NBC’s Richard Engel told Andrea Mitchell on Meet the Press that the growth of ISIL in Iraq and Syria was
Yes. It was. But he’s starting the story too late. It was predictable, in a broad sense, long before reporters were reporting extremists in Syria. It was predictable because ISIS grew out of the occupation of Iraq, and there was always, always going to be something like it resulting from that occupation. What he’s describing is coming across white water, reporting that water is wet and suggesting there might be a waterfall up ahead. It’s hardly pat-on-the-back material.
Engel also reported that military commanders are “apoplectic” over the president’s inaction in Syria: “I speak to military commanders, I speak to former officials, and they are apoplectic. They think that this is a clear and present danger. They think something needs to be done.”
This, too, has been building for a while. It’s not just the Pentagon chafing at the bit: it’s State, too. Several high-level diplomats who worked on Syria left the service and were very vocal in the press and at roundtables/panels/etc immediately upon their departures, first among them former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. If you follow the State daily briefings like I had to for a while, it’s extremely clear between the lines. The military’s rumblings’ growing more publicly visible is slightly newer; but really what I’m seeing here is, yet again, government employees putting pressure on the administration via the press, rather than (in addition to) internally. Just a few weeks ago there was a Congressional briefing on the systemic executions carried out by the Asad regime (details here, but be warned—there are some upsetting pictures of emaciated and tortured corpses). This on its own seems innocuous enough—except for the timing. The witness who gave testimony to Congress had already done so for the UN weeks (months?) earlier; the images he collected as well as his report were verified by an international panel of experts prior to that. State actively advocated against this panel, and particularly against the inclusion of press, for fear for the informant’s safety. But someone wanted there to be a public showing of this; someone wanted to rub the administration’s face in it.
Note that I’m not saying that that desire is necessarily nefarious. But it does fit in with a general pattern of trying to push the administration to take further action (action exists, but basically what they’ve been doing is giving the moderate rebels enough support to maintain the status quo but not enough to win) by external means, presumably because they’re being firm internally about their desire not to get sucked into the conflict. And that kind of workaround pushing is very, very familiar from the runup to Iraq, and the attempted runup to a war in and with Iran a few years ago, and so on and so forth, and therefore it makes me suspicious.
Which brings us back to the same dilemma: US or UN intervention rarely helps, if ever—not to mention it’s fundamentally fucked up as a phenomenon—but there are actual Syrians calling for said intervention. It’s not really for me, I feel, to tell them they’re wrong, much as I despise the wages of US global hegemony—to say that Syrians shouldn’t look for more resources and more alternatives in the face of systemic and brutal horror because let me explain you a thing about imperialism. I think I still come out against it, because as I said, ISIS is in part a result of our last venture of this kind, and the cycle can only end by, uh, ending the cycle. The awful thing, though, the thing that really sticks in my craw, is that the consequence of leaving it alone is almost certainly that Asad stays in power. I have little doubt that ISIS can and will be at least significantly depowered by local actors: their program is so brutal and so repressive, and their effectiveness so dependent (from what I can tell) on the white heat of fanaticism without a nationalist or sectarian or otherwise more enduring base, that my bet is it can’t hold out too long. But if the priority becomes “we have to get rid of ISIS,” practicality means alliances will shift, and that means keeping Asad where he is in order to devote attention and force to ISIS. Which is exactly what he wanted from ISIS all along. There’s a reason the regime never directly attacked them, a reason it has barrel bombed civilian populations left and right but never aimed for ISIS’s big old base sitting right there for the bombing. ISIS is a spoiler in the Syrian war and the regime knows it, and honestly probably it’s going to work.