Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Frontline: “Confronting ISIS” (PBS-TV, October 11, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Contenders episode PBS aired a special two-hour Frontline show called “Confronting ISIS,” and I wondered if that would be a rerun of previous shows they’ve done on the rise of ISIS, but it was new — it took into account the events of late 2015 (notably the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino) and 2016. Its two main theses were that the Obama administration has been feckless in responding to the terror threat, too terrified of getting the U.S. involved in another ground war in the Middle East (almost inevitably the show includes the famous clip of Obama saying, “I got elected to stop wars, not start ’em!”) and too obsessed with finding “allies” in the fight against ISIS to take the step of direct military engagement; and that one reason Obama had such trouble finding allies, especially among Middle Eastern countries themselves, is that nowhere in that part of the region is there a country that regards ISIS as the primary threat to their own survival.

The show mentions one battle between ISIS and local anti-ISIS fighters in a town called (I think) Kobila on the border of Turkey and Syria, in which the U.S. decided they wanted to support the anti-ISIS fighters and Turkey wouldn’t send in their own troops (even though one would think any country would want to stop an armed conflict on their own border!) or let the U.S. use their big air base in Turkey to supply the anti-ISIS fighters. The reason was that the anti-ISIS fighters were Kurds, and the Turks regard the Kurds as a far more existential threat than they do ISIS and don’t want to do anything to give the Kurds a leg-up in a regional conflict. This pattern has occurred time and time again: Obama at one point thought he had a coalition of Arab states set up to fight ISIS, only at that time a Sunni-Shi’a civil war broke out in Yemen and the Sunni Arab states were far more interested in supporting the Sunni side in the Yemeni civil war than they were in fighting ISIS. Later Obama thought he had a deal with Russia for a joint intervention in Syria to bomb ISIS positions — only when the Russians finally started flying missions, they didn’t target ISIS. Instead they targeted the U.S.-backed “moderate Syrian rebels” on behalf of their ally, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad. At one point Obama gave a speech urging the Arab states in general and Saudi Arabia in particular to contribute more money to the anti-ISIS fight — and the Saudis responded by cutting off defense ties with the U.S. and using their army (equipped with high-tech weaponry mostly sold to them by, guess who, the U.S.) not to fight ISIS but to go up against proxy armies of the largest and most powerful Shi’a Muslim nation, Iran. Apparently the Saudis had gone even more ballistic about the nuclear arms control deal between the U.S. and Iran — the one that freed Iran to develop their civilian nuclear program and released $1.5 billion in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for an inspection system that will keep Iran from developing a bomb for 12 years — regarding it as an even more existential threat than the Israelis do, and so their main foreign-policy issue was controlling Iran and the wars they could fight in the region with that sort of money, not ISIS.

ISIS came up in the last Presidential debate in, ironically, one of the few sensible things Donald Trump actually said — that he disagreed with his running mate, Mike Pence, who’d said the U.S. might have to intervene militarily in Syria if Russia did. Trump’s argument was that we should be supporting anyone who’s killing ISIS fighters, no matter who they are or what their reason is for doing so — including Russia, Iran and the Assad government in Syria. There’s certainly a precedent for this: World War II, in which the U.S. and Great Britain basically ignored Joseph Stalin’s terrible human rights record and allied with him on the ground that Nazi Germany was the bigger, or at least the more immediate, threat and needed to be stopped even with help from so unwelcome a source as Stalin’s regime. Of course, there’s a contradiction between Trump calling for the U.S. to ally itself with Iran to fight ISIS and his attacks elsewhere in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal, but he’s got a point — just as Ted Cruz had a point in one of the Republican debates when he said that strictly from the point of view of U.S. interests, the U.S. was better off with Arab states being governed by secular dictators like Bashir al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Quaddafi and Saddam Hussein than with the regimes that have replaced them (or, in Assad’s case, are still trying to replace him) since. It was a call for the U.S. to stop trying to take down Assad (something we couldn’t do even if the Russians weren’t flying bombing missions to support him and wipe out the rebels — the only realistic outcomes for the Syrian civil war are an Assad victory, his replacement by Right-wing Islamist crazies aligned with al-Qaeda or ISIS, or the total breakdown of Syria as a state à la Somalia) and to support Generai Sisi, the Egyptian military leader who deposed Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (the first — and, it’s beginning to look like, the only — person ever fairly elected to be president of Egypt) and re-established the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip Morsi had taken down.

The problem with defeating ISIS is the problem with a “war on terror” in general; you can take out their leaders (as Hillary Clinton argued for in the last debate) but they’ve got a strong enough bench they can always replace them; and in the era of the Internet and social media it’s easy enough for ISIS to recruit people all over the world to commit acts of terror on their behalf without any discernible link to ISIS Central in Raqqa, Syria other than a history of looking at the ISIS Web site or Facebook page and clicking the button that says, “Swear allegiance.” (Alleged Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen showed his lack of understanding of the cause he was supposedly swearing allegiance to when he swore allegiance to ISIS and al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, three groups that hate each other almost as much as each hates the infidels.) I also liked the fact that the Frontline documentary on ISIS said the name — not “radical Islamic terror,” the term the Right in general and Donald Trump in particular is furious with Obama and Hillary Clinton for refusing to use, but Wahhabism, the ultra-reactionary sect of Islam that is the real driving force behind ISIS, al-Qaeda and the terror movement in general — and which is also the official state religion of Saudi Arabia (as the show made clear, the Saudi government and its clerical allies regard all non-Wahhabi Muslims as heretics and infidels — as do ISIS and their ilk, which is how they can kill them despite Muhammad’s injunction in the Quran that Muslims must never kill other Muslims), and which the U.S. has essentially supported with all the money for the oil we’ve bought from Saudi Arabia all these years.