Comparing ISIS to al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia is a Massive Mistake

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In last night’s speech Obama compared his strategy to defeat ISIS to US operations in Yemen and Somalia. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” For once conservatives seemed relieved by Obama’s plan no matter the lack of details. "The President's plan announced this evening is an encouraging step in the right direction," said GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee and vocal Obama critic. Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chimed: "Tonight the President seemed to have faced reality."

Mainstream liberals like MSNBC’s Al Sharpton continued to lead the Obama cheer squad without realizing his statements about Obama’s “toughness” mirrored the neocons he loathed during the Bush administration. Antiwar liberals like Phyliss Bennis, who seems vaguely, if  at all, familiar with the situation on the ground, kept to an expected nationalistic stance in her Nation article published this morning. The more hard-pressed and intellectual liberals were left shaking their heads over the possibility of seeing Yemen and Somalia as success stories. Noted journalist Jeremy Scahill live tweeted the speech taking several moments to reiterate the failures of the drone program:

Talk of Yemen and Somalia as models for how to confront ISIS reminds me of SNL skit: "Bad Idea Jeans"

— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) September 11, 2014

 

Jeremy Scahill is a fine gent. I recommend giving Dirty Wars a read or, if you find tackling a 600 page book daunting, at least watch the film. He makes a strong case, one that I agree with, that our counter terrorism policies and killing of innocent civilians in Somalia and Yemen has created terrorists and regional pushback. However, the situation in Syria and northern Iraq is entirely different.

ISIS has claimed a chunk of territory about the size of Belgium. They did so through overt means. It's unprecedented. At this juncture tens of thousands of ISIS soldiers are openly controlling the streets where 8 million people live. They’re attempting to run everything from utilities companies to city governments. One of the first things they do when taking over a city or village is install their version of a judicial system. As Richard Engels pointed out, comparing ISIS to Somalia and Yemen is thus an extreme over simplification. ISIS in Iraq and Syria is more akin to regime change than a few embedded terrorists.

One should keep in mind that not all members of extremist groups are extremists. A fair portion of the varying extremist groups inside Syria are composed of people who were initially moderates taking up arms against Assad. Last year when the US failed to give moderate factions of the FSA the much-needed weapons and support they were promised, many were forced to join with anyone who could give them a gun and help protect their families. After all, they were now enemies of the state. Survival trumps ideology. In some places, predominately in the east, that meant joining up with al-Nusra, the Islamic Front (mostly near Aleppo), al-Sham, or ISIS. While many Syrian Sunnis have a low opinion of ISIS, they see rule by Assad as a far worse option.

From my work in the region, as well as conversations with Syrian contacts both inside and outside of Syria (the Syrian city of Raqqa is the base for ISIS, thus why Syria is of greater importance than Iraq in this conflict), it seems most people don't want to be under the thumb of ISIS. ISIS has been utilizing systematic torture and murder on everyone, even other Sunnis – as the Assad regime has been doing for 3 years now. They’ve enforced laws so strict even listening to or playing music is considered a tremendous breach of law. They’ve also been doing this in the name of Islam, which is offensive to the majority of Muslims. So while some Sunnis in the region are with them now – they don't want to be. They just weren’t given a choice. If they had been, they would have seen Assad removed, some form of democratic representation installed, and gotten back to their professional and family lives.

One fear is that bombs dropping will only heighten the appeal of ISIS or other anti-western elements in the region. Though, in my view, the only way it appears Syrians would find ISIS appealing is if the US is seen as siding with predominantly Shia forces and thus waging a war against Sunnis. It almost appeared that the US was headed down that path with the PM of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, in office and Iran offering to aid in an attack on ISIS. Then regime change in Iraq happened (Maliki has been seen as a major cause of sectarian conflict and discrimination against Sunnis). That brought the Kurds to the side of the US. Then, just prior to Obama’s speech last night, he seemingly convinced the Saudi King to join the coalition, increasing Sunni support. It cannot be emphasized enough how integral it is to have Sunni support on the ground and see the Iraqi army reform in a way that's inclusive of local Sunnis.

The elephant in the room is what to do about Assad. The sooner he goes the better. If popular opinion in the region feels the US coalition is aiding him in any way, then intervention may exacerbate the problem. Considering that the Assad regime just put out a statement that attacking ISIS -- who they have been purchasing oil from and enabling to fight the moderate opposition -- will be considered an attack on Syria (by which he means his government), that doesn't seem to be the case.

It’s true that that’s the history of US intervention in the Middle East is one of failure. That’s why Obama has been avoiding entering in the first place. But criticism needs to be accurate before it's valid. At this juncture, the Middle East is a mess due to multiple revolutions happening side-by-side, oppressive governments rising and falling, growing sectarian discord, escalating levels of youth without access to education and millions of people being displaced. Currently there are over 13 million Syrians and 1 million Iraqis without shelter. It’s difficult to tell who or what will lead towards a peaceful resolution, or if it’s even possible. Yet to sit back idly as it happens “over there” is an expression of nationalism at its worst. But to go further we need to be as accurate and honest about what that entails. As far as I can tell, not too many people are ready to do that.