The foreign policy quandary facing President Barack Obama is that America’s traditional allies in the Middle East – Israel and Saudi Arabia – along with Official Washington’s powerful neocons have effectively sided with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State out of a belief that Iran represents a greater threat to Israeli and Saudi interests.
But what that means for U.S. interests is potentially catastrophic. If the Islamic State continues its penetration toward Damascus in league with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and topples the Syrian government, the resulting slaughter of Christians, Shiites and other religious minorities – as well as the risk of a major new terrorist base in the heart of the Middle East – could force the United States into a hopeless new war that could drain the U.S. Treasury and drive the nation into a chaotic and dangerous decline.
To avoid this calamity, Obama would have to throw U.S. support fully behind the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, precipitate a break with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and withstand a chorus of condemnations from influential neocon pundits, Republican politicians and hawkish Democrats. Influenced by Israeli propaganda, all have pushed for ousting Assad in a “regime change.”
But the world has already had a grim peek at what an Islamic State/Al-Qaeda victory would look like. The Islamic State has reveled in its ability to provoke Western outrage through acts of shocking brutality, such as beheadings, incinerations, stonings, burning of ancient books and destruction of religious sites that the group deems offensive to its fundamentalist version of Islam.
Over the Easter holiday, there were reports of the Islamic State destroying a Christian Church in northeastern Syria and taking scores of Christians as prisoners. An Islamic State victory in Syria would likely mean atrocities on a massive scale. And, there are signs that Al-Qaeda might bring the Islamic State back into the fold if it achieves this success, which would let Al-Qaeda resume its plotting for its own outrages through terrorist attacks on European and U.S. targets.
Though Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State have been estranged in recent months, the groups were said to be collaborating in an assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus.
The Associated Press reported that “Palestinian officials and Syrian activists say the Islamic State militants fighting in Yarmouk were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.”
United Nations spokesman Chris Gunness told the AP, “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”
In late March, the Saudis, working with Turkish intelligence, supported Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and other jihadist forces in capturing the Syrian city of Idlib, the New York Times reported.
Syria has become a frontline in the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam, with Saudi Arabia a longtime funder of the Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabism, which gave rise to Al-Qaeda under the direction of Saudi Osama bin Laden. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, and elements of the Saudi royal family and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been identified as Al-Qaeda’s financiers. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]
The Israeli-Saudi Alliance
In seeking “regime change” in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been joined by Israel whose leaders have cited Syria as the “keystone” in the pro-Iranian Shiite “strategic arc” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. In making that point in September 2013, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad and the Shiites.
“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
In June 2014, Oren expanded on this Israeli position. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.
On March 3, in the speech to a cheering U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also argued that the danger from Iran was much greater than from the Islamic State (or ISIS). Netanyahu dismissed ISIS as a relatively minor annoyance with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” when compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.
He claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. … We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”
Netanyahu’s rhetoric was clearly hyperbole – Iran’s troops have not invaded any country for centuries; Iran did come to the aid of the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq in its fight with the Islamic State, but the “regime change” in Baghdad was implemented not by Iran but by President George W. Bush and the U.S. military; and it’s preposterous to say that Iran “dominates” Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa – though Iran is allied with elements in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
But hyperbole or not, Netanyahu’s claims became marching orders for the American neocons, the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party. Republicans and some Democrats denounced President Obama’s support for international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program while some prominent neocons were granted space on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and New York Times to advocate bombing Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – with U.S. logistical and intelligence help – began bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been fighting a long civil war and had captured several major cities. The Houthis, who practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam called Zaydism, deny that they are proxies of Iran although some analysts say the Iranians have given some money and possibly some weapons to the Houthis.
However, by attacking the Houthis, the Saudis have helped Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regain its footing, including creating an opportunity to free scores of Al-Qaeda militants in a prison break and expanding Al-Qaeda’s territory in the east.
Increasingly, the choice facing Obama is whether to protect the old alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia – and risk victories by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – or expand on the diplomatic opening from the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program to side with Shiite forces as the primary bulwark against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
For such a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy, President Obama could use the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assisted in brokering agreements in 2013 in which Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons and in which Iranian leaders signed an interim agreement on their nuclear program that laid the groundwork for the April 2 framework deal.
In 2013, those moves by Putin infuriated Official Washington’s neoconservatives who were quick to identify Ukraine as a possible flashpoint between the United States and Russia. With Putin and Obama both distracted by other responsibilities, neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland teamed up with neocon National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and neocon Sen. John McCain to help fund and coordinate the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The resulting civil war and Russian intervention in Crimea drove a deep wedge between Obama and Putin.
The mainstream U.S. news media got fully behind the demonization of Putin, making a rapprochement over Ukraine nearly impossible. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to broker a settlement of the conflict in February – known as Minsk-2 – the right-wing government in charge in Kiev, reflecting Nuland’s hard-line position, sabotaged the deal by inserting a poison pill that effectively required the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to surrender before Kiev would conduct elections under its control. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Poison Pill for Peace Talks.”]
The Kiev regime is also incorporating some of its neo-Nazi militias into the regular army while putting neo-Nazi extremists into key military advisory positions. Though the U.S. media has put on blinders so as not to notice the Swastikas and SS symbols festooning the Azov and other battalions, the reality has been that the neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have been the fiercest fighters in killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Wretched US Journalism on Ukraine.”]
On Saturday, German Economic News reported that the Ukrainian army appointed right-wing extremist Dimitri Jarosch as an official adviser to the army leadership as the Kiev regime – now bolstered by U.S. military equipment and training and receiving billions of dollars in Western aid – prepares for renewed fighting with eastern Ukraine.
The problem with Obama has been that – although he himself may be a “closet realist” willing to work with adversarial countries like Iran and Russia – he has not consistently challenged the neocons and their junior partners, the liberal interventionists. The liberals are particularly susceptible to propaganda campaigns involving non-governmental organizations that claim to promote “human rights” or “democracy” but have their salaries paid by the congressionally financed and neocon-run National Endowment for Democracy or by self-interested billionaires like financier George Soros.
The effectiveness of these NGOs in using social media and other forums to demonize targeted governments, as happened in Ukraine during the winter of 2013-14, makes it hard for honest journalists and serious analysts to put these crises in perspective without endangering their careers and reputations. Over the past year, anyone who questioned the demonization of Putin was denounced as a “Putin apologist” or a “Putin bootlicker.” Thus, many people not wanting to face such slurs either went along with the propagandistic “group think” or kept quiet.
Obama is one person who knows better but hasn’t been willing to contest Official Washington’s narratives portraying Putin or Assad or the Iranians or the Houthis as the devils incarnate. Obama has generally gone with the flow, joining the condemnations, but then resisting at key moments and refusing to implement some of the most extreme neocon ideas – such as bombing the Syrian army or shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine’s right-wing regime or forsaking negotiations and bombing Iran.
Pandering to Israel and Saudi Arabia
In other words, Obama has invested huge amounts of time and energy in trying to maintain positive relations with Netanyahu and the Saudi royals while not fully joining in their regional war against Iran and other Shiite-related governments and movements. Obama understands the enormous risk of allowing Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to gain firm control of a major Middle Eastern country.
Of course, if that happens in, say, Syria, Obama would be blamed for not overthrowing the Assad regime earlier, as if there actually was a “moderate opposition” that could have withstood the pressure of the Sunni extremists. Though the neocons and liberal interventionists have pretended that this “moderate” force existed, it was always marginal when it came to applying real power.
Whether one likes it or not, the only real force that can stop an Al-Qaeda or Islamic State victory is the Syrian army and the Assad regime. But Obama chose to play the game of demanding that “Assad must go” – to appease the neocons and liberal interventionists – while recognizing that the notion of a “moderate” alternative was never realistic.
As Obama told the New York Times Thomas L. Friedman in August 2014, the idea that the U.S. arming the “moderate” rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Behind Obama’s Chaotic Foreign Policy.”]
But Obama may be running out of time in his halfway strategy of half-heartedly addressing the real danger that lies ahead if the Islamic State and/or Al-Qaeda ride the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel to a victory in Syria or Iraq or Yemen.
If the United States has to recommit a major military force in the Middle East, the war would have little hope of succeeding but it would drain American resources – and eviscerate what’s left of the constitutional principles that founded the American Republic.