Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

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, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin 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 against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

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

Obama Updates Gulf Leaders on Iran Talks, Seeks Support for Deal: The US Public Must Judge the Deal as Best as Possible

Seated to the right of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi and former Iranian Defense Minister, IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Ahmad Vahidi. Seated to Khamenei’s left is IRGC Deputy Commander, Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami. Khamenei will decide whether there will be a final nuclear agreement and whether Iran will fully comply with it.

According to a May 14, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Obama Updates Gulf Leaders on Iran Talks, Seeks Support for Deal,” US President Barack Obama, meeting with leaders from Persian (Arabian) Gulf States at Camp David, updated them on international efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran. US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes stated that the US would welcome support from Gulf States for the deal, which many Arab leaders are concerned would empower Iran to work in destabilizing ways in the region. Rhodes indicated that none of the leaders present had signaled they would pursue a nuclear program that would raise concerns.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed on April 2, 2015 met core policy goals of the Obama administration for the nuclear negotiations: potential pathways Iran could take toward a nuclear weapon using highly enriched uranium and plutonium were blocked; and safeguards were established to prevent Iran from conducting a covert nuclear weapons program. With safeguards, the administration believes the framework agreement will cut down Iran’s breakout time capacity to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. The number of centrifuges enriching uranium will be greatly reduced by requiring the removal of its installed but non-operating machines and cutting back the stockpile of enriched uranium gas by 97 percent. Uranium enrichment will be performed only at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. The underground facility at Fordow (Shahid Alimohammadi) Fuel Enrichment Plant will be repurposed for non-uranium research activities. Limits set will require Iran to operate no more than 5060 centrifuges for 10 years. Further measures will ostensibly ensure Iran’s breakout time is markedly reduced before the 10 years lapse. Iran agreed to cap enrichment to reactor-grade (3.67 percent) for 15 years and not to build any new enrichment facilities in that same timeframe. Iran would be required to modify its Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor to greatly reduce its proliferation potential. Iran would be restricted from developing any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be set up to help discourage Iran from violating the agreement. If it is found Iran has been in noncompliance, enhanced monitoring will increase the international community’s ability to promptly detect and disrupt future efforts to build nuclear weapons at declared or potential undeclared sites.

Obama will sense ineffable glory if a final agreement is signed on June 30, 2015 and the agreement holds throughout the remainder of his presidency. However, the specter of potential noncompliance of a final agreement looms despite the best efforts of negotiators. The threat that a nuclear armed Iran would present in part drives the negotiation effort of the P5+1 (US, the United Kingdom, France, China Russia and Germany). Prudent US officials and negotiators set what they wanted to accomplish and how to do it in the talks. Yet, securing a perfect agreement with Iran will not be possible. Deterrence is used in response to the threat of a course of action by an opponent. Economic sanctions have all but been declared as the sole consequence to noncompliance with an agreement, but sanctions might not be enough to restrain hardliners determined to build a weapon. Truly controlling a nuclear ambitious Iran may not be possible.

The Iran Talks have not absorbed the national attention of the US public, yet there is support for Obama’s effort. An April 27, 2015 Quinnipiac Poll reported 58 percent of the US public supported the April 2nd agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and 77 percent preferred negotiations to military action against Iran. However, only 35 percent of were very confident or somewhat confident the agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. These statistics are intriguing. Unlike Gulf leaders, when the US public hears senior administration officials speak on Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions in the news media, the matter is oft covered with an artificial mystification. Their words are usually perplexing, and fail to impart any certainty that Iran will comply with the agreement long-term. Accepting what has been achieved by diplomats to reach an agreement so far may create faith that things will work out. Yet, in this case, faith is not a substitute for recognizing the truth. By looking deeper, one may see flaws in the agreement and what it may lack to make it lasting. The mind must process what one sees to surmount what one sees, and animate the intellect in a methodical or formulaic way. Using a simple methodology for examining the Iran Talks will allow those in the US public without professional or specialized knowledge to better evaluate for themselves their progression. The goal would be to reach an objective truth about the talks, not just an opinion.

Discernment

The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying: “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.” (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) It is also true that illusion is the recipe for heartache. Intelligence agencies have countless methodologies available to assess situations such as Iran’s potential to adhere to a final agreement. Developing accurate assessments would require judging well from a set of facts, actions, or behaviors what is genuine and what is false. That is discernment. According to the Greeks, at the most basic level, two actions must occur in the process of discernment. Anakrino is the process of careful study, evaluation, and judgment. It requires one to scrutinize an issue, looking down to up and down again at it, judging, and making careful observations. One must be honest about what is being observed. One must be certain that a preferred outcome is not being imagined. The integrity of one’s observations must be measured. Diakrino is the process of learning by discrimination.   It requires separating observations thoroughly by comparison. Comparisons must be made with what is known to be counterfeit with what is accepted as genuine. What is discerned as counterfeit should be rejected and what is authentic should be accepted. Applying anakrino and diakrino to analyze information on the Iran Talks can assist laymen in assessing their outcome.

In 2013, hardline elements in Iran sensed that newly elected President Hassan Rouhani could capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise. Rouhani’s choice as Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was thought to have the ability to push his Western counterparts toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering Iran’s nuclear rights. Both officials have performed remarkably well at promoting Iran’s interests.

Anakrino

Before the Iran Talks began and initially during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about their willingness to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. While denying any link between US threats and their response, Iranian officials seemed to become more vocal in their effort to disabuse Western leaders of the idea that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon. In talks with US negotiators, Iranian officials and diplomats repeatedly expressed the position that Iran did not pose a threat to the US or its interests. Hardline officials in Tehran were ready for a struggle. Draconian economic sanctions as part of as US policy of coercive diplomacy against Iran, the degree to which the US has pressed Iran on its nuclear energy program, the US denial of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, and the US condemnation of Iran for allegedly sponsoring terrorism, previously convinced Iranian leaders that the US is a threat to Iran. Threats of regime change and threats to impose a US form of democracy on Iran from the administration of US President George W. Bush still ring in the ears of Iranian leaders. In 2013, hardline leaders in Tehran sensed that newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise. Moreover, there was a sense among Iranian leaders that their new Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that were superior to his Western counterparts and he would be able to push them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering Iran’s nuclear rights. While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks were highlighted in the West, an understanding existed among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team. Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations.”

As the talks progressed, US officials noted that Iran never failed to comply with all terms of the agreements their negotiators signed on to. In Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2nd, Kerry stated: “It is important to note that Iran, to date, has honored all of the commitments that it made under the Joint Plan of Action that we agreed to in 2013. And I ask you to think about that against the backdrop of those who predicted that it would fail and not get the job done.” That statement mirrored one Kerry made while discussing the November 24, 2014 extension. Kerry said Iran had been living up to its “Joint Plan of Action” commitments. He stated further: “Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated, it wouldn’t hold up, it would be shredded. Many said Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said the sanction regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated, Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.” Adde parvum parvo magnus acervas erit. (Add a little to a little and there will be a heap.)

Obama administration officials unceasingly heralded progress made on the negotiations. In addition to a successful result, a goal of the administration was to engage in talks that were tactful and decorous and avoid having them turn down a confrontational path. Officials have sought to allay concerns that Iran could not be trusted expressed by political opponents in the US Congress and by media pundits with regular reminders that rigorous monitoring measures will stay in place not just for the time frame of the agreement but even after its core restrictions expire. Any movement toward a nuclear weapon will supposedly be detected early, allowing for decisive intervention to prevent the completion of such efforts. However, things may not have been going as well as Obama administration officials indicated. True, there was an apparent understanding among hardline elements in the Iranian leadership of the need to support the negotiations team, and they have seemingly lent their support for what has been achieved so far. Yet, there is an obtuseness among hardliners regarding the deal. They refuse to succumb to the international community’s demand for Iran to make its nuclear program verifiably peaceful. There is blindness among hardline elements to terms of the agreement requiring Iran to halt aspects of its program for 10 or 15 years. They do not want hear anything that other parties to the talks are saying about it. Factus, tactus, visus in te fallitur. Sed auditu solo tuto creditor. (Taste, and touch, and vision to discern the fail. Faith that comes by hearing pierces the veil.)

Despite months of talks, there is still considerable divergence between perspectives on what has been achieved and projected outcomes. The differences were reflected in the respective reports US and Iranian negotiators prepared on the April 2nd agreement. The Iranian report omits several restrictions and limits that all parties to the talks agreed upon.

Perhaps the need to satisfy hardliners in Tehran was reflected in how negotiators in the US and Iran prepared their respective reports on the negotiations. In the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs report entitled “A Summary of the Solutions Reached as an Understanding for Reaching a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” and the US report entitled “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program”, there is considerable divergence between perspectives on what has been achieved and projected outcomes despite months of talks. The Iranian report omits a dramatic number of provisions which all of the negotiating parties agreed upon and the US duly records in its report. The Iranian report begins by stating the solution reached was not legally binding and only provide conceptual guidelines while the US report explained that the April 2nd agreement was a framework laying out solutions from which the final text of a final agreement would be written. The Iranian report only notes a 10 year period of restriction on uranium enrichment, uranium production, and the construction of new centrifuges after which all activities could resume. No mention is made of Iran’s agreement to curtail enrichment over 3.67 percent for 15 years, to reduce its current stockpile of 10,000 kg of low enriched uranium to 300 kg for 15 years, and not to build any new facilities for the purpose of enriching uranium for 15 years.

Further, no mention is made of Iran’s agreement not use the Fordow (Shahid Alimohammadi) Fuel Enrichment Plant for enrichment for 15 years. The Iranian report claims the restriction is 10 years. The Iranians report they can continue to research and development on new centrifuges while the US report claims a restriction on centrifuge research and development will be in place for 10 years. The Iranian report does not mention Iran’s agreement to adhere to a research and development plan submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranian report says that the Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt so it will not produce weapons grade plutonium. However, no mention is made of the provision that P5+1 must agree to the design, and that the original core reactor must be destroyed or shipped out of the Iran for the reactors lifetime. Absent also was any mention of Iran’s commitment not the reprocess spent fuel or engage in the research and development in the reprocessing of spent fuel. The Iranian report does not include the provision that grants the IAEA access to suspicious sites or facilities about which allegations might be made of covert enrichment activity, conversion, and yellowcake production anywhere in Iran. That stipulation grants the IAEA inspectors access to military facilities as well. Regarding sanctions, the divergence in positions is huge. The US reports Iran agreed sanctions would be suspended. Iran says it only agreed to their elimination.

IRGC Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has offered cautious support for Iran’s nuclear negotiations team, but grumblings among his commanders indicate a final deal would not represent their goals. The IRGC would welcome continued opposition and clashes with the West, especially the US.

Diakrino

The value of the promise depends on character of the promiser. By the admission of Obama himself, Iran has a questionable history as a player on the world stage given its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Making comparison with Iran’s past behavior, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action contradicts all that is disordered, all that is dishonest about Iran. Despite the longstanding claim of Iranian leaders that they would never seek a nuclear weapon, for both practical and religious reasons, it is now known those claims were counterfeit. Iran actually conducted activities relevant to weapons development as part of an organized program prior to 2003. The IAEA laid out its allegations regarding those activities in November 2011. The IAEA previously claimed it had made some progress with Iran in the investigation of this matter between November 2013 and August 2014, that process is now stalled. US and European negotiators want Iran to answer the IAEA’s questions and allow access to the individuals and sites necessary to complete the investigation. This delay has occurred even though Iran has only been asked to implement a set of measures to address the IAEA’s outstanding questions.   Moreover, the removal of UN Security Council sanctions will not occur until and unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA investigation and past questions are resolved. Even supporters of the nuclear negotiations do not believe Iran will make any full confession on its previous weapons related work given statements by senior Iranian officials on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear weapons. Iran may very well be concealing a weapons program while negotiating now. Falsus in unis, falsus in omnibus! (False in one thing, false in everything!)

As the negotiations progressed there was also a discernible change in Obama’s attitude toward taking military action against Iran. The threats vanished. Hardliners in Tehran discovered Obama was ill-disposed to using military force. They learned of difficulties his officials and advisers had in getting him to come to terms with proposals for using force in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. Sanctions have never been enough to deter Iran. While facing military threats and being walloped by sanctions in the past, Iran advanced its nuclear program so far that Iran now needs to be pushed back from a break out capacity. Perhaps some hardliners feel that they can secure the lifting of sanctions now and even some continued sanctions relief later through more talks if activity restricted under the agreement is completed and the ability to create a weapon is acquired. Evincing a conviction among officials in Tehran that Obama will not use force, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in part, seemed to mock Obama over his previous pronouncements about using military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei, according to Iranian state television, recently declared Tehran would not take part in nuclear talks to reach a final deal by June 30, 2015 if threatened with military force. Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iran’s English language Press TV as saying: “Holding nuclear talks under the shadow of threat is unacceptable for Iran . . . Our nation will not accept it . . . Military threats will not help the talks.” Khamenei said, “Recently two US officials threatened to take military action against Iran. What does negotiation mean under the shadow of threat.”

According to the Fars News Agency, IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Salami described a hypothetical war against the US as “No big deal.” He went on to explain: “We have prepared ourselves for the most dangerous scenarios and this is no big deal and is simple to digest for us; we welcome war with the US as we do believe that it will be the scene for our success to display the real potentials of our power.” Salami added Iran would set fire to any airbase used by enemies to strike the country, and declared, “We warn their pilots that their first flight [to strike Iran] will be their last one and no one will be allowed to go back safe and sound and they should call their flights as their last flights.” Salami also stated: “When the arrogant powers [US, EU] grow united in different directions to weaken the Islamic community, we should use our different capacities to fight against the enemy, and the Islamic [State of] Iran has gained many experiences in fighting against the enemy so far.” Sounding as if he were expecting an attack over some impending revelation that Iran had violated the terms of agreements signed, Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, has warned that Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah would respond to attack by Israel on Iran by launching of a firestorm of missiles on Israeli targets. Hezbollah allegedly possesses 80,000 rockets. Iranian State television quoted Safavi as saying: “Iran, with help of Hezbollah and its friends, is capable of destroying Tel Aviv and Haifa in case of military aggression on the part of the Zionists.”

Signing on to a final nuclear agreement with the P5+1 would become a nightmare for Khamenei if he later felt doing so in some way disrespected or disregarded the sacrifices of martyrs of the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and Sacred Defense. Regardless of any benefits of sanctions relief, that concern weighs heavily on his mind.

There was once the idea that the suspension of sanctions might lead to investment, opportunities for Iranians, and the strengthening of moderate leaders. Yet, a recent statement from Jafari has dampens hope that gradual political change might occur and a nuclearized Iran might become less likely. Jafari stated the IRGC will be taking on even greater roles in various fields. Sepah News quoted him as saying: “The capacity, quality, and increasing role of the IRGC in various fields in the mission of defending the Islamic Revolution and system is a decisive role—which friends and enemies admit too; also, according to the emphasis which the Supreme Commander in Chief [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] put on the qualitative and quantitative development of the IRGC and the transformative and internal aspects of it in the better implementation of the missions. Updated services to personnel can play an important role in this regard.”

As for the final agreement, both hardliners and moderates would oppose any provision that would allow the IAEA to inspect Iran’s military facilities. Iran argues “no global authority exists to inspect a country’s military facilities. There is no treaty to do so, and the IAEA is not in a position to carry out such [a] task.” As for sanctions, Iran wants what the US and Europeans will not give: the permanent lifting sanctions. On April 4, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “During the talks, we [both sides] always talked about lifting economic, financial, and banking sanction. We never talked about the suspension of the sanctions, and if that were the case no agreement would form.” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s senior negotiator at the nuclear talks, on April 4th said: “The American fact sheet stipulates that the US and EU suspend sanctions against Iran . . . . [However], the entirety of the economic and financial sanctions, and the [UN] Security Council resolutions, will be removed the first day of the implementation of the agreement. This agreement exists and is the solution that we reached.”

US and European negotiators are well-aware of the great incongruence between their countries’ positions and those of Iran on these issues. To have a final agreement, one side must give way. The IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying, “Our negotiators should continue the talks with respect to our red lines. They should not accept any imposition, humiliation and threat.” Whatever decision Khamenei makes on the final agreement, he must be certain his decision in no way disrespects or disregards the sacrifices of martyrs of the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and Sacred Defense. Regardless of any benefits from sanctions relief, that concern weighs heavily on his mind.

What Can Be Discerned

It is difficult to surmise where members of the US public might fall on the Iran Talks if they had more facts on it. Assurances of officials speaking from a source, the US government, with all of the information available to it, are hard for the average citizen to judge well or refute. On its face, there is no evidence that the nuclear talks in a type of graveyard spiral now that very difficult issues are being broached. When officials on all sides speak they evince what appears to be a bold curiosity for the adventure ahead. The manner in which officials have presented information about the nuclear talks to the US public has obscured realities. Right now, the distance both sides must travel to reach the same place in the negotiations may be too far to travel. One can hardly believe that Iranian leaders want the same agreement the Obama seeks. US officials have well-outlined how they could discern, or what they might do if they discover, Iran has violated the agreement. The US public should realize, given the chance to use the analysis here, would realize that although Iranian negotiators signed the agreement with Tehran’s authority, US officials can only trust that Iran intends to adhere to all of its aspects for the long-term. Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. (Mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be born.)

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!)

Book Review: George William Rutler, Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013)

Above is what remains of the tomb of the prophet Jonah of the Old Testament and tthe mosque that held it, in Mosul, Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) destroyed it. Western governments are greatly interested in what is driving ISIS’ campaign of religious and ethnic bigotry, murder, and destruction in territory that it controls in Syria and Iraq. In Principalities and Powers, George William Rutler discusses the role evil played in World War II. His book may help Western leaders better understand ISIS and how to proceed against it.

The world’s response to Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) initially was reminiscent of the late 1930s when war came to Europe, and so many turned a blind eye as countries were conquered and countless innocent civilians killed in aerial bombardments, artillery fire, tank guns, and small arms. Lamentations heard from numerous innocent civilians, including children, in Iraq, Syria, and Libya by beheading, crucifixion, and forced exile from their ancient homelands are chillingly enough to remind not only of the fighting in World War II, but also of the cries heard from ghettos and concentration camps resulting from the vile anti-Semitism and crimes of German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party (Nazis). Anti-ISIS governments must acknowledge today what governments fighting the Nazis recognized. The fight against ISIS is a fight against evil.

In Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), George William Rutler illustrates that World War II, which began for mixed reasons and was fought on many fronts, can only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil.  Rutler explains that from his book, readers should gain an understanding of how “the same moral dilemmas of an old war, in their display of human dignity and the anatomy of cruelty, are background for the same realities in our own day.” Given the evil that ISIS poses, Principalities and Powers is an exceedingly relevant book to read right now.

Reared in the Episcopal tradition in New Jersey and New York, Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years, and the youngest Episcopal rector in the country when he headed the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. However, in 1979, he was received into the Catholic Church and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. A graduate of Dartmouth, Rutler also took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1988 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Thomas More College and Christendom College awarded him honorary doctorates. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese. Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Since 1988, EWTN has broadcasted Rutler’s television programs worldwide. Rutler has made documentary films in the US and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books, referred to by some as classics, on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Principalities and Powers is a history of the pivotal years of World War II: 1942–1943. In its discussion, Rutler, as expected, devotes attention to well-reported events of the period. Yet, the discussion of those events is used primarily to couch a recounting of the efforts made by a diverse set of individuals to confront the enemies of humanity. Admittedly, there is a predominant focus on the resistance of priests and officials of the Catholic Church to evil, including the papacy’s direct activities against atheistic totalitarian governments. However, that history helps to fill the book with loads of drama and intrigue. Many of the individuals mentioned are forgotten today and little was known of some even then. (The book’s “Index of Names” has 277 entries.) Several of them did not survive the war. Rutler explains that events of this period demonstrate human nature never changes. Heroes and cowards, and saints and sinners are revealed. To write Principalities and Powers, Rutler drew from a collection of actual letters, newspapers, and journals of the period. He skillfully used those resources to provide a profound discussion of events. (The information might well have been lost as most of these documents were printed on rationed paper and are deteriorating.) Previously, greatcharlie reviewed and highly recommended Rutler’s book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (Scepter, 2010). Rutler has amazed greatcharlie again with Principalities and Powers.

At the start of World War II, no one could be certain about its outcome. The situation was touch and go. Rutler notes that defenders of humanity had the good fortune of having the right leaders in place at the right time. Winston Churchill was not well-liked within circles of power. He was a harsh critic of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. At the outbreak of the war, King George VI appealed to Lord Edward Halifax, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and Viceroy of India before that, to take on the post of Prime Minister. However, after France fell, the invasion of the United Kingdom was viewed as certain. Art from the National Gallery was removed. The Royals’ bags were packed. Halifax would decline the prime minister’s post, perhaps concerned as many other leaders over how the Nazis would respond to them if the United Kingdom fell. Churchill, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, was available, was willing, and was begrudgingly selected. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another fortuitous placement. Roosevelt, known as a deal maker, aligned completely with the United Kingdom. Rutler explains that Roosevelt, as Churchill, viewed Hitler as truly evil. Hitler spelled his plans out in Mein Kampf and executed them. Despite the US public’s overwhelming support for neutrality and the Neutrality Act of 1939, the Lend-Lease Act was passed in the US Congress in March 1941. The US received leases for a chain of British islands guarding the Caribbean for the loan of US ships and other material support, committing the US to the United Kingdom’s defense. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941 affirming the solidarity between the two countries. Churchill was certainly uneasy with Roosevelt’s deals with the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, who he viewed as no-less evil than Hitler. He never reconciled with the division of postwar Europe and remained concerned over Soviet plans for global Communist domination.

From right to left are Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference in 1943. Roosevelt and Churchill jointly held the view that Hitler was evil and had to be approached as such. Churchill, however, was uneasy over deals eventually made with Stalin that established the postwar division of Europe.

Rutler notes that during its ascent, Nazism was essentially ignored by European governments for what it truly was, they paid a high price. The delusion of European leaders that Hitler could be managed, contained, or controlled, fostered an environment for the growth of Nazi power. From the very beginning, it was clear that the founding principles of Nazism were inimical to Western ideals. As Rutler explains, Nazism was more than a political movement, it was a religion, possessing its own ceremonies and rituals. The Nazis created their own pagan gods for their religion and used Norse pagan gods. Having created an artificial church, the Nazis sought to disband existing religions. Having prevented the people from believing in the true God, they submitted to a cult of personality. They worshipped Hitler. Hitler copied all of the trappings of fascism from Italian Duce and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, but Hitler’s abilities as an orator put him in a special class. While the great orator among the defender’s of civilization, Winston Churchill, spoke to convince people that they could do anything. Hitler spoke to convince people that he could do anything. The Judgment of the Nations was a work published in 1942 by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, but it began to get significant attention only in the early months of 1943. “The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship.” Dawson saw proof in world events that “evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” He believed what accounted for this was that things spiritual had been invaded by the secular state. Through that arose the totalitarian state, which imposed “total control of all human activities and all human energies, spiritual as well as physical . . and their direction to whatever ends are dictated by its interests, or rather the interests of the ruling party or clique.” From 1942 and 1943, it was clear that evil was rising all around Europe, seemingly transmitted by the Nazis as they gained territory and authority over Europe’s peoples. An incredible number of atrocities were being committed by governments across the continent. Villains that may be more memorable include Vichy French Prime Minister Pierre Laval, whose cruelty amazed even many Nazis. He reportedly stated: “Cardinals and bishops have intervened, but everyone is a master of his own trade. They handle religion. I handle government.”  Rutler indicates that evil even managed to consume some officials of the Catholic Church. A priest, Monsignor Josef Tiso, as puppet president of the Slovak State, paid the Germans to deport 60,000 Slovak Jews for extermination in Auschwitz, making Slovakia the only country to subsidize such deportations.  Pro-Ustashe Archbishop Sarić of Sarevejo penned an ode to the leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, Ante Pavelić. Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, of any European country. After the war he fled to Spain, while Pavelić was hidden by Jesuits near Naples and eventually settled in Argentina. In Yugoslavia, Bishop Alojzije Mišić of Mostar expressed horror at the massacres of Serbs with the complicity of Herzegovinian Franciscans residing in Široki Brijeg near Medjugorje. Bishop Mišić described hundreds of women and children and elderly men thrown alive into ravines at Surmanci.

In Belgium, the University of Louvain was purged of its Catholic faculty and Mass was forbidden. In Poland, the Germans suppressed all patriotic hymns, litanies, and prayers and took particular umbrage at the practice of hailing the Virgin Mary as “Queen of the Crown of Poland.” Dr. Mutz, Chief of the Department of Internal Administration, abolished all mentions of the Polish State, “which no longer exists.” May 3rd would no longer be celebrated as the day of the Beatae Mariae Virginis Patronae Rei Publicae Poloniae. The August 15thActio gratiarum pro Victoria super Bolshevicos 1920″ was forbidden, along with the thanksgiving for the victory at Chocim on October 10th and all services on November 11th commemorating the rebirth of the Polish Republic. Outside of Europe, in Syria, the Nationalist Socialist Party hailed Hitler as “Abu Ali” and the Young Egypt Party called him “Muhammed Haidar.”  The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini visited Hitler, secured the deportation of 5,000 Jewish children to death camps, and obtained a promise from Hitler to liquidate the Jews of Palestine after a Nazi victory.

On the far left is Ante Pavelic, leader of the Ustashe government of Croatia, making a Nazi salute in the presence of a prayerful Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac on the far right. Under Nazi influence in World War II, Croatia had the highest rate of genocide, in proportion to population, in Europe.

The resistance to evil was strong. Included among the thousands of individuals who, as Rutler says, “attained virtue on a heroic scale,” is the pioneer of pan-Europeanism, the Austro-Hungarian Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi. The character Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca was based on him the Count. Although he was a professor at New York University in 1943, Hitler still loathed him as “everybody’s bastard.” He was, however, admired by Archduke Otto von Habsburg, Aristide Briand, Albert Einstein, Horace Mann, Sigmund Freud, and later by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle; he was an anti-Nazi and foe of anti-Semitism (like his Catholic father, who annually walked out of Good Friday services at the mention of the “perfidious Jews”).  Rutler mentions the Foreign Minister of Generalismo Francisco Franco’s Spain, Count Francisco Gomez-Jordana, who helped make his country a haven for Eastern European Jews, especially Sephardic Jews from Hungary. German Army Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a well-known conspirator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, is mentioned. However, Rutler also discusses the lesser-known assassination attempt against Hitler by German Army Colonel Rudolf von Gersdorff, chief of intelligence for German Army General Gunther von Kluge. Further, Rutler mentions the attempted protests by students at universities in the Netherlands against the Nazi revision of their syllabus, and protests by students at the Sorbonne and Grand Paris Ecoles. Rutler includes their letter to Vichy French Chief of State Philippe Petain which stated: “For more than two years, forgetting their rowdy traditions, the students of the University of Paris have abstained from demonstrations. But our silence has never implied acceptance of events of which we were the distressed observers. Above all, the brutal deportation of thousands of French workers has provoked our indignation.”

For Rutler, the strong role of the clergy in the resistance to tyranny was natural given their sense that the barbarity unleashed by the war was in reality a manifestation of evil and the presence of the devil. Rutler points to leaders such as the bishop of Berlin, Johann Konrad Maria Augustin Felix Graf von Preysing Lichtenegg-Moos, who stated when the Nazis had first come into power, “We have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools.” Bishop von Preysing exhorted in his Advent message of December 12, 1942, “Every departure from right and justice will sooner or later be broken against these foundations of God’s Dominion.” He explained the world’s present miseries were the result of human contempt for natural and divine law: “Resistance to God’s sovereign rule was a product largely of the eighteenth century—the century which proclaimed the primacy of human intelligence, the individual as an autonomous being and as his own sole judge, and which declared that all right was to be derived from this intelligence independently of God’s law.” The state had imposed itself as the very incarnation of God, replacing justice and right with power and profit. The Bishop’s appeal was stark: “My dear Brethren: ‘Repent,’ and change your mode of thinking. This is my appeal to you.” The pro-Nazi newspaper Vooruit of Ghent rued the pastoral letter of Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, who opposed forced labor. At the same time, the primate of Hungary, Jusztinian Cardinal Seredi, told representatives of the Hungarian Catholic press that “all States have equal sovereignty” and so “the Hungarian nation has a birthright to claim—freedom, autonomy, and national independence.” Reverend R. H. W. Regout, professor of international law at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, died at the age of 46 in Dachau, where he and three other professors had been sent shortly after the occupation of the Netherlands. The “priest block” in that concentration camp held 2,579 priests over the war years, 1,785 of them Polish, more than a thousand of whom perished there. By February1943, 34 Italian chaplains had been killed in active service.

On April 19, 1943, the Swedish Svenska Dagbladet printed a letter from the archbishop of Zagreb, Monsignor Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, to the Italian ambassador to the Croatian puppet state. The Italians had been exploiting conflicts between Croats and Serbs to make them seem ideological rather than ethnic: “I must protest energetically against the incredible atrocities committed by Italian troops against the defenceless populations in the districts of Krasic, Vidovina and Brovac, where several villages have been burnt down. . . . Even if some Communists should have succeeded in taking refuge there, I can vouch that there were not, and are not now, any Communists among the village population.”

Pope Pius XII ( center) meets with members of what Rutler calls the forces of “great good,” in this case the Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, following the liberation of Rome in June 1944. Pius XII refrained from directly rebuffing Hitler and Mussolini and kept channels open to their regimes. Yet, he understood that Hitler, in particular, represented true evil.   While remaining neutral, he did as much as he could to mitigate suffering in World War II.

In France, the activities of the Catholic Church against the Nazis were so significant that the editor of a Protestant French newspaper wrote: “The militant Catholics in our country have taken a place which is important and, we do not fear to say, preponderant, at the head of the movement of resistance in which, very often, they have taken the initiative, and of which they remain the inspiration.”   The 81-year-old Auxiliary Bishop of Paris, Emanuele-Anatole-Raphael Chaptal de Chanteloupe wore a Star of David in protest again the deportation of Jews, and soon was buried wearing it. The collaborationist Vichy radio mocked Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons for hiding Jews and resistance fighters: he was “an ex-lawyer who late in life became an archbishop more as a result of the omnipotent grace of the House of Rothschild than to the laws of Holy Mother Church.”  When German officials ordered the Jews of Beauvais to register at the municipal headquarters, Bishop Felix Roeder claimed a distant Jewish antecedent and was the first to register, processing through the street in full pontifical vestments, and preceded by an acolyte carrying the Cross.

Rutler notes that in the war’s distress, increasing appeals were being made to the Pope for help and advocacy. L’Osservatore Romano published an article on the history of papal diplomatic prerogatives by General Francois de Castelnau, president of the French Federation National Catholique. He pointed to the irony by which the European powers in the 19th century had threatened to exclude the Pope from their deliberations, while turning to him in crises. Seemingly debilitated by the loss of the papal states in 1870, the papacy ironically took on a new prestige when its loss of temporal power gave it a grander kind of neutrality. In 1885, Bismarck, only ten years removed from the Kulturkampf, had asked the Pope to arbitrate between two nations, Spain and Germany, for the first time in three centuries. In 1890, the Pope was asked to mediate between Great Britain and Portugal a matter of navigation on the Zambesi. That same year, US President Grover Cleveland desired a papal arbitration between Venezuela and Great Britain to define the frontier between Venezuela and Guyana. Five years later Cleveland asked Pope Leo XIII to do the same for Haiti and Santo Domingo.   However, the Nazis had contempt for the appeal to neutrality, and the pontiff’s ability to intervene on issues was more constrained. In February 1942, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1921 to 1936), Dr. Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, published a statement saying that he had appealed to the Pope to intervene with the combatant powers on behalf of European Jewry. Without out noting specifics, the Holy See replied that “the Pope is doing everything in his power on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe.”  It was telling that Rabbi Herzog, who remained as Chief Rabbi until 1959, would eventually remark about the Pius XII, “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.”

Pius XII’s message on the Vatican radio on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1942, broadcast in German, said: “God’s ship is destined to reach port safely. She will not sink, for Christ is the helmsman and the gates of hell, the onslaught of the wildest waves and of the spiritual U-boat action (“Geistige U-boot Arbeit”) of godless neo-paganism will not harm her… For while paganism cannot build up, still less can neo-paganism, which lacks even that nobility of mind and true humanity which was found in the old pagans.” When Christmas came in 1942, The New York Times said Pius XII “is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

There is much more in Principalities and Powers. After starting it, the book is hard to put down.

Causa latet, vis est notissima! (The cause is hidden, but its force is very well known!) Rutler views the test of character in the struggles of the world’s greatest war as a litmus for how the present generation should and should not behave in the face of challenges. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott well-described ISIS as a “death cult,” but the imbalanced, barbaric behavior of ISIS has flummoxed Western governments wanting to categorize the organization and appropriately respond to it. As Rutler shows in Principalities and Powers, the starting point for understanding ISIS or any similar organization that might arise is its main characteristic, which is evil. Principalities and Powers may support the development of a better understanding of ISIS, what it represents, and the devising of new approaches to defeat it. As it is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide, we enthusiastically recommend Principalities and Powers to our readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting “Terrorism” Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus; But Animus and Past Blunders of Powers Propel the Three-Way War!

The Syrian Air Force fighter jet, above, is bombing a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Ironically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the goal of “saving” his country from the Syrian opposition movement, destroyed nearly every major city and town in it. After four years of conflict, US policy, instead of forcing Assad from power, has resulted in a three-way war with no end in sight.

According to a January 28, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting ‘Terrorism’ Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian opposition movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. While expectations of a breakthrough at the January 28th Moscow meeting were low, Russia hoped the talks would give impetus to a long-stalled peace process in the four year conflict. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.” However, the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime are more interested in fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic militant groups. Their mutual animus was also evinced when both sides failed to commit to the peace plan of UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that seeks to establish local fighting freezes throughout Syria. The fighting freezes would allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to be delivered.

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then candidate Senator Barack Obama admonished the administration of George W. Bush for engaging in military adventurism under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. Yet, early on, the administration of President Barack Obama found itself unable to yield to the temptation of responding to some clarion call to cleanse the world of all ancient evils, ancient ills. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the opposition which blossomed during the so-called Arab Spring. However, its commitment to the opposition has proven to be a snare and quite unsatisfying. The US public has become inured to perfunctory ramblings from administration officials that typically descend into specious statements about victory being attainable. Now those officials speak about Syria with enigmatic faces on. They do not register despair, but they are likely internalizing plenty of it over their long-unproductive Syria policy. The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration. In an August 18, 2011 written statement, Obama said “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” However, after established a purpose, no genuine effort was made to achieve that purpose. The Obama administration’s actions indicated a lack of commitment to Syria.   Its approach was inchoate. A number of formulaic protocols for assisting such movements were followed. There was never any intimation among officials that change was near. Rather, the Obama administration displayed a lack of situational awareness.

The Obama administration was remiss on many aspects of the Syria case. When success is possible, waiting with patience and fortitude, is reasonable. The record on Syria makes questionable any decision to wait any longer to achieve success taking the same course of action. Experienced eyes have grown weary over time waiting for some declaration of triumph, signs of progress, or the proposal of a genuine solution. Looking back at the approach on Syria with “young (alert) eyes” shows its true course and reveals much of the “failure” has been self-inflicted. The Syria policy should take a new turn. Some regrettable but necessary choices need to be made. Conscientia mille testes! (Moral self-knowledge equals a thousand witnesses!)

Going-in with the Syrian Opposition Movement: The First Mistake?

The spiral toward war began in 2011 with protests for reforms and for a halt to violence against prisoners held by the Assad regime. It erupted into armed conflict. There were attempts to stem the violence with referendum on single party rule, but there was little confidence in the regime’s promises in the ever-growing opposition. By the end of summer, the SNC was formed in Istanbul as the main organization of the opposition. The SNC called for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and rejected dialogue. Meanwhile, another organization that formed, the National Coordination Committee, supported talks with the regime believing that bringing down the regime would lead to further chaos and conflict. These organizations included political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, mostly divided along intellectual, ethnic, and sectarian lines. In December 2011, the organizations were finally “united” against the Assad regime by agreement. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was cobbled together in 2011 with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Its FSA was placed under the military-wing of the opposition, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), commanded by Salim Idriss. FSA’s ranks quickly grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination among the mixed-bag of FSA units. The units did not admire or obey civilian opposition leaders. Groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra progressively functioned more independently.  Oddly, Western governments monitoring the situation closely saw no danger. Rather, they began to examine the SNC and SMC as the core of a new political and military leadership in Syria. States such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia even began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. After UN and Arab League joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, failed in his effort to create a ceasefire, more states, the US included, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA.  International military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League. However, Assad was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and an expansion of the Syria monitoring mission was proposed. Assad rejected these proposals, but SNC and SMC rejected them also. In the midst of a considerable international response in their favor, SNC and SMC members argued over policies and approaches. Arguments became a regular feature of opposition meetings.  Yet, the shortcomings of the opposition had no discernible impact on international supporters. Conferences held by the US, EU, and Arab states to decide how to aid them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Even further, in a Geneva meeting, a UN communiqué was drawn up that agreed to the creation of a transitional government and what it would look like. It would include members of the opposition and former members of the regime based on consent. The US demanded that Assad not be allowed a place in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West in direct support of the opposition. It was believed within the Obama administration that Assad would simply fall away. Officials expressed statements such as: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” Yet, that delusion did not touch reality at any point. Western analyses that evenly matched FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces were wrong. The situation was always tilted in Assad’s favor. Culpa lata! (Gross negligence!)

The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched

The FSA’s size, relative to Assad’s forces was meager. It was not organized for decisive action, lacked real military power, possessing no high-tech or heavy weapons, and was unable to march on Damascus to remove Assad. The Syrian Army had considerable size, strength, and capabilities. At the civil war’s outset, the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared Syrian Army forces stood at 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analyses, taking into consideration the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and paramilitaries/street gangs (shabiha), the number rose near 200,000. The combat power of that force has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, further enhanced the force. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians were ready to fight alongside the Syrian Army, and did so at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah alleges it went into Syria from Lebanon with 4,000 fighters once Iran began to commit forces. In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July 2013, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with varied support from Russia and Iran, would capture major FSA strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO concluded that during the spring, the FSA’s military campaign had failed.  A dramatic deterioration of the FSA’s Syrian component reportedly began in April 2013. The point was reached where it was difficult to distinguish who wanted to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  More importantly, NATO claimed then that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  The majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters of Islamic militant groups, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.  NATO’s assessment impacted the decision by leading NATO countries to suspend lethal weapons shipments for the FSA.  In mid-July, the United Kingdom and France, once the most vocal supporters for arming the FSA, signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria fearing the shipments might end up with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.  De fumo in flammam! (Out of the smoke, into the flame!)

The February 2013 photo of Homs, Syria, above, provides a snapshot of the destruction that exists in Syria’s cities and towns. The Syria of 2011, when the civil war began, no longer exists. No matter who in control Syria whenever peace comes, they will face a colossal reconstruction effort of astronomical cost.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed

On March 21, 2013, it was revealed to the New York Times that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was playing a covert role in the air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria. A former US official confirmed in anonymity that in early 2012, CIA Director, General David H. Petraeus, was instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and urged various countries to work together on it. Many journalists in 2012 had heard rumors about CIA’s activities.  The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but expanded into a steady and much heavier flow.  By the end of that year, it included more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. By facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, CIA was supposed to provide the US a degree of influence over the process. From offices at secret locations, CIA case officers helped the Arab states shop for weapons. Saudi Arabia acquired a large number of infantry weapons from Croatia. CIA tried to vet FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrived. CIA was tasked to steer weapons away from Islamic militant groups, persuading donors to withhold weapons that could have severe consequences if they fell into their hands. Those weapons included portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. Yet, CIA relied on Turkey to handle the majority of oversight activities for the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey was very large. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments.  CIA, itself, declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. Further, information on CIA’s Syria operation was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26, 2013.  According to the June 26th article, in addition to moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses, CIA was engaged in a train and equip program for small groups of vetted, mainstream, FSA fighters. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. At the time, it was hoped that the supplies, related training of a few hundred of the FSA fighters, along with a push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, would allow the FSA to organize a unified offensive in August 2013 which was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui! (Beware what you say, when, and to whom!)

Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS

As the civil war in Syria got underway, the US and EU involvement was very low-key.  However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan since 2012, enthusiastically delivered arms and support to the FSA.  The Arab states that participated in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, were emboldened by its success.  Officials in many Arab states suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya.  Qatar, which took the “lead Arab role” in the Libya operation, threw its financial wherewithal into supporting the opposition and take the lead Arab role in Syria, too.  It rushed to develop loyal networks with the FSA and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime.  Yet, acquiring the “loyal support” of FSA units was a very difficult undertaking.  Many groups in the FSA, particularly Islamic militant groups, moved from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms.  Qatar, much as other Arab states pursuing their own interests, had a myopic view of the Syria landscape.  They lacked experience in strategic maneuvering at a level required to positively influence events in Syria.

For Arab states, engaging in an effort to arm the FSA without a secure, steady supply of arms meant scouring around for light weapons such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, and ammunition.  Qatar bought arms in Libya and Eastern European countries and flew them to Turkey as part of the FSA arms supply program set up by CIA.  In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver the arms into Syria. Qatari unconventional warfare units were tasked to go into Syria and find factions to arm and supply, but Qatar also received assistance from Turkey in identifying recipients for a short while. Qatar’s distribution of arms aligned with the tide-turning FSA campaign in the northern province of Idlib and the campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts that drove Assad forces from parts of the countryside. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the FSA supply hub at Qusayr.  Qatar eventually turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support, leading to its ties with the Farouq brigades.  It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to a rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization.  The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to further divisions within the political and military wings of the opposition.  There would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. By September 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were creating separate military alliances and structures.  It was then that the two countries were urged by the US to bring the parallel structures together under the SMC, but that did not occur.  Crce credemus, hodie nihil! (Tomorrow we believe, but not today!)

This photo of Islamic militant fighters in Syria preparing to execute Syrian Army prisoners appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 5, 2013. While Obama administration officials were predicting the Syrian opposition’s victory over the Assad regime, journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations were reporting ISIS atrocities and the realities on the ground.

ISIS Emerges

What has stirred the Obama administration the most about ISIS is the hostage taking and murders US citizens and citizens of other countries. The matter actually brought Syria back to the forefront among foreign policy issues. After failed effort to secure massive ransoms by negotiations, US and other European, Asian, and Arab states’ citizens have been videotaped being beheaded. The whole process seems to be more of an amusement for ISIS members than anything else, forcing leaders to negotiate prices for the release of their people. Rescues have been attempted, and they have failed more often than not. Then there was the ISIS juggernaut that rolled through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. That land was included in the Islamic Caliphate straddling the border of Syria and Iraq that ISIS created. ISIS did not always pose such a threat to global security and stability.   In early 2012, there were many Islamic militant groups active underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Western and Arab states allowed for their growth.  ISIS was initially active in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity.  In addition to being the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the FSA for the balance of the civil war, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra led FSA assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were also responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials.  They became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.

Despite the best efforts to minimize the impact such acts were having on their Syria policy, it was eventually accepted by Western and Arab states that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces were directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups only sought to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory. Indeed, before the Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of the large segments of Syria that ISIS and other Islamic militant groups’ controlled, the society was transformed by the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrians. The groups were particularly harsh with Syrian women. Journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations reported ISIS atrocities.  Captured Syrian military personnel and regime supporters were rarely spared. ISIS and the other groups were still viewed as FSA members until their intermittent clashes with mainstream units became open warfare.

While it was initially reasoned the FSA, with US supplied arms and training, would advance against the Assad regime and force him to the negotiation table where he would supposedly step down, the added pressure of the struggle with ISIS derailed the Syria effort of the Obama administration.  The administration, nonetheless, pressed this issue with US Congress. The Obama administration sent its senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill its tangled Syria policy with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of its “approach.” US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” however, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions. At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul further stated, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Although captivating and satisfying, Kerry’s figures even then seemed questionable. Using them, the administration took an approach that allowed the Syrian situation fall into a three-way conflict. Assistance continued to reach ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. SMC did not unify FSA units into a cohesive fighting force or devise plans for their effective use. Assad remained in power. Caveat consules ne quid detriment republica capiat! (Beware consuls that the commonwealth is not harmed!)

Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack

The story of Obama’s August 23, 2013 response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is well-known. After making very shrill accusations that the Assad regime had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renowned decision to back away from military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. Russia, Iran, and China were as joyful as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing his cause any good. True, Obama had the Pentagon provide options for calibrated military strikes in Syria. Airstrikes most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. However, Obama was driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through. Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed. Obama was paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled with his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Obama strayed away from a path of assertive and decisive action. Many challenging foreign policy problems facing the administration became more difficult to manage as a result of his decision. Opponents of the US, including ISIS, became convinced that Obama was averse to using military power. Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem! (It is not goodness to be better than the worst!)

In July 2012, the Za’atari refugee camp, above, opened in Jordan. Of the 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 20 percent are now housed in the Za’atari and Azraq camps. Syrians situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, or trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, desperately desire a sustainable and secure peace in their country.

The Way Forward

What Obama and other Western leaders should know by now is that in coping with ISIS, they are dealing with real evil. It must be defeated. From the start, leaders of ISIS as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been treated by the US as William Shakespeare’s “Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority.” They should have been made to shrivel under the weight of robust US military might. ISIS’ leaders instead were given the time, the space, and the resources to rehearse the implementation of their perverse notions of social order. The fight against ISIS is actually the result of the failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down at the negotiating table. A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been established with the opposition in the beginning of the civil war and still cannot be established with it now. Without support, the opposition might continue to fight the Assad regime, but its efforts would not be fruitful.   Similarly, the US effort to juggle three, albeit related, conflicts in Syria will never bear fruit. The Assad regime, the opposition, and ISIS, have each contributed to the destruction of the lives of the Syrian people. Assad is on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court. Given the choice to deny, attack or embrace the Assad regime, the US may choose reluctantly “to embrace (tolerate)” it incrementally. The war has transformed Syria, politically, militarily, economically, socially, and culturally. The Syria of 2011 no longer exists. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable and secure peace in their country, would be the best solution. Ad verecundiam! (Appeal to modesty in an argument!)

Assad is not immortal. His regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, may not survive in the long-run. Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran may eventually grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancement of their cause. To the extent that Assad would face heavy battles with ISIS, the watchful eyes of Israel, and the prospect of a decades-long, very expensive, reconstruction effort wherever he is able to regain territory, his regime will be contained. More so than the opposition, the Assad regime can contribute to the fight against ISIS in Syria. Contact with Assad regarding ISIS may kindle genuine cooperation from him on other issues. Assad stated contact already exists on US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria via Iraqi officials. Perhaps that is the best way for the Obama administration to handle the situation considering the primacy the US must give to, and role it must play in, the ISIS fight.

Book Review: Jay Sekulow, Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore (Howard Books, 2014)

In Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore (Howard Books, 2014), Jay Sekulow discusses the growth of the organization which has oppressed and terrorized countless innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians and brought anguish and fear worldwide through reports of its actions. Footage of gruesome executions and unspeakable atrocities committed by ISIS has made it clear to all that the leaders of ISIS are not simply seeking power. They are maniacs playing God. ISIS members are delusional, thinking somehow that their ghastly acts have some religious purpose.

Under Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad, the Iraqi and Syrian people suffered injustice in violent forms, political corruption, and stupidity in high places. Now, a significant portion of the populations of Iraq and Syria together live under a far oppressive regime. It is the regime of the Islamic Caliphate, territory straddling Iraq and Syria which the Islamic State of Iraq in Greater Syria (ISIS) has claimed through military action. News surfaced widely about ISIS in the global news media during its massive June 2014 offensive in Iraq. The world’s conscience was struck by the sight of long streams of refugees fleeing their ancestral homelands, mothers with children trapped on mountains by heavily armed men, and mass graves. Footage of gruesome executions and unspeakable atrocities committed by ISIS circulate on the internet. It has been made clear to all that the leaders of ISIS are not just seeking power in Iraq and Syria. They are simply maniacs playing God. ISIS members have deluded themselves into thinking their ghastly acts have some religious purpose.

In Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore (Howard Books, 2014), Jay Sekulow discusses the growth of this organization which has oppressed and terrorized countless innocent Iraqi and Syrian civilians and brought anguish and fear worldwide through reports of its barbaric actions. Sekulow outlines how ISIS came into existence, how the organization’s objectives have evolved, and how it uses the same unlawful strategies used by other terror organizations. ISIS represents the collapse of rule of law and the collapse of all social conventions in the civilized world. ISIS in many ways resembles a bacillus that could potentially infect and destroy civilization itself. An antidote must be found for ISIS. With each passing day under ISIS’ thumb, average Iraqis and Syrians sense, as do many in the world, that ISIS cannot be stopped. Western powers, which retain the lion’s share of the world’s military power, for a variety of reasons have been reluctant to fully commit their forces to defeat it. Sekulow discusses what the US public, in particular, can do now to address this crisis.

Jay Sekulow is an attorney in the US who is involved in legal issues at the highest level in US courts as chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). During his career, he has argued in front of the US Supreme Court more than ten times. He has specialized in arguing key issues concerning the First Amendment of the US Constitution. In addition to his work as a Supreme Court advocate, Sekulow has submitted several amicus briefs in support of conservative issues. Earlier in his career, Sekulow worked in the Office of Chief Counsel for the Internal Revenue Service as a tax trial attorney, bringing suits to the US Tax Court on behalf of the US Treasury Department. In 1990, he served as director of the ACLJ. In addition to being chief counsel for the ACLJ, Sekulow hosts Jay Sekulow Live!, a syndicated radio program broadcast on terrestrial radio and XM and Sirius satellite radios. It is a live, call-in program, and focuses on legal and legislative topics. Sekulow is also host of ACLJ This Week, weekly television news program broadcast on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar.

In Rise of ISIS, Sekulow does not bring to bear any experience as a foreign or defense policy scholar at a think tank or government intelligence analyst who has worked through mounds of data on terrorist groups to uncover family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources, tradecraft, and recruiting tactics. Readers should not expect to find chapters of detailed text explaining the evolution of ISIS’ tactics, techniques, and procedures from its roots as Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (later referring to itself as Al-Qaeda in Iraq). To that extent, Rise of ISIS is not the definitive book on ISIS as some reviewers have claimed. This is necessary to state as greatcharlie.com is aware that comprehensive texts on foreign and defense policy are de rigueur among many of its readers. What Sekulow provides, however, is a look at ISIS through the prism of a legal scholar. With the assistance of Jordan Sekulow, his son, the executive director of the ACLJ, as well as Robert W. Ash and David French, an Iraq War veteran, both serving as senior counsels for the ACLJ, Sekulow presents a strong legal case against ISIS. He breaks down the organization to create a concise profile of it. As such, Rise of ISIS would be a good choice for some business and political leaders or foreign and defense policy aficionados seeking to better understand ISIS in the context of the struggle against international terrorism and events in the Middle East.

Readers of Rise of ISIS will find themselves analogous to jurors, judging Sekulow’s case against this bizarre organization operating in the Middle East, so ultra-violent that even al-Qaeda rejected it. Readers will come to understand that the threat of ISIS goes beyond its ability to engage in genocide at historic proportions in Iraq and Syria. Readers will learn from Sekulow that they, themselves, could soon become victims of ISIS. Indeed, Sekulow insists ISIS poses the greatest threat of terror to the US since September 11, 2001.

As Sekulow explains, ISIS has essentially rejuvenated itself after being largely defeated by late 2008. Its leaders had been killed or captured and those fighters who had not been killed or captured by the US-led coalition had fled into Syria. That allowed Iraq to become somewhat more stable and secure for the short-term. It was in Syria that ISIS began to grow, along with other Islamic militant groups such as Syria’s own Jabhat al-Nusra. When the Syrian civil war began in the environment of the Arab Spring, Western governments and key Arab States, particularly in the Gulf, enthusiastically supported the Syrian opposition movement against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. As an enemy of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the US and European governments applied the fallacious concept that the enemy of my enemy is a friend expediently to ISIS. That led to its inclusion as part of the opposition’s forces in the field, organized under the umbrella organization, the Free Syrian Army. Even at that time, it was clear that the founding principles of ISIS, once an element of al-Qaeda, were inimical to the Western ideals. Efforts in the US and Europe to feign control over events in Syria step by step led to the further growth of ISIS and loss of control to that group. Supplies and weapons from Arab States supportive of the opposition, mostly found their way to Islamic militant groups as ISIS and significantly built-up its warfighting capacity. ISIS began to regularly attack mainstream or secular anti-Assad units while simultaneously fighting Assad’s forces and allies. Apparently, Syria was far enough away from the West to allow political leaders the sense of having things under control and escape the realities of the situation. The barbarism of ISIS was not accepted for what it was and thousands of foreign fighters were steadily pouring into Syria joining ISIS’ ranks. Its numbers quickly became too great for the Syria opposition to control. The group reached a size that allowed its leaders to consider returning to neighboring Iraq in strength to seize long sought after objectives.

ISIS members profess Islam as their religion. Islam is what draws Muslims to the organization. Yet, it is ISIS leaders’ own interpretation of The Holy Quran is given preeminence over all human affairs in their form of Sharia law. That law is flexibly applied by ad hoc ISIS civil authorities in cities, towns, and villages, who carry AK-47s and RPGs leading to extrajudicial executions by crucifixion, beheading, stoning, hanging and firing squad. For the most part, all ISIS is really doing is murdering innocent people. Murder is murder, and that truth is common to all mankind. Sekulow informs readers that ISIS has established itself as being more brutal than al-Qaeda, and notes that al-Qaeda sought to persuade ISIS leaders to change their tack. ISIS has proven itself as a “death cult” as it was described by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In this vein, ISIS has actually sought to transform Iraq and Syria into a single neo-pagan state, not an Islamic one.

ISIS leaders’ own interpretation of The Holy Quran is given preeminence over all human affairs in their form of Sharia law. That law is flexibly applied by ad hoc ISIS civil authorities in cities, towns, and villages, who carry AK-47s and RPGs leading to extrajudicial executions by crucifixion, beheading, stoning, hanging and firing squad. For the most part, all ISIS is really doing is murdering innocent people.

Sekulow indicates how ethno-religious racism has also been a prominent feature of ISIS. It has driven ISIS authorities to order the obliteration of all evidence of Christianity within its members reach. Sekulow explains that anyone who is not aligned with ISIS’ jihadist form of Sunni Islam whether Christian, Jew, Yazidi, and Shi’a, has been attacked by it. Sekulow gives special attention to Iraq’s Christian community. He notes that Christians in territory controlled by ISIS are given the ultimatum to “convert, leave your home, or die.” In response, tens of thousands of Christians became refugees. ISIS fighters then marked their homes with an Arabic symbol that has come to mean “Nazarene” which is a pejorative term for Christians in the Middle East. Catholics, whose families have occupied certain areas of Iraq for centuries, have been ethnically cleansed from territories controlled by ISIS. According to Sekulow, women in families unable to escape ISIS have been sold as sex slaves. Reports state Christian children have been beheaded.

Sekulow prepared Rise of ISIS in time to observe events surrounding ISIS’s June 2014 offensive. ISIS and other insurgent groups rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq’s Anbar Province. In a matter of days, they captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and were driving on Baghdad from two directions. The militants captured large parts of Iraq’s western and northern provinces in their June offensive after Sunni residents threw their support to the group. Apparently, the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battle ISIS. Through that offensive, ISIS became the world’s richest terrorist group capturing the money and gold reserves held in banks of the cities it overran. With the capture of Iraqi Army arms depots, ISIS amassed more firepower than any Islamic militant organization in history. Sekulow mentions reports that ISIS seized 40kg of radioactive uranium in Iraq raising fears that ISIS could construct a “dirty bomb”. (A dirty bomb is a weapon of mass destruction in the sense that it can spread radiation in to the atmosphere making entire areas uninhabitable and killing or sickening anyone within space of its radiation cloud.) Yet, Sekulow notes that when the administration of US President Barack Obama responded to the ISIS offensive, the decision was made not have US military forces enter Iraq robustly to destroy ISIS. Instead, a US-led coalition would engage in both a campaign of airstrikes and the time consuming process of retraining the Iraqi Security Forces that initially failed to defeat or halt ISIS. This response to ethnic-cleansing and terror by the international community was a far less assertive relative to that for Bosnia and Kosovo, but more akin, as Sekulow notes, to that for Cambodia and Rwanda. Cur ante tubam tremor occupant artus? (Why should fear seize the limbs before the trumpet sounds?)

In Sekulow’s view, ISIS has done more than give hints that it also plans to strike in the West. He points to statements made by ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi while he was temporarily held detained by the US during the Iraq War. Baghdadi reportedly said “I’ll see you guys in New York.” Sekulow also points to a statement from an ISIS spokesman who pledged to raise the black flag of ISIS over the White House. Whether boasts and idle threats or indications of ISIS’ intentions, Sekulow does not think the US should wait to find out. He points to what can be done by readers to stop the emerging genocide in Iraq and Syria and defeat jihad. He suggests that readers raise the issue of ISIS at home, on social media, in ones community and with elected officials. He says readers should treat Rise of ISIS as “a warning that jihad is on the march.”

Interestingly, much of what Sekulow discusses specifically about ISIS in Rise of ISIS can be found in the first 48 pages of this 144 page book. (Albeit, there is also some good information found in his end notes for those 48 pages.) The greater focus of Rise of ISIS from that point becomes Hamas, its attacks against Israel, and Israel’s use of military force against Hamas targets in Gaza. Some reviewers have expressed the view that this makes the title Rise of ISIS misleading. However, Sekulow explains that complementary discussion is crucial to his legal argument about ISIS. Key points made by Sekulow in the remaining pages of the book include: Hamas and ISIS are not entirely separate; both Hamas and ISIS are motivated by the same hate and use many of the same tactics; both want to establish terror-run nation-states from which they can engage in relentless jihad; Hamas has failed to destroy Israel because it is able to defend itself; he indicates that there is a campaign to demonize Israel; the UN, the Red Cross, and the international left, the members of which he does not fully indentify are pointed to as the main obstructionists; the international left shows sympathy for Hamas and attempts to limit Israel’s ability to respond to Hamas attacks; the UN’s efforts at investigating alleged Israeli “war crimes” is biased; UN investigators find no fault with Hamas as it uses human shields, terror tunnels, booby traps and hides rockets in UN facilities; and, the same “laws of war” used to judge Israel will eventually be used to tie US hands in its fight with terror at home and abroad.

A good portion of Rise of ISIS focuses on Hamas, its attacks against Israel, and Israel’s use of military force against Hamas targets in Gaza.  Sekulow explains Hamas and ISIS are not entirely separate as both are motivated by the same hate and use many of the same tactics.  Further, both want to establish terror-run nation-states from which they can engage in relentless jihad.

After reading Rise of ISIS some greatcharlie.com readers may wish to take a deeper look at ISIS. The following books are strongly recommended: Patrick Cockburn, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books, 2014); Charles River Editors, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: The History of ISIS/ISIL (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014); Loretta Napoleoni, The Islamist Pheonix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East (Seven Stories Press, 2014); Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014); and the coming book Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015).

Rise of ISIS is not a book simply on ISIS despite what is indicated by the book’s title. It covers much more, and the sudden turn the book takes in its discussion away from ISIS should not deter anyone from reading it or stop them from enjoying it. Sekulow is indeed passionate about ISIS and the threat the group poses to the West. That comes through on the book’s pages. However, he is equally concerned about Hamas, the UN, Israel, and Gaza, and other issues concerning the Middle East and that also comes through. Readers will undoubtedly continue to think about Rise of ISIS long after completing it. While the title and author’s methodology may pose concerns, readers hopefully will focus on the author’s discussion of facts. In more ways than one, Rise of ISIS gives readers a lot to think about. As the book can support our readers’ understanding of ISIS, jihad, Hamas, and other critical Middle East issues and further the ability of many to engage in the policy debate on such issues, greatcharlie.com recommends Rise of ISIS.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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.

US and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months: A Deal May Be Reached with Trust, But Not with Certainty

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (right) stands close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), at a ceremony. For hard-liners as Jafari, the failure to reach a deal by November 24th proved the West only wants Iran to surrender its nuclear program. Fears of US military action are gone. Hard-liners have gained even more of Khamenei’s attention on foreign policy.

According to a November 25, 2014 New York Times article entitled “U.S. and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months”, the US and partners in the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China—plus Germany), to declare an extension for talks with Iran on its nuclear program until June 30, 2015. The extension came after a yearlong effort to reach a sustainable agreement with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure. There was no indication of why negotiators felt they could overcome political obstacles blocking a deal. Until very recently, negotiators from all sides insisted that the November 24, 2014 deadline for a deal was hard and fast.

The November 25th New York Times article explained the already extended high-level diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear program was arguably US President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority. The results on November 24th had to be a disappointment for him. Negotiators did not even agree on the framework for a comprehensive deal. In expressing hope that a deal could still be reached, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a series of “new ideas surfaced” in the last several days of talks. He further stated “we would be fools to walk away,” because a temporary agreement curbing Iran’s program would remain in place while negotiations continued. Indeed, it has been reported that Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24, 2013 interim agreement, named the Joint Plan of Action, by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things. In extending the interim agreement, Iran has ensured itself sanctions relief, bringing it $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared on Iranian national television with a message of both reassurance and resistance. He told Iranians that a deal would end sanctions, but also said “the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop.” The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected US demands for the deep reductions in Iran’s enrichment capability. His view may not change before a March 1, 2015 deadline for reaching a political agreement, the first phase in the seven-month extension.

For the hard-liners in Iran, the failure to reach an agreement proved the US and its allies were not negotiating honestly and simply wanted to take away Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian moderates however, seem to realize an authentic agreement that includes the removal of sanctions and an acceptable modification of Iran’s nuclear activities can be reached. Yet, they likely also worry that the failure to reach an agreement coupled with the lackluster US reaction over events in Iraq and Syria has strengthened hard-liners’ resolve, and worse, strengthened their position and influence with Khamenei. Threats made by the Obama administration to take military action if negotiations fail now ring hollow. Western negotiators remain concerned over how Iran will proceed with or without a deal. A deal would need to be made with the prayer that Tehran will not announce one day that it has a weapon.

Zarif Wants An Agreement to Resolve the Nuclear Issue in Tehran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was upbeat before reporters at a press conference on November 25, 2014 in Vienna saying with a broad smile that he was optimistic that in the next few months a solution would be found. He was quoted as saying “We don’t need seven months.” Zarif directed his words at the US Congress saying Iran would not be ending all of its nuclear activities. He explained “If you are looking for a zero sum game in nuclear negotiations, you are doomed to failure.” He also revealed that the step by step removal of sanctions was a stumbling block in the talks. Zarif apparently argued to the end in the talks that the sanctions must be lifted permanently and almost immediately. For both Rouhani and Obama, the next seven months may be difficult to manage. Opponents of concessions of any kind have been gaining strength in both countries. It seems time has quickly passed since the summer of 2013 when considerable enthusiasm was created in Washington and other Western capitals over the potential of negotiations with Iran. Rouhani made an eloquent case for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  Skepticism expressed in the US came mainly from Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process. However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program has become a distant memory.  Obama administration officials pleaded with Congress not to levy new sanctions against Iran because sanctions would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  Simply put, the White House wanted to reach a deal, and US officials did not really hide that fact. Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He told the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

By that point, Zarif saw the real possibility of reaching an agreement with the P5+1 that Tehran could live with. He argued with hard-line elements in Tehran, including the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hard-line political and religious leaders, that a deal would be beneficial to Iran. The hard-liners did not desire to engage in negotiations, particularly with the West and remained reluctant, but, in obedience to Khamenei, they did not oppose his efforts. Zarif assures that Iran neither needs nor simply wants a nuclear weapons capability. That is to the best of his knowledge. Zarif believes Iran’s size and strength and level of technological development makes it unnecessary to augment its power with nuclear weapons. Zarif believes the goal of Iran’s nuclear program was to produce fuel for its nuclear reactor. That argument has remained at the root of his efforts during the entire negotiation process.  In a US television interview in July 17, 2014, he explained that nuclear weapons would likely reduce Iran’s security and influence in its region.  He said “It doesn’t help anybody.”  He went on to state “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security, through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over, is simply mad.” Zarif argued: “Have they [nuclear weapons] made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.” To prove Western claims about Iran’s nuclear program untrue, Zarif has proposed confidence-building measures and responded to proposals from the P5+1. However, firm limits to what he could commit to were set by Khamenei. As the November 24th deadline approached, Tehran apparently pulled the reign on Zarif tighter. Zarif undoubtedly recognized that other events in the region were having an impact on Khamenei’s thoughts on the negotiations. Threats of US military action had already dissipated. However, once the Obama administration displayed great reluctance to act militarily in Iraq in the face of monstrous actions by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), fears were mitigated within all quarters in Tehran that the US would act militarily against Iran.  Obama’s October 2014 letter to Khamenei may have further substantiated that view. With less worry that failed negotiations would lead to war, leaders in Tehran, particularly Khamenei and the hard-liners, saw no need to deal away any more of Iran’s nuclear program.

Hard-liners Strengthen Their Position with Khamenei

From the prism of hard-line elements in Tehran, the negotiation process has been a contest of wills. IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.” Yet, as the eagerness of the Obama administration to reach a deal became even apparent to them, the hard-liners watched, anticipating that the US would acquiesce to Iran’s demands. Previously, Iran contended with the administration of US President George W. Bush who threatened regime change and, hinted at a possible ground attack from Iraq. However, the Obama administration seemed less threatening and somewhat pliant to hard-liners. That perception was apparent iin the reaction of Jafari to the negotiations latest outcome. He explained “The Americans’ surrender to the authority of Iran is apparent by their behavior in the region and in the [nuclear] negotiations, and the issues of the enemy in combat with Iran were fully felt. Of course, their excesses in some cases are due to their fierce temper.” Jafari still expressed no genuine interest in reaching a deal with the P5+1. He stated, “The main elements of our power are in the hands of God and country. We should not seek our dignity and authority from the foreigners.”  He waxed on Iran’s potential to become a global power, and the need for a strategy to promote its interests and the Revolution worldwide. Jafari proffered, “Our problem is that we don’t have a broader outlook; the Supreme has also stressed this issue . . . If we don’t have a comprehensive and broader outlook, we will go wrong in all fields and decision-making, even the negotiations and nuclear issues.”

IRGC senior commanders have always looked with a bad eye at the size, power, and capabilities of the US military, and have wanted to surpass it in the Middle East and beyond. The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces regularly declare their willingness to defend Iranian territory to the end and display Iran’s military capabilities. Jafari stated: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” On Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s military forces on the ground and efforts to shape events there. Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons, the Obama administration expressed fears over placing “boots on the ground” and eventually declined to act.  That led IRGC commanders in particular to publicly deride the US as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands. IRGC Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani said of the US, “There was a day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

In one of his early public statements on the Iraq, Khamenei said, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.” Hard-liners apparently had to convince Khamenei that the Obama administration did not have the situation under control and was not moving with an assured step. Much as Zarif seemingly recognized, hard-line military and security officials apparently concluded uniformly that the US has no intention of attacking Iran if the nuclear talks fail. The hard-liners appear to have convinced Khamenei that Obama’s reluctance to fight ISIS showed he would be even more reluctant to face the IRGC, Iranian Armed Forces, and other security elements globally if the US attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  The hard-liners also likely inferred from Obama’s reluctance he would not want to concurrently fight Iran and ISIS. Khamenei was able to see Iran was in, what Jafari would characterize as, a stronger position versus the US, even on the nuclear issue.

Jafari has always looked with a bad eye at the US military. He believes the US is in decline and wants Iran to acquire a broader outlook regarding its role in world affairs.

A maturing public relations apparatus in Khamenei’s office shaped official quotes from the Supreme Leader in response to the talks’ result. On Thursday November 27, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he backed the extension of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, and praised the negotiating team for its efforts. Khamenei expressed on his website, “For the same reasons I wasn’t against negotiations, I’m also not against the extension.” He characterized Iran’s negotiators as “hard-working and serious . . . [They] justly and honestly stood against words of force and bullying of the other side, and unlike the other side, they did not change their words every day.” In another message on his Twitter account, Khamenei stated “We accept fair and reasonable agreements. Where there’s bullying and excessive demands, all of Iran, people and officials, will not accept.”

However, in a more genuine manifestation of his feelings on the negotiations, Khamenei, in a November 25, 2014 meeting with Muslim clerics in Tehran, dismissed the diplomatic and economic pressure that world powers had brought to bear on his country over its nuclear ambitions. Khamenei said that the West had failed to bring Iran “to its knees.” On his website, he further stated that “In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so—and they will not be able to do so.” Several Twitter posts from an account used by Khamenei’s office, accused the West of meddling in the Middle East and using Sunni militant groups to thwart the Arab Spring uprisings with intra-Muslim infighting, “in line with arrogant [US] goals.” Some of Khamenei’s November 27th statements actually lapsed into the same aggressive tone. Khamenei said the US would be the biggest loser if the extended talks failed. He remarked “Know that whether or not we reach a nuclear agreement, Israel becomes more insecure day by day.” He then proclaimed, “Our people are willing to maintain their authority and values, and will bear the economic pressure.” Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon. However, his statement likely came with caveats. If Khamenei, as the steward of Iran’s national security, felt a weapon was necessary for Iran’s security, he would build it and expect the Iranian people to faithfully overcome any Western efforts in response.

The Danger That Lurks: Real or Imagined?

Before the nuclear talks began, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obtained information suggesting Iranian leaders are not completely opposed to developing a nuclear weapon. In an internal 2009 IAEA document, most of which was published by Institute for Science and International Security, is a section titled “Statements made by Iranian officials.”  It states: “The Agency [IAEA] was informed that in April 1984 the then President of Iran, H.E. Ayatollah Khamenei declared, during a meeting of top-echelon political and security officials at the Presidential Palace in Tehran, that the spiritual leader Imam Khomeini had decided to reactivate the nuclear programme. According to Ayatollah Khamenei this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel, and to prepare it for the emergence of Imam Mehdi. Ayatollah Khamenei further declared during the meeting, that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.” The November 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report described the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that peaked in 2002 and 2003, and then was abruptly halted. The IAEA report also presented information from UN Member States indicating aspects of this program continued or restarted after 2003 and may be on-going.

The concern among US and European negotiators is that hard-liners in Tehran are using the on-going nuclear talks to misdirect them, enabling elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Continued progress with the nuclear program has been a feature of Iran’s negotiations with the West since such talks began with the Bush administration. Iran may have the capability to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the West within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and Zarif would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the P5+1while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements secretly develop the ability to create a nuclear weapon. According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s, at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The mission of AMAD Plan was to procure dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-2003, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserted Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities under the auspices of Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND. Nulla tenaci, invia est via! (For the tenacious, no road is impossible!)

The Way Forward

While stumbling blocks are addressed, new approaches to ameliorate US concerns are being explored such as ways to provide the US with at least a year to discover if Iran was racing for a weapon, a standard that the US has set. Such steps could involve a combination of Iranian commitments to ship some of its nuclear stockpile to Russia, efforts to disconnect some of the country’s centrifuges in ways that would take considerable time to reverse, and limits on output that could be verified by international inspectors.   However, efforts in that direction may not amount to much in the current political environment, particularly in Iran and the US. When it was announced that no deal was reached and negotiations would be extended, lawmakers inthe Iranian Parliament erupted in chants “Death to America” after a lawmaker commenting on the deadline extension spoke of “the U.S.’s sabotaging efforts and its unreliability.” The lawmaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, who is the deputy speaker of the Parliament, said Iran had learned from the nuclear negotiations that it had a strong hand to play. “Today, we can speak to the U.S. and its allies with the tone of power,” he said in remarks quoted by the Fars News Agency. “A lesson can be taken from the recent nuclear talks that, for various reasons, the U.S. is not reliable.” The Republican controlled Congress really has no interest in restoring or improving relations with Iran while it has a nuclear program. Congressional Republicans have threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran regardless of whether such action interfered with the nuclear talks. Obama will no longer be able to rely on Democratic leaders in the Senate to bottle up legislation that would require new sanctions. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times, “I don’t think Congress is going to sit still.” He further stated, “There is a fear the administration is being played for time, and there will be a desire to express that in some form of a sanctions bill.” Disapproval over the renewed sanctions relief that had brought Iran $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad may very well compel Congress to levy new sanctions. If the nuclear negotiations failed, any outrage expressed after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The use of military force would be unlikely given current circumstances in the Middle East and Obama’s disposition on it. There would be sanctions, but it is likely Tehran has already calculated what the consequences of such measures would be and how it could best mitigate their effects. Khamenei has assured that, if the extended talks fail, “the sky won’t fall to the ground.”

Evidence that the Iranian nuclear program has been militarized does not exist. Yet, despite what Zarif has argued, Khamenei and hard-line Iranian leaders may believe a nuclear weapon would make Iran more secure. At a minimum, they might seek the option to weaponize. Proceeding in that way would be very dangerous for Iran in the long-term. Iranian leaders know that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time. Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term. As greatcharlie.com has cautioned more than once, striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president. To the extent the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of its nuclear activities. A new demand might be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.  If the current global perception that US leaders lack the will and power to act militarily still prevails in 2016, the next administration may not be able to compel outcomes on many issues with diplomacy or threats to use force. Favorable outcomes may result only from robust use of US military force.

An above average understanding of human nature and faith will be required to formulate a final decision on a deal under current circumstances. Clearly, some reasonable doubt exists, at least among Western partners in the P5+1, over whether the terms of a deal would be observed. With circumstances in the world seeming off-balance, George William Rutler, pastor of Saint Michael’s Church in New York City and author of Cloud of Witnesses, recently reminded greatcharlie.com of a live radio message by King George VI on New Year’s 1939, offering reassurance to his people. It would have an important effect on the listening public as they moved closer to war. King George VI acknowledged that there was uncertainty over what the new year would bring. He explained, “If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”   He went on to quote a poem from Minnie Haskins of the London School of Economics entitled “The Gate of the Year” (The Dessert 1908). It seems apropos to present that quote here at the end of 2014, given the situation the leaders of the P5+1 nations will face in 2015 over the nuclear negotiations.

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:

‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!’

And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way’.”

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 flown 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.”