The terrorist attack in Brussels exposed the inadequacy of the Belgian security forces, the need for much better sharing of intelligence among European countries, and the unique challenges that confront cities with neighborhoods of densely concentrated Muslim populations. Sponsorship of yet another attack by ISIS also underscored the fact that its threat extends far outside the Middle East.
Inevitably, the attack became a focus of the current political debates, notably provoking responses from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz that were predictably reckless. At the same time, it did raise legitimate issues of Obama’s record of combating ISIS and whether our current efforts are yet sufficient. Even Thomas Friedman, who is generally supportive of Obama, was moved to “wonder if Obama hasn’t gotten so obsessed with defending his hand’s-off approach to Syria that he underestimates both the dangers of his passivity and the opportunity for U.S. power to tilt this region our way — without having to invade anywhere.”
While some progress has been made in both Iraq and Syria, key goals—recapturing Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria—remain in doubt. Numerous articles have analyzed the problems of Brussels in dealing with—or failing to deal with—waves of Muslim migrants, but the less familiar story of Raqqa is also instructive. It is a city of particular importance because it is not only the capitol of the ISIS caliphate, but the center of its programs for recruiting and training jihadist terrorists.
On the political front, Trump and Cruz both warned of a dangerous influx of Muslims while Cruz also focused on Muslim neighborhoods in the United States. As reported in Politico:
“We have no idea what’s happening. Our government has absolutely no idea what’s happening, but they’re coming into our country,” predicted Trump, offering no further evidence or specificity. “They’re coming in by the thousands and just watch what happens — I’m a pretty good prognosticator — just watch what happens over the years. It won’t be pretty.”
Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz called for limiting the flow of refugees “from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence” and for heightened patrols of Muslim communities in the United States. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” he said in a statement.
By contrast, John Kasich took a characteristically calmer view:
The third GOP presidential candidate, John Kasich, criticized both of his rivals for their heated rhetoric. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with radical Islam,” Kasich told reporters in Minnesota Tuesday. “The last thing we need is more polarization because, frankly, those who want to preserve Islam as a religion that is not at war with the west—we alienate them, how are we supposed to ever get the information we need, that law enforcement needs?”
As Politico implied, there has not been any large scale influx of Muslims into the United States and there is no prospect of one. The administration’s proposal to accept an increased number of Syrian refugees involved the admission of refugees who had been processed initially by the United Nations (a process generally taking nearly two years) and would be subject to further vetting by the United States. While no process is perfect, the likelihood of any significant number of potential terrorists entering in that way is very small.
Also misplaced is Cruz’s contention that “patrolling” Muslim Communities would prevent them from being radicalized. On the contrary, Cruz’s crude prescription would more likely to produce radicalization than prevent it. As it happens, federal and state law enforcement authorities have not been ignoring Muslim communities but have been monitoring them with appropriate sensitivity and in coordination with local Muslim leaders. That approach is described in some detail in a Politico article, “Inside the FBI’s Secret Muslim Network.” It also reports that, not surprisingly, law enforcement officials familiar with how effective the current program has been are distressed that Cruz’s heavy-handed approach would do serious damage to it.
In the wake of the Brussels attack, Hillary Clinton gave a lengthy speech at Stanford addressing counterterrorism. After rebuking the suggestions of Trump and Cruz, Clinton outlined several steps that she recommended. Readers may review the speech here and judge for themselves, but none of Clinton’s proposals appeared groundbreaking and, in general, they could be described as “doing what we’re doing, only better.” With respect to taking on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Secretary Clinton was relatively brief:
First, we do have to take out ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq and Syria. We should intensify the coalition air campaign against its fighters, leaders, and infrastructure. Step up support for local Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground, and coalition efforts to protect civilians. And pursue a diplomatic strategy aimed at achieving political resolutions to Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s sectarian divide.
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We can’t let fear stop us from doing what’s necessary to keep us safe.
Nor can we let it push us into reckless actions that end up making us less safe. For example, it would be a serious mistake to stumble into another costly ground war in the Middle East. If we’ve learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can, and I argue, must support them. But we can’t substitute for them.
Here as elsewhere, Secretary Clinton’s comments reflect the position of the Obama Administration, to which she has generally clung with increasing tenacity (except for abandoning her previous support for the TPP trade agreement). The underlying premise is that ISIS is a problem for Middle East countries to solve and that, while we are glad to help them, it is not fundamentally our problem, and the use of American ground troops in combat is out of the question. We disagree. To begin with, we believe that it is indeed our problem as much as theirs. As summed up by David Brooks, no one’s idea of a partisan warhawk:
First, in Syria, I think we bear a large responsibility. I think we withdrew from Iraq too quickly and it created this tremendous vacancy there that ISIS filled. I think we were too slow to recognize what was going on in Syria in the civil war, refused to arm people, refused to take down Assad, ignored the red line and then created a vacuum which ISIS then filled there.
Brooks would probably be the first to agree that his thumbnail of history is an oversimplification, but we think his basic point is valid.
It is even more important to recognize what we have at stake. We are not in Iraq and Syria primarily to serve the interests of those countries but our own, specifically to prevent violent attacks by ISIS in and against our homeland as well as Europe. We had a toxic hors d’oeuvre of such violence in San Bernardino, and there is no reason to believe that other, and perhaps larger, attacks may not lie ahead. Having a Muslim population that is far smaller and better assimilated than it is in many European countries, our challenges are not the same, but they are very real nonetheless. It does not take hordes of jihadists to do grievous damage and we will remain remain vulnerable so long as ISIS survives and is actively promoting violent jihadism throughout the world.
We believe that, as Thomas Friedman suggested, President Obama has been decisively influenced from the start by his overriding desire to end United States military intervention in the Middle East. In consequence, he has consistently downplayed the threat of ISIS from the day he referred to them as “the JV team.” Recently, Jeffery Goldberg’s interviews with Obama, as recounted at length in The Atlantic, yielded the following: “Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents and falls in bathtubs do.”
As a matter of numbers, Obama’s comparison with fatalities from other causes is right, but his comment indicates that he misunderstands the symbolism and psychological impact of terrorist attacks. (In an odd way, the flawed reasoning mirrors attempt to dismiss the importance of black suspects shot by police on the the grounds that far more blacks are killed by blacks). Attacks from ISIS are not an “existential” threat to the United States, but if we should be subject to a series of terrifying assaults in the nature of San Bernardino or worse, an impulse for indiscriminate retaliation against Muslims, and a demand for intrusive tactics by law enforcement agencies, could do serious damage to the fabric of American life. Since Brussels, the President’s public rhetoric has changed, and he now describes the defeat of ISIS as his administration’s “top priority,” but he has announced no change in strategy or even hinted that one might be considered.
The assaults by ISIS and its followers, in Europe and the United States, provide the unavoidable context for appraising our role in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, we or our “allies” — Russia and Assad’s army do not fit comfortably in the term—have succeeded in reclaiming considerable territory from ISIS (including most recently the ancient ruins of Palmyra). Two targets of prime importance now lie ahead: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and Raqqa, in Syria, has been designated by ISIS as capital of its caliphate, which occupies major portions of both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Iraqi army, supported by American air power, has advanced toward Mosul with a view to undertaking its recapture, but the timing of that attempt, and the likelihood of success, remain uncertain. In Syria, the Syrian Army, supported by Russian air power is advancing on Raqqa, as are Kurdish forces supported by American air power.
It has been reported that President Obama has told civilian leadership and military commanders that he wants to see both Mosul and Raqqa recaptured. According to Military.com:
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has repeatedly said the military is on an “accelerated,” if indefinite, timetable to oust the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from its two main strongholds. He said last Friday that President Barack Obama has been pressing for it to happen before he leaves office.
“That’s what he (Obama) said he wants,” Carter said at a Politico Playbook breakfast. “That’s what he’s told me and Gen. Dunford,” referring to Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Carter has said that taking Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS in northeastern Syria and Mosul in northwestern Iraq were the keys to defeating the terrorist group. Obama has told him to “get this done as soon as possible. I’d like to not leave this to my successor,” Carter said.
While both Raqqa and Mosul are important, Raqqa is far more crucial in terms of training and sponsoring foreign terrorists. The city also has an interesting history, recounted by David Remnick in The New Yorker last fall, “Telling the Truth About ISIS and Raqqa.” Before 2011, Raqqa was a relatively peaceful and prosperous city with hydroelectric energy resources and an agricultural base. In the following two years, it became the site of anti-Assad demonstrations, and then a destination for refugees fleeing other cities in Syria. The city became known as the “hotel of the revolution” and came to be controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist rebel forces. Then ISIS arrived, and by 2014, it had defeated the FSA and was in control.
According to Remnick, Raqqa under ISIS soon saw the arrival of scores of foreign fighters from Western countries:
By the beginning of 2014, Isis had absolute control of the city. They now overran the mosques, drove out Christians from the city, and turned major municipal buildings into their various headquarters. The propaganda campaign that Isis mustered following the capture of Raqqa brought on a wave of foreigners.
“No one thought about the caliphate until 2014 when they declared Raqqa the capital of the caliphate and then these guys started coming in from all around the world,” one of the R.B.S.S. journalists told me. “It was like New York! A second New York! People from Australia! From Belgium! From Germany! From France! A global tide!”
Raqqa is now the site of “Jihadi University” that according to International Business Times is engaged not only in training the young jihadists newly arrived from the West, but in developing sophisticated weapons, including:
[T]he “Holy Grail” of terrorism: adapting old missiles into heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) capable of bringing down a passenger plane [and] remote control cars which can carry bombs to a target complete with mannequins fitted with thermostats which in theory can fool sophisticated security scanners.
Important as the capture of Raqqa is, it will not be easy or uncomplicated. In quoting an “R.B.S.S. journalist,” Remnick was citing an organization of Syrian journalists, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who smuggle out images and reports to Western allies. Remnick found their reports to be credible and consistent with information from other sources. The organization continues in operation and its website can be found here. A recent report on the site described in some detail, supported by an accompanying photograph, the devastation (“massacres”) wrought by Russian air attacks on civilian targets within the central city. It also reported that the attacks took place while drones operated by the United States were also overhead and posed a question in somewhat fractured but nevertheless clear English:
Are drones that hover day and night over Raqqa did not notice this bombing or whether it is to give coordinates for their Russian partner
The nature and degree of coordination between Syrian/Russian and Kurdish/American forces is something of a mystery, but is surely difficult. The Syrians apparently welcome help from the Kurds, but do not want them to control Raqqa as it would further their ambitions to control the entire area. And cooperation between the United States and Russia is almost always an awkward dance at best.
In any case, whatever degree of cooperation is achieved, numerous questions remain: Is Obama’s reported goal of recapturing Mosul and Raqqa within his term feasible? Is it feasible at the force levels presently deployed? If not, what additional forces might be added and how would their mission be defined? The statements from administration spokesmen have been notably vague. Indeed, the only clear and unambiguous statement from the military is that there is no timetable for either Mosul or Raqqa.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford have both expressed their firm belief that more troops will be sent to Iraq to aid in the capture of Mosul but cautioned that no final decision had been made. Clearly the ball is in Obama’s court. Would such troops engage in “combat,” contrary to repeated assurances by the Obama administration? The most recent American casualty in Iraq occurred on March 19, but after an earlier casualty sustained in a firefight last fall, secretary Carter had said, “This is combat” and “we expect do to do more of this kind of thing.”
In the case of Raqqa, neither Secretary Carter nor General Dunford have indicated that more troops will be requested. General Dunford’s most recent statement concerning that city was on March 9:
“We are increasing the number of folks that we are supporting on the ground — in this case the Syrian-Arab Coalition,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a time line for the operation for when we will take Raqqa. It’s going to be conditions-based — based on the size of the force we have, based on enemy dispositions, and of course, there is some other work being done both east and west of Shaddadi to consolidate the operation so far.”
In other words, stay tuned.
On Wednesday, The New York Times devoted its lead editorial to the opacity of the administration’s plans for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria, “America Need Frank Talk on ISIS.” Indeed, frank talk is long overdue. It is clear that the Times is skeptical of deploying greater military forces as recommended by Secretary Carter and General Dunford: “Mr. Obama has not made a clear argument that giving the Pentagon freer rein can lead to greater success against ISIS.” Yet the Times also acknowledged that “Recapturing Raqqa, in northern Syria, and Mosul, in northern Iraq, from the Islamic State is critical.” How then is that critical objective to be accomplished? Our own belief is that additional American forces are almost certain to be needed, but we join with the Times in calling on the President to explain his plans for successful operations.
One final thought. If Raqqa is recaptured, it would provide an important and welcome disruption in the recruitment and training of terrorists by ISIS. But if the end result is also to place Raqqa and its Sunni population under the merciless control of the Assad regime, it may seem a rather hollow victory to us and to our Sunni allies in the region.