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A nation must think before it acts.
(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)
Two years ago, amidst a long U.S. presidential campaign, both political parties largely avoided the Syrian conflict as a foreign policy issue. The Obama campaign still had not shaken off the sting of helping topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya only to see the country crumble into chaos leading to the Benghazi fiasco. On the other side, debate on the Syrian civil war would remind voters of Iraq, the Bush administration, the Republican party, and thus by association the Romney campaign would suffer. Thus, war-weary Americans and their European allies avoided the Syrian conflict hoping that good outcomes would arise naturally. More than two years later, the West continues to tip toe around the Syrian civil war despite the rise of new adversaries spawned by the West’s collective policy of inaction.
The latest jihadi threat known as ISIS has infected the Middle East for one reason above all others – the perpetuation of the Syrian civil war. Two years ago, institution of a No-Fly-Zone would have muted Syria’s air force and leveled the playing field but the U.S. settled instead for limited small arms for the Free Syrian Army fearing the potential blowback of more useful heavy weapons or air defense missiles falling into the hands of al Qaeda linked militants. The cautious American approach achieved nothing as hordes of more extreme militants backed by Gulf donors swallowed the FSA leading to two unfortunate consequences; the sustainment of the Assad regime in western Syria and the rise of ISIS in eastern Syria.
The Obama administration and the media have wrongly labeled ISIS a cancer, but it is only a symptom of the real cancer, which is the Assad regime. ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the Syrian civil war and the safe haven it has produced for extremists. Here are many reasons why the U.S., if it truly wants to destroy ISIS, should pursue an end to the Assad regime and the Syria Civil War as a first step in defeating ISIS.
As airstrikes continue, the U.S. and the West as a whole must realize there will be no enduring successful outcome for defeating ISIS and al Qaeda without ending the Syrian civil war – something that requires the confrontation of Assad. The U.S. seems unlikely to take this action, in fear of riling Iran and their ally of exceptional aggression, Russia. Maybe the Obama administration has included toppling Assad in their long-run strategy, but I’m skeptical.
For other parts of the “Thoughts on Countering ISIS” series see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.