors and Western Europeans feel its demographic effects.

By limiting the discussion of potential military countermeasures to “zones,” Mr. Obama exploited the low-hanging fruit of rebuttal. He did not allude to relentless American diplomatic pressure on Russia and Iran to stop their client—Assad—from deliberately and remorselessly targeting civilians. Is there no such pressure? He did not discuss the option of targeting the regime’s instruments of terror with sea-based cruise missiles: an option requiring no land component. And it appears that he is content to conflate civilian protection with ceasefire. If so it is a death warrant. If so it leaves in place, totally unopposed, a recruiting tool for ISIL of unsurpassed value. And the very attempt to downplay the Assad regime’s bombing and shelling of civilians will not go unnoticed by historians, particularly those focusing on the failure of the West to do anything at all to protect Syrians from mass murder at the hands of their so-called government.

Is it remotely possible that slaughter in Paris will not wake the West—starting with Washington—from its slumber? Will this administration not launch immediately a diplomatic campaign to build a coalition of regional and Western European states willing to confront ISIL in Syria with professional ground forces? Will the president not assure potential coalition members that the United States will put some ground force skin in the game and persistently lead the effort until ISIL in Syria is destroyed?

If Paris is not enough, what is? Would President Obama have rendered a performance similar to that of Antalya if an American city had been ground zero for an ISIL massacre?

One hopes that the president’s words about not wanting to play into ISIL’s narrative by killing it militarily in Syria are a strategic deception—a master stroke of misdirection. One fears it is not. One fears what the Putins, Khameinis, Assads, and Baghdadis of the world may be thinking as they digest the president’s words. One prays they have gotten it entirely wrong.

Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: (Photo: Reuters. People observe a minute of silence at the Trocadero in front the Eiffel Tower to pay tribute to the victims of the series of deadly attacks on Friday in Paris, France, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer)