Opinion

The Great Debate

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude — we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda — don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! — and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa provinceBoots on the ground will be needed to retake the territory now under Islamic State control. But the president has said they will not be our boots. So whose?

His Iraq case is easier to address. Baghdad has a new government that may be capable of rebuilding its security forces and enlisting the cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and some Sunni tribes in Anbar province.

This is more a hope than a reality at this point. But it is crucial that an Iraqi presence on the ground be ready to confront Islamic State forces — especially when the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, comes into focus. It was the loss of Mosul, after all, that made these militants look so threatening, and it will be Mosul’s recovery that could signal Islamic State’s first major reversal of fortune.

In Iran talks, ‘no deal’ bests ‘bad deal’ for U.S.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna

With only days to go before the original July 20 deadline for negotiations over the future Iran’s nuclear program, there is scant sign that a breakthrough is imminent. The reason is simple: Iranian leaders’ refusal to move from what a senior Obama administration official recently described as “unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure that their program is exclusively peaceful.”

The stakes of the Vienna nuclear talks could not be higher. Although the past months have witnessed the proliferation of alarming new threats in the Middle East, including the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across Iraq and Syria, these dangers are not equal to the catastrophic, transformational consequences of the Iranian regime, the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons.

If an agreement with Iran fails to materialize by Sunday, some will likely criticize it as a foreign-policy setback for the Obama administration, raising the specter of an additional national security crisis at a time when Washington is already stretched thin by many other challenges. For that reason, despite the administration’s oft-stated insistence that “no deal” is preferable to a “bad deal,” these critics will urge greater flexibility on key terms and conditions with Tehran going forward.

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, that al Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Turkey cashes in on the Iran talks

You may have thought the Geneva deal struck last month between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) was a sweet one for Tehran — getting billions in sanctions relief in exchange for mere promises to halt its nuclear program.

But Turkey may be an even bigger winner. It just needs to open its doors and wait for Iranian funds to pour in.

Iran was Turkey’s third largest export market in 2012. In fact, Turkey is reportedly exporting more than 20,000 products to Iran right now; among them gold and silver. It turns out that the Geneva deal also loosened sanctions on precious metals.

For Syrians, a no-fly zone of their own

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For two years, the rebels in Al Qusayr held out against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then in April the regime, supported by fresh fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, renewed its attack on the mountain town overlooking the Lebanon border.

But it wasn’t Hezbollah that made the difference. It was the relentless bombardment by Assad’s air force that shattered the rebel defenses — killing 80 opposition fighters and sending the survivors into retreat. Assad’s jets and helicopters, unleashed against rebels and civilians alike in mid-2012, have proved a decisive force in the now 30-month Syrian civil war.

Because of this aerial onslaught, the rebels have begged the United States and its allies in the North American Treaty Organization to enforce a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas concentrated in Syria’s mountainous north. Barring that, opposition leaders have an alternative proposal: Washington and its allies supply rebel fighters with the weapons they need to defend a no-fly zone on their own.

Blocking Syria’s chemical network

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked a crucial question: Who has been supplying Syria with its chemical weapons? “Well, the Russians supply them,” Hagel responded. “Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”

The uncertainty of Hagel’s answer reveals a gaping hole in U.S. understanding of how these weapons proliferate, who helps their transfer and where they may turn up next.

Syria’s deadly chemical weapons, which the United Nations report confirms were used to kill at least 1,400 people last month — and which could still spark an American military attack if Syria refuses to turn over the weapons under a U.S.-Russian plan — are made in part from dual-use chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also components of beneficial products, including life-saving medicines, cosmetics and fertilizer.

Obama’s flawed case for a Syria strike

We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

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