Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.
According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.
Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.
US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it
Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria
The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.
It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.
Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria
Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.
These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them. Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.
Wielding US Power in the Middle East
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”
Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.
The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.
Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis
ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.
Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.
The Way Forward
Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.
Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.