Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria. It is also hoped those countries would become responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

Book Review: Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015)

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015), Michael Weiss and Hassan provide one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts of ISIS, how its seemingly meteoric rise occurred, and where the organization may be heading. Insights are provided on the concepts and intent of its leaders, both living and dead, as well as the organization’s inner workings. ISIS’ complicated relations with other terrorist organizations are discussed, as well as its relations with state actors, as allies and enemies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has achieved international celebrity as the terrorist organization eclipsing that of Al-Qaeda, known infamously for its attacks worldwide including those in the US on September 11, 2001.   ISIS is known for its gruesome acts of violence against military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians as well as the fact that it has established a so-called Islamic State in the Middle East on territory greater in size than many Western countries. It is a priority policy issue for the world’s military superpowers, the US and Russia, although their responses to it vary.

In ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Regan Arts., 2015), Michael Weiss and Hassan provide one of the most detailed and fascinating accounts of ISIS, how its seemingly meteoric rise occurred, and where the organization may be heading. Insights are provided on the concepts and intent of its leaders, both living and dead, as well as the organization’s inner workings. ISIS’ complicated relations with other terrorist organizations are discussed, as well as it relations with state actors, as allies and enemies. So rich is the text with information that it is a must have reference book on ISIS for every library.

Michael Weiss is editor in chief of The Interpreter, a news and translation service which serves as resource for journalists, diplomats, and policymakers globally. He also works as a columnist for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon and is on the staff of the Institute for Modern Russia. Weiss has covered the Syrian Revolution from its beginnings, reporting from refugee camps in southern Turkey and from the frontlines of war-torn Aleppo. Using leaked state documents, he broke the story that Iran is providing virtually free oil to the Assad regime. Hassan Hassan is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He is also a columnist for The National in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He was formerly deputy comment editor for The National and research associate at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, where he worked in journalism and research. Hassan’s focus is Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf States, but he also studies Islamist, Salafism and jihadist movements in the wider region. His writings have appeared in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times.

A few short years ago, ISIS was really a matter of interest on to those focused on the Middle East or counterterrorism. A new media story on ISIS then hardly could have drawn the attention in the average household in the West away from popular reality television programs or the latest celebrity gossip. ISIS returned to the forefront among foreign policy issues when it began taking foreign journalists and aid workers hostage in order to secure massive ransoms by negotiations and placing online video of the beheading the hostages when payments were not made or not made to their satisfaction. ISIS became a priority in Western capitals when its fighters drove through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. It was then that Weiss and Hassan decided to write ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Their purpose was to explain where ISIS came from and how it managed to do so much damage in such a short period of time that summer in an effort to answer the two questions repeatedly asked on the cable news programs at the time. They admit finding it a bit odd discussing ISIS as some “new sensation” when in reality the US had been at war with ISIS for several years. The two engaged in an impressive amount of research for this book and brought it all together brilliantly. Sources include US and regional military officials, intelligence operatives, and Western diplomats who tracked, fought, and jailed members of ISIS. Intriguingly, defected Syrian intelligence operative and diplomats, and Syrians who work for ISIS also served as sources.

Weiss and Hassan begin by discussing the complex history of ISIS in great detail, showing how ISIS had been present in Iraq under various titles for over a decade. It was once known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then the Mujahidin Advisory Council. Its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was anointed the leader of AQI by Osama Bin Laden, himself. Zarqawi set AQI off on a virulent and costly struggle against US-led coalition forces. When Zarqawi was killed by US forces in 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, renamed AQI, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). By 2010, ISI was being battered by a combination of US joint Special Operations Command raids, the operations of US surge brigades, the activities of the Sunni based Sons of Iraq militias, and ISI’s own poor communications. The Sons of Iraq were part of the Sunni Awakening—a response in part to atrocities committed by Al-Qaeda on tribes in the Anbar Province. ISI was pummeled by the US. Yet, after the US left Iraq, ISI managed to rebuild on foreign aid and the exploitation of decades old transnational grey markets for oil and arms trafficking.

Concerning Syria, the authors explain ISIS was initially active there under the auspices of their parent group the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) for years prior to the civil war between the Syrian Opposition Movement and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  It was one of many Islamic militant groups active underground by 2012. AQI, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. In Syria, its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity. It was already the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Syrian Opposition Movement’s Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was also the most active and successful group, conducting assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials as well.  However, they soon became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing commanders and fighters. ISIS claimed it was in response to what they identified as corrupt, non-Islamic behavior. Yet, they also killed popular commanders who were key in the FSA’s fight against the Syrian Armed Forces. ISIS’ behavior was so abhorrent and its leaders so difficult to cope with that even Al-Qaeda’s leadership and its other affiliates in Syria broke with the group. By the time the Syrian Opposition Movement’s leaders “opened their eyes” to the problems ISIS was causing, the group had grown too large to reign in. Two years of mishandled arms deliveries and aid to the Syrian Opposition forces from Western and Arab countries allowed for that growth. The berm barriers between Iraq and Syria that stood for a little less than one hundred years as a result of a British-French colonial compact are gone now. Leaders of ISIS declared there would only be a caliphate. They feel it could possibly spread as far as Spain and capture Rome. Et sceleratis sol oritur! (The sun shines even on the wicked!)

The ISIS fighters above are standing on the “former” border between Syria and Iraq. The berm barriers between Iraq and Syria that stood for a little less than one hundred years as a result of a British-French colonial compact are gone now. Leaders of ISIS declared there would only be a caliphate. They expressed the hope that it would possibly spread as far as Spain and eventually capture Rome.

As explained in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the leaders of ISIS have succeeded in summoning the fainéant, the misguided, the ignorant to their cause using demagoguery, violence and hatred dressed up with Islamic embellishments. Although they claim to be ample substitutes for God on Earth, they are little more than pied pipers. In the end, they never fail to lead their followers over the cliff to their destruction. An interesting history is provided on the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After ISIS captured Mosul during its major offensive in June 2014, Baghdadi, made a rare appearance. As the authors described, Baghdadi was draped in black, keeping things obscure, a bit spooky. He gave the impression that he was a man who possessed answers to great mysteries of the universe. He went on to claim he was heir to the medieval Abbasid Caliphate as well as the embodied spirit of his Jordanian predecessor, Zarqawi, who spoke from the same Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq. Presenting the concept and intent of ISIS, the authors quote Baghdadi as explaining the nations of the Fertile Crescent no longer existed and all forms of citizenship no longer existed. There was only the Islamic State. He divided humanity into two camps: first, there was the “camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin [holy warriors], everywhere; and, second, the “camp of the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies.” As part of Baghdadi’s evil vision, and as well as his predecessor Zarqawi, there would be zero tolerance for the existence of “the Jews, the Crusaders, their allies” but certainly Shia, Allawites, and minority sects and ethnicities. Members of those groups have met grisly deaths at the hands of ISIS.

After ISIS captured Mosul during its offensive in June 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a rare appearance. He was draped in black, keeping things dark, a bit spooky. Baghdadi claimed to be the heir to the medieval Abbasid Caliphate as well as the embodied spirit of his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Although ISIS’ leaders portray themselves as ample substitutes for God on Earth, they are little more than pied pipers. In the end, they will lead their followers over the cliff to their destruction.

Perhaps the dark and mystifying personage Baghdadi presented in Mosul in 2014 was also meant to reflect the very bloody, murderous side of ISIS. By its actions, ISIS has left no doubt that it is not only as a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. Its members exalt death and relish the act of killing. Murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians is not viewed as wrongful, immoral. The author’s discuss a 2008 study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that reported numerous foreign fighters sent into Iraq from Syria listed their occupations as “suicide bombers.” They accept themselves as being expendable.

Weiss and Hassan explain how ISIS skillfully uses social media to recruit members. They also discuss how prisons in the Middle East have become “virtual terror academies,” where known extremists can congregate, plot, organize, and hone their leadership skills “inside the wire,” and where ISIS is recruiting a new generation of fighters. The authors claim that in prison Zarqawi became more focused, brutal, and decisive.

ISIS has left little doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization but also a pagan death cult. Its members exalt death and relish killing. Murdering military prisoners, hostages, and innocent civilians is not viewed as wrongful, immoral. In a 2008 study produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, numerous foreign fighters sent to Iraq from Syria had listed their occupations as “suicide bombers,” viewing themselves as expendable.

What was particularly interesting in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror was the authors’ discussion of misguided and failed responses of state actors, particularly the US, Iraq, and Syria to ISIS woven through the text. Each state became alert to the opportunity to respond to ISIS with either force or manipulate ISIS for its own purposes. In each case, officials of the respective countries made the wrong choice. The administration of US President Barack Obama refused to take seriously what journalists and members of humanitarian aid and relief organizations on the ground were reporting about ISIS as well as what the administration officials were seeing for themselves in news media videos. Its murderous activities revealed ISIS as more than just another Islamic militant group fighting the Assad regime under the Syrian Opposition Movement’s umbrella. Still, the administration minimized the threat that ISIS posed. As the authors explain, “Five months before the fall of Mosul, President Obama had regrettably dismissed ISIS in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick as the ‘jay-vee’ squad of terrorists.” Retired or anonymous senior officials in the US intelligence community occasionally leaked assessments of ISIS as something more formidable, but their efforts were always quieted. Alitur vitium vivitque tegendo! (Vice is nourished by being concealed!)

In no small part due to the Obama administration’s delinquency, Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria reached a considerable size and strength. Having become a fixture in Syria guaranteed they would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, they would never cease their struggle for control of Syria under any deal. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those the Syrian Opposition Movement. While mainstream FSA forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic state on Syrian territory. Since 2014, the US has been working on the margins, training and equipping of Syrian Opposition forces and Kurdish forces. It has also led a coalition of countries in an air campaign against ISIS. Weiss and Hassan provide evidence that puts the effectiveness of both operations in question.

Five months before the fall of Mosul, Obama dismissed ISIS in an interview as the “jay-vee” squad of terrorists. Due in part to the Obama administration’s delinquency, groups as ISIS reached considerable size and strength in Syria and Iraq. Since 2014, the US has been working on the margins, training and equipping of Syrian Opposition forces and Kurdish forces and leading a coalition in an air campaign against ISIS. Evidence provided by Weiss and Hassan puts the effectiveness of those operations in question.

When the US invaded Iraq, Weiss and Hassan explain Zarqawi found some of his most enthusiastic champions among the remnants of one of the very “near enemies” he had declared himself in opposition to: Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Deal making between former regime military and security service leaders and Al-Qaeda made ISIS, then AQI, a potent foe for the US-led coalition. At the top of the Iraqi collaborators with al-Qaeda was Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Long before US forces entered Iraq, Douri had established a state sanctioned organized crime network to evade UN sanctions. His networks were tied into the Iraqi security services such as the Special Security Organization (SSO). SSO was the most powerful security apparatus in prewar Iraq and was in charge of the Special Republican Guard and Special Forces. The safe houses of suicide bombers were adjacent to the homes of SSO officers. The SSO could also make use of an underground apparatus constructed by Saddam Hussein for counterrevolution against rebellious Shia and Kurds. The authors cite the work on the Second Gulf War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage Books, 2013) in which they stated “networks of safe houses and arms caches for paramilitary forces, including materials for making improvised explosives, were established throughout the country.” Those networks proved invaluable to the insurgency. Added to the mix was the impact of Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign, designed to marry Baath ideology of regime elite with Islamism, which he also put in the hands of Douri. While Saddam Hussein hoped to reach into the society of Islamist scholars with his intelligence officers to control them, the authors indicate they were influenced by Salafist teachings. Loyalties had already shifted from Saddam Hussein to the Salafists before the invasion. By October 2003, when Osama bin Laden called for foreign fighters to enter Iraq, members of Saddam Hussein’s regime had already established “rat lines”—corridors for foreign fighters—to transport them to a variety of terrorist cells and organizations around the Middle East and North Africa. An Iraqi general named Muhammed Khairi al-Barhawi was reportedly given the responsibility for training jihadists. The authors cite a US military source as saying the idea behind this effort was one could avoid strikes from terrorists by understanding who they were and keeping them close. Most of the current top decision makers, planners, in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. The authors explained that the ability of ISIS to mobilize and deploy fighters with a professional acumen that had impressed the US military. ISIS has a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus that infiltrates rival organizations and silently recruits within their ranks before taking them over, routing them in combat, or seizing their land. Despite possibly participating in crackdowns ordered by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and Shia, former regime military and security officers perhaps never foresaw themselves as being the force behind the endless killing of countrymen they once swore to defend and the disintegration of the country they once swore to protect. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, the renowned Roman dictator, speaking against his reelection to the consulship spoke words apropos for the members of the Saddam Hussein’s military and security forces who have assisted ISIS. He stated, “Go on Conscript Fathers to imitate the inconsiderate multitude, and you who ought to show an example to the rest rather follow the steps of others in a wrong cause then guide them into the light.” Nosce te ipsum! (Know thyself!)

Many top military decision makers, planners, in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. They have allowed ISIS to mobilize and deploy fighters with a professional acumen and operate a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus. Despite possibly participating in crackdowns ordered by Saddam Hussein, former regime military and security officers perhaps never foresaw themselves as being the force behind the endless killing of their fellow countrymen and Iraq’s disintegration.

In looking at the Syrian civil war, the authors explain that despite the Assad regime claims of being a victim of ISIS, Assad regime officials collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist militants, even before Saddam Hussein’s regime was brought down, to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq to destabilize the US-led Coalition’s occupation. In doing so, they created the fertile conditions for such terrorism to take root inside Syria. Among the evidence, they report that in 2007, the US Central Command captured “a Saddam Fedayeen leader involved in setting up training camps in Syria for Iraqi and foreign fighters.” That same year in Sinjar, US forces also killed “Muthanna,” a man designated as Al-Qaeda’s emir for the Syria-Iraq border region. Muthanna reportedly possessed a cache of useful intelligence which became known as the Sinjar Records. The Sinjar Records indicated that foreign fighters were entering Iraq from the Syrian Province of Deir Ezzor, typically using the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, which is adjacent to the Iraqi city of Qa’im. It was in Qa’im that Zarqawi established his headquarters after fleeing Fallujah in 2004. Most of the foreign fighters that moved into Iraq from Syria were hosted by Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. Working with Shawkat from Al-Qaeda was Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih or Abu Ghadiyah a Mosulawi from Iraq. He was named chief of AQI logistics by al-Zarqawi in 2004. Just as his predecessor Sulayman Khalid Darwish was killed by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2005, Ghadiyah was killed by JSOC in 2008 and was succeeded by Abu Khalaf, who was killed by JSOC in 2008. Yet, the rat lines from Syria to Iraq remained open. It was through diplomatic talks between the US State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin and Assad’s Director for General Intelligence, Ali Mamlouk, that an agreement for Syria to halt the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq was quelled. Many of the foreign fighters who had move through Syrian rat lines to Iraq found themselves, upon their return, collated and arrested by the same Syrian intelligence service that facilitated their travel. Yet, in an odd twist, the Syrian Government saw opportunity in releasing them. Indeed, when the Syrian Revolution started they were released under a General Amnesty on the advice of Syrian intelligence officers who reportedly told Assad that although there were disadvantages to freeing them, there were was advantage, opportunity, because it would convince the world that the Assad regime was facing Islamic terrorism. That misguided act appears to have resulted in one of the worst cases of blowback in modern history. Invitat culpam qui peccatum praeterit. (Pardon one offense and you encourage the commission of many.)

Despite the Assad regime’s claims of being a victim of international terrorism, Assad regime officials collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist militants, even before Saddam Hussein’s regime was brought down, to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq to destabilize the US-led Coalition’s occupation. In doing so, they created the fertile conditions for such terrorism to take root inside Syria.

Russia is the latest state actor to respond to ISIS. As Weiss and Hassan explained, of all the foreign fighters that have come to Iraq, ISIS holds fighters from South Russia in the highest regard. Chechens as a rule are viewed by the other fighters as the most formidable warriors. The possibility that Russian fighters with experience in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s greatest concerns. By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, Putin also seeks to protect the Assad regime and support its ally Iran in-country. He certainly has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little directly against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would disrupt and defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. To that extent, efforts to comfort the Syrian Opposition forces will likely impact Russia’s approach. What most likely matters most to Putin is the outcome. Festina lente! (Make haste slowly!)

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, Putin also seeks to protect the Assad regime and support its ally Iran in-country. Some claim Russia has done little directly against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would disrupt and defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad.

There is so much to discover in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Among those who have read it , the book has already become a source of endless discussion and debate about ISIS. It is a pleasure for greatcharlie to introduce many of our readers to this truly well-written, well-researched book on ISIS. The book is difficult to pull away from, and its readers are guaranteed to go through it more than once. Regardless of their degree of interest on ISIS, readers will greatly appreciate acquiring the book. Without hesitation, greatcharlie highly recommends ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Our Fight against Violent Extremism Goes Beyond Using Force Obama Says: How to Cope with Errant Young Men

US President Barack Obama says extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will not be defeated solely by military force. He says concerned nations must fight violent extremism by countering messages of those groups that seduce young men, and some young women, to join their ranks. In addition to any work on the internet, success will require aiding families’ efforts to keep their children away from those groups.

In a February 18, 2015 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed entitled, “Our Fight against Violent Extremism”, US President Barack Obama explained “The US has made significant gains against terrorism,” but also noted that “the US campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” Obama’s Op-Ed echoed remarks he made during a three–day summit in February 2015 on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, attended by representatives from over 60 countries. Noting that a US-led multinational coalition was engaged in a fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which he refers to as ISIL, Obama further explained in his Op-Ed that “We know that military force alone cannot solve this problem. Nor can we simply take out terrorists who kill innocent civilians.” As an additional approach, Obama stated that “We also have to confront the violent extremists—the propagandists, recruiters and enablers—who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so.” One plan Obama proffered to counter the interpretation of Islam promoted by ISIS and al-Qaeda is to “help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the internet.”

Despite Obama’s clarion call to arms, in both his Op-Ed and in a speech at the CVE summit, a February 19, 2015 New York Times article indicated many leaders and officials attending the meeting doubted his administration had the ability to counter extremist messages, especially from ISIS. It has a reach and agility in social media that surpasses that of the US government. Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization, emphasized in her presentation at the conference, “We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quality and quantity, and in terms of amplification strategies.” She explained that there was a “monumental gap” between ISIS, which uses social media services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the Obama administration, other governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Havlicek called for private firms to become involved in what she called “the communications problem of our time.” Administration officials sense they face a huge challenge. US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes explained “You could hypothetically eliminate the entire ISIL [ISIS] safe haven, but still face a threat from the kind of propaganda they disseminate over social media.” Yet, most promising about Obama’s Op-Ed was his claim “We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.” Aiding efforts within families to defeat the influence of extremist groups is the key to long-term success.

When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were on the march, there were voices of great men and women in Europe who spoke out against the evil Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini embodied. They outlined the crimes and atrocities committed by authorities of those regimes. Their messages were genuine, truthful, and were heard. For those innocent people trapped in lands dominated by their regimes, those important words helped them hold on to their humanity and hope. However, in the end, the use of force was the only way to defeat such evil. Western powers now search for the bromide to destroy the appeal of ISIS among many young Muslim men and weaken the organization. Developing a counter-ISIS or counter-Islamic extremism message is a formidable undertaking. Nevertheless, the attempt to approach the issue must begin with a look within the families of young Muslim men. The response of those young men to ISIS or a similar Islamic extremist group will be determined foremost by the perspective of his family toward such groups. He must be provided with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundation which would lead him to reject ISIS, or any other Islamic extremist group, hoping to capitalize on his devotion to Islam. By the time the young man first views any Islamic extremist material on the internet, instilled in him should be all that he needs to know in order to turn away from it. Dictum sapienti sat est! (A word to the wise is sufficient!)

Young men who convey an enhanced devotion to Islam in their communities are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. The recruiters condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually, radical views are insinuated into the relationship.

The First Brush with Extremism: The Best Chance Counter It

From many angles, young men are pulled into the grip of Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. A young man can often become bound up in himself, making of himself a very small package. That sort of young man does not learn from adversity or difficulties, but is instead humbled by lessons. He is destroyed by humiliations. Pessimism infiltrates his thinking. He may seek to become somebody to everyone else, and not for himself. Young people of this age become easily seduced by the culture of entertainment. To acquire attention or importance, some young men may seek to convey a religiosity. It may make them seem spooky among some friends and neighbors, but favored among those in their family mosques who will respect their new devotion. Such young men are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. They condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually radical views are insinuated into their relationship.

Long before those recruiters reach the young man, his family may discern changes in his perspective. He has perhaps become more cynical and may often display petulance and a rebellious attitude. The family wants to believe that, in his heart, the young man is approaching Islam as he was taught at home. It will expect the young man to be guided by integrity and that he will keep things in perspective and act with proportion in mind. The family will hope that the young man will accept that the religion it taught him, serves to provide guidance on living in communion with God and on traveling the path that God makes for him. However, the fear may build that he will approach Islam as a novelty and expression of ego or pride, as ISIS presents it. The family, more precisely, his parents, want the young man to be the very best he can be. They may recall great dreams of his youth in which he wanted to be an educator, carpenter, or entrepreneur, or dreams they had of him becoming a doctor, lawyer, political leader, or manage the family business. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While parents may believe there many other things for their son to work toward, that belief will be confounded by his new religious focus that they may notice is straying toward radicalism.

At his university, a young man is taught about the lives of noble figures from the past. Professors discuss the past and the young man learns what works and what does not. He discovers that there is a harmony in how the world works. Further, in the classroom, the young man may begin to understand the human soul, especially his own. Yet, radical views can reach a young man during this learning process. Much as shallows of water may be clear to the bottom, shallow thinking can make a lot of sense to a poor thinker. The young man attempts to find deep truth surrounded by a world of lies provided by the Islamic extremist group. In becoming more radical than spiritual, the young man becomes a more tragic, apathetic figure as time goes on. While the classic approach to religion has stood the test of time, the sorrow of the age is that young men are often drawn to the latest style of the day. ISIS is the latest fad of the day. While claiming to adhere to Islam, ISIS merely pantomimes it. The actions of its members indicate a rejection of God, and are befitting of the most pagan religions on record. Yet, it provides a “feel-good” religiosity for spiritually ungrounded young men, searching for something bigger and better. ISIS recruiters can convince the young man ISIS is that bigger and better thing. ISIS’ establishment of the Islamic Caliphate supports that notion. The idea of being associated with celebrity substitutes itself for worship. It plays into the young man’s vision of his own greatness.

Good parents want their children to be the very best they can be. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While they may want their children to work toward great things, that hope can be confounded by a son’s new religious focus that may be straying toward radicalism. They must fight to prevent that.

It is at this point the family has the best chance to stop the young man by speaking to him as an individual. The Islamic extremist recruiter speaks to him as being one of many. Lies cannot survive before the truth. However, the individual must respond to the truth. The young man must recognize that nothing will be accomplished through ISIS, particularly in this world of impermanence. If the family has raised the young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he may turn back at this point. Many young men, however, prefer to reject the truth and dismiss reality. They redefine what exists into projections of their egos. They then seek to satisfy their passions. The Romans would refer to this as laetizia. They sense the power, celebrity and the satisfaction of the ego that the process of joining ISIS provides. They “understand” ISIS’ need to have its way with others through domination and control. It is what the Romans would refer to as felicitas. However, one degrades oneself by imposing ones world view on others through political slavery and moral bondage. Those who have held absolute power over others in history are often found in the end holding on to power by their fingernails, knowing if they let go they will be destroyed. When challenged, they self-destruct rather than face retribution. Cupido dominandi cunctis adfectibus flagrentior est. (The lust for power inflames the heart more than any other passion.)

There are some young men who reach a point where they seek to strike out on their own, perhaps feeling stifled or encumbered by their routine lives with their families. This occurs worldwide, regardless of religion. The young man may decide to go into a self-imposed exile. He becomes deaf to voices of reason, proportion, truth in his life. He seems to live off a steady diet of ego and soul-searching. He wiles the idea of fabricating a life and a reality that cannot be built. When this youthful zeal becomes tied in young Muslim men to the illusion that ISIS or another Islamic extremist group will allow for the best use of his powers, he may be drawn by the conviviality of recruiters or gossamer fantasies of brotherhood and unity offered by ISIS and other groups on the internet. His family’s only hope is that the young man will discover his error early on. If not, he may travel to Syria or Iraq where many soul-searching young men are killed.

Hoping Seeds of Reason Sown Earlier Will Sprout

No matter how a young man eventually arrives on the road to Syria or Iraq, he is undoubtedly filled with an anticipation of what he might find. He likely believes that away from his home, his family, a paradise awaits. This thinking is promoted by the ISIS recruiters with whom they have dealt. In a euphoric state, the young man views his surroundings as being lush. As he passes through the so-called Islamic Caliphate, his “new home,” he is impressed by the size of the territory the group holds. He sees the nearly endless columns of vehicles and heavy weapons captured from the Iraqi Security Forces. He observes ISIS fighters clad in camouflage uniforms and brandishing a variety of small arms and multiple bandoliers of bullets and grenades and AK-47 magazines. In towns and villages he passes through, he sees commercial activity and the people appear supportive of ISIS. Despite the discouraging remarks of family and friends, the young man may feel that he has placed himself on track to become “true warrior for Islam.” He and the other deluded young men with whom ISIS has him traveling to a training camp likely congratulate each other over their accomplishment. The young man continues to receive encouragement from ISIS members during his training. However, after training is completed and there is no longer the need to seduce the young man, attention placed on the young man soon wanes. When the spotlight shined on him, there was a palpable sense of celebrity. Once the spotlight goes off, his sense of importance fades.

As a novice member of the group, he discovers an organizational structure where he is on the bottom. The young man, albeit trained to fight the ISIS way, is required to perform common tasks for strangers that he probably never would have been asked to perform at home. He may be directed to help gather the dead from battlefields under the guns of watchful opposing snipers. He may be ordered to help with the preparation meals for other fighters, serve tea or meals to leaders and commanders, or run errands. He may understand that in the Islamic Caliphate, all are ruled under Sharia law. He may have found that attractive before he joined ISIS. However, in Syria or Iraq, he finds himself placed under rules and regulations a bit different than he imagined. He learns that in the Islamic Caliphate, Sharia law is determined by whoever is in charge where one is and not a central authority. He becomes witness to atrocities against Syrian and Iraqi citizens, much of it being of a revolting, degenerate nature, meant to control and terrorize the inhabitants of towns and cities. He also discovers infractions of that individual’s vision of Sharia law can lead to summary execution, even for ISIS fighters. Indeed, fighters are killed by ISIS now and then partly with the goal of encouraging others to stay “in line.”

If a family has raised a young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he should turn away from it.

At the front, what the young man learned in the abstract from the internet does not survive his first day with war’s realities. He may find himself in ranks with other new recruits and regularly thrown into wasteful human wave attacks or diversionary moves to draw fire from opponents. Those moves would cover the more effective, more protected maneuvers of more experienced ISIS fighters. New recruits may be encouraged or ordered to execute a suicide bombing. Afraid to refuse, they meet their end. Setbacks, heavy losses, and wasteful actions, allow the young man to get a true picture of ISIS. They discover that war is not thrilling or glorious, but odious and terror filled. They may face the reality that ISIS is fighting people who only wish to protect their families and save their homes. Fictio credit veritati! (Fiction yields to the truth!)

Finding a Way Out of Extremist Groups: The Family Is the Beacon

There will be young men truly lacking judgment or overwhelmed by madness who will not be repulsed by ISIS’ actions. They will find pleasure in what is evil. They will be immune to the cries and lamentations of innocent civilians. Madness rejects truth. However, among those with sense, the truth of what ISIS is doing may be overwhelming. Soon enough, their self-imposed exile will become home sickness. The voice of rebellion loses the struggle with the voice of reason and truth. Thoughts of how he previously employed cunning in his actions, now creates a sense of shame. The association with ISIS becomes senseless. Despite all of the mistakes he has made, the best hope for him at this point is to somehow try to get away from ISIS before it is too late. Traveling back on the road he took to reach ISIS, there is little excitement in the young man. He may see the same weapons and know that they were just trophies, a sign of ISIS’s vanity, and were not used on the battlefield. The dead and wounded become more apparent, and he wonders how many of those he came with are still alive. The fighters in camouflage, brandishing weapons, cause him alarm for he cannot be certain if they represent some rabidly violent local ISIS authority and are seeking out an unwitting ISIS fighter of which they can use to display their power and their will. He now knows the people in the towns and villages are not supportive of ISIS. Rather, they are intimidated and enslaved by it. The young man’s own errors will become more pronounced as his conscience speaks to him. He may find some relief only when he holds himself accountable for any crimes he may have witnessed, been party to, or committed while with ISIS. The incidence of post traumatic stress among those unable to cope with their time in ISIS must be considerable. The young man’s family may bemoan over his initial failure to respond properly, to adhere with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundations that were instilled within him. Working with government authorities, the family can help set a new path for him. He can make amends for what he has done to them, others, and himself.

More often than not, families manage to defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family, and his responsibility to it, will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in the young man due to delusion, the love for family can find its way to the surface.

The Way Forward: Redemption, Defeating the Threat to Others

The story of a family worrying over the return of a young man who acts on thoughts of running off from home and involves himself with the loathsome, is not new. That story has been told for thousands of years. Two thousand years ago, it was best told as the Parable of the Prodigal Son in The New Testament. Leaving the warm embrace of his family for something bigger and better than what he knew, his adventure turned into tragedy as he found himself tending pigs and nearly challenging them for their slop. He was lucky enough to find his way back home to his loving father. With clarity, the young man amended his ways and found a better path in life. Similarly, young men who leave home to join ISIS soon find themselves among repugnant men who behave worse than pigs and find themselves immersed in an illegitimate fight in which they engage in murder and destruction and feel shame, disgrace, and self-loathing: slop.

The family unit is the most powerful and effective counter to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. Those groups should not be able to influence young Muslim men if their families have provided solid spiritual, and moral and ethical foundations for them. Their extremist views will be an annoyance more than anything else. Clearly, the majority of young men have rejected it. If a young man becomes radicalized, hope remains that the truth about Islam, instilled in him by his family during his youth, will overcome extremist lies. More often than not, families will defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family and his responsibility to it will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in a young man due to delusion, love for family can still find its way to the surface.

As mentioned, there will always be “hard cases”, madmen and the senseless, on which no counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist effort will have impact. There will be cases in which a father or brother of poor judgment may cause a young man to follow them into ISIS, into some other radical group, or to commit a terrorist act. However, the focus of Western efforts should be on the positively minded families. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and, mothers in particular, have the power to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts. A young Muslim man is most receptive to messages from them. Early in his life, they must make their opinions on groups such as ISIS known to him. There must be clarity in his thinking on those groups. Without the participation of families, counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist efforts will fail. Engaging in a long-term approach that includes families will ensure the effort to defeat Islamic extremism will become a generational affair. Dabit deushis quoque finem! (God will bring an end to this!)

Iraq’s Premier Narrows the Divide, but Challenges Loom: Will Abadi Take a Path Being Created by Iran?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (left) is pictured in an October 2014 meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) in Tehran. Abadi has been successful in mitigating sectarian tension in Iraq. However, with some prodding from Tehran, Abadi now seems to be leaning toward Iran and challenging the administration of US President Barack Obama on its support and commitment to his government.

According to a December 15, 2014 New York Times article entitled “Iraq’s Premier Narrows the Divide, but Challenges Loom”, in nearly every way, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far been a different leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, despite their common Shi’a political bloc. Although the obstacles facing his government are considerable and he faces political challenges within his own party, Abadi’s early performance has encouraged many Western officials. In his first months in office, Abadi has already appeared three times before Parliament which Maliki only did twice in eight years. Abadi has fired incompetent and corrupt military commanders appointed by Maliki and rooted out 50,000 so-called ghost soldiers; no-show troops for whom commanders nevertheless collect salaries. The December 15th New York Times article quoted Gyorgy Busztin, the Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations in Iraq, as saying “He [Abadi] is doing all the things we feared he wouldn’t be doing.” While many officials credit Abadi’s conciliatory style for the improved political environment, they say the changes also point to a new sense of urgency in Baghdad that Iraq might finally break apart in the face of the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Abadi’s greatest test to date came when an Iraqi court sentenced a prominent Sunni politician to death. It was panning out to be an unmitigated disaster for the country’s new prime minister. The verdict, on capital murder charges brought by the previous government against the politician, Ahmed al-Alwani, prompted the defendant’s Alwani tribe to threaten the termination of its coordination with the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS. However, Abadi moved quickly to mitigate the problem. He immediately contacted Sunni officials and Alwani tribe members, assuring them that there would be no execution. He urged them to solve the matter by the tribal tradition of paying “blood money” to the families of the two soldiers who were killed in a gun battle when commandos came to arrest Alwani last year.

However, the December 15th New York Times article also explained that Abadi faces constraints from hard-line factions within his own Shi’a constituency. For example, Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi said that even though Sunni officials were optimistic about Abadi’s intentions, they remained worried about the “old guard,” a reference to Maliki and his cronies, who many believe are working behind the scenes to undermine Abadi. Maliki had already been accused of inflaming sectarian hostility. It was a made cause for the US push for his removal. His reputation was made worse by his open opposition of a deal to share oil revenue with the Kurds. He called the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June a conspiracy orchestrated by the Kurds. It is believed that ISIS’ march over a vast swath of Iraq has been aided by sectarian hostility which Maliki’s rule inflamed. Maliki warned against arming Sunni tribes to fight ISIS. His lack of support for Abadi has also been evinced by his refusal to vacate his prime minister’s offices and palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is the possibility that Maliki is driven purely by his own political objectives and the hope that he might return to power sometime in 2015.

However, it may also be that Maliki’s actions have been driven by Iran. Tehran may be using Maliki both as leverage with Abadi and as a possible replacement, should he take what Iranian leaders in Tehran might view as an overly conciliatory approach toward other sectarian groups in Iraq and move too close to the US. Part of that effort also appears to include having Maliki maintain close linkages with Iran’s Shi’a partners in the region, including groups such as Hezbollah. Abadi must remain concerned with reactions from his Shi’a political base to his bona fides as leader of Iraq’s Shi’a community upon which his political survival depended. Indeed, it appears Iran’s approach is working. True, Iraqi leaders have always visited Iran since the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition. Yet, recent visits by Abadi and other senior Iraqi officials indicate Iran still holds considerable influence with them. There is palpable feeling in the air that renewed linkages between Iraqi Shi’a political leaders and Tehran has been created. It has been firmed by Iran’s efforts and sacrifice in defense of Iraqi cities, towns, and citizens from ISIS.

Doubts Arise about Abadi in the US

When the ISIS blitzkrieg began in Iraq on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was seen as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. The militants captured large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces in their June offensive after Sunni residents threw their support to the group after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battled the ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Obama went as far as to insist that no US military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, tried to make headway on the issue. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down in August, and Abadi took over with a mandate to establish a new government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged many US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 1,700 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops would also prepare the Iraqi Army for a ground offensive against the ISIS. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for the spring of 2015. Obama announced in November that the US would send 1,500 additional troops as part of a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish brigades for a renewed push against ISIS. Obama also sought to support plans to create as many as three brigades of Iraqi National Guard units drawn from members of Sunni tribes in the Anbar province to fight AQI. Those tribal militias were a vital part of the “Sunni Awakening” that began in August 2006, during which Sunni fighters turned against AQI. The tribal militias cooperated with US troops in killing large numbers of AQI militants and in pushing the group out of its longtime stronghold in Anbar province. ISIS’s June offensive was launched from Anbar, and it has been consolidating its control over the province.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, stated for the New York Times in an email that Abadi and the Iraqi government “have made clear that Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be a part of the effort to defeat ISIL [ISIS] and for the security of their provinces.” Baskey went on to comment on Abadi’s participation at a December 3, 2014 Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial in Brussels. He stated that Abadi “once again acknowledged that military action alone will not defeat ISIL [ISIS] and that positive steps toward governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction will be needed in this fight. This process will take time but it is now underway. The new government is working to integrate tribal fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces.”

However, Abadi, during a December 9, 2014 meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reportedly made a strong push for more weapons and expressed doubts about reconciling with Sunni tribes. According to a December 14, 2014 ForeignPolicy.com article, Abadi’s approach caused US and European officials to worry whether the US-led coalition was rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. Talk began of holding back the deployment of the additional 1,500 US troops as a way to indicate US displeasure at Abadi. However, it was recognized that any slowdown or hesitation on the part of the US to execute its plan to train and equip the Iraqi military as well as support for the formation of national guard units will have far-reaching consequences. An anonymous US official was quoted in the December 14th ForeignPolicy.com. article as stating if the US waits to deploy additional forces “or if we look like we are starting to wobble in our commitment to Iraq we’ll pay for that inside the coalition and we’ll pay for that with our Arab partners.” Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet! (He who feared he would not succeed sat still!)

Iran Seeks to Guide Abadi’s Way

It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Iran would tolerate any reduction of its influence or surrender its interests in Iraq as a result of the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing that the type of representative government the US sought to construct for Iraq could not be designed easily, Iranian leaders seemed to believe the US would fail to create it. Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.” After some political horse-trading, Maliki was pushed out and Abadi was brought in. However, Iranian leaders did not concede that the US was better able to manage Iraqi politics. In response, Iran committed itself heavily to Iraq expecting to acquire even greater influence in the country and with Abadi.

Tehran eventually expressed support for Abadi, but it was reserved. It came in the form of congratulations from the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral (Daryābān) Ali Shamkhani. On August 12, 2014, Shamkhani offered congratulations to the Iraqi people and their leaders for choosing Abadi as their new prime minister. He also stated that Iran supported “the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister.” Yet, the Iranian leadership’s authentic sentiments on the matter were best expressed by Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati. On June 19, 2014, Velayati explained, “[Nouri Maliki] is the best figure among existing Iraqi politicians to lead. I say this because I know Iraq. I have cooperated with everyone who is managing Iraq, even before the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.” In following with that sentiment, during Abadi’s first visit to Iran as prime minister on October 20, 2014, Khamenei reservedly expressed appreciation over his formation of the new Iraqi government. Khamenei stated, “Iraq is a big, important, and influential country in the region that can play a (major) role once security and conditions return to normal.” He told Abadi, “We stand by you and will defend your government just as we seriously defended the former administration.” Yet, in Abadi’s presence, Khamenei lauded the performance of Maliki in resolving the problems of the Iraqi people and maintain security in the country. It was not difficult for Abadi to perceive that in Tehran, Maliki’s standing was higher than his own. Press TV reported Khamenei heaped further praise on Maliki when he visited Tehran on November 10, 2014 by saying his approach prevented “chaos” and “instability” in the country. Khamenei rated what he called “Maliki’s approach to help the new government of [prime minister] Haider al Abadi and efforts to establish unity among different Iraqi forces” as “very good.”

By late 2014, Abadi began to publicly lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support despite his successes in Iraq. The cause for his change in perspective may have been a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, or Iran’s efforts on the battlefield. Abadi may have simply begun to question the Obama administration’s will to engage long-term in the fight against ISIS. His rebellious attitude toward the US was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Abadi went on to express his appreciation to Iran for standing with Iraq in its battle against ISIS. He also explained that Baghdad was determined to maintain friendly relations with Tehran. Abadi stated that the two neighboring nations share common interests, adding Iraq would not sever its relations with the Iran simply because others might ask Baghdad to do so. Given the views he proffered in his December 1st interview, the approach taken by Abadi during his December 9th meeting in Baghdad with Hagel should not have come as a surprise. 

To Abadi, US officials have approached the anti-ISIS fight as a policy issue, but for him that fight is an existential issue. As a neighbor, Iran displays a mutual sense of danger, and its leaders have assured Abadi that as neighbors, they are open to helping his government face many critical issues.

Impact of Iranian Military Support

During a September 25, 2014 meeting with Abadi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “Tehran considers Iraq’s security and stability as its own security and stability.” If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered. As Velyati explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders certainly believe they are close to achieving that goal. The Iranian Students News Agency quoted IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Yadollah Javani, the Senior Adviser to the Representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC as stating that the two factors in the successful liberation of Amerli and Mosul were the matjas [religious authorities]’ fatwas, especially that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He further noted that according to his [Sistani’s] own words, “General [Qassem] Suleimani has exported the culture of the Sacred Defense [Iran-Iraq War].” Javani continued by explaining, “Today in Iraq and Syria, the great banner of General Suleimani has been installed, with the caption beneath it, ‘Savior of Iraq;’ this is a great source of pride.”

Some IRGC boasts have derided US efforts in Iraq. Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi explained that Iran, Syria, and Iraq make up the strongest coalition against ISIS, with millions of people willing to defend sacred shrines. He further stated the US-led anti-ISIS coalition is ineffective and has already failed.

The Way Forward

It has been proffered by US officials anonymously that the Abadi government is still in its nascent stages and the US and its coalition partners need to “resist making major assumptions about the trajectory of the situation in Iraq based on anecdotal information or a few data points.” If the decision is made to wait to see how Abadi will behave before investing further militarily in Iraq, it is believed the Iraqis will most likely delay in organizing their security forces. Soon enough, everyone will be waiting to act except ISIS. That has been referred to as “a losing proposition.” Iran heavily committed itself to Iraq with the expectation that it will acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, not through political operations, but its military efforts, it is difficult to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  As for the sectarian struggle, Iran is confident it can handle the matter.

In many places, the Iraqi people have coped with unspeakable sufferings, injustice in violent forms, and corruption among officials. Given Abadi’s progress, hope was created that the light of his success would shine amidst such darkness, and the darkness would not be able to overpower him. Yet, no matter how capable Abadi may appear to be, he cannot be expected to find his way in that darkness without help. Iran is creating a road for Abadi. It may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representation government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern the Obama administration, it should consider how the US can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. It is not a matter of simply pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish all things.

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”