Obama is the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

US air strikes on Isis add fuel to extremist ideologies

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years.

President Obama has become the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq and the first to launch them on Syria. It is a remarkable submission to history for a president whose candidacy in 2008 was largely defined by his opposition to America’s recent past.

The Obama administration would argue that the current mission is different from previous campaigns, primarily because of the manner in which the US now projects its military power abroad. Boots have been replaced with drones and ever more mechanisation. Such an approach evidently assuages public concerns over sacrificing more western lives for seemingly elusive stability in the Middle East.

Yet this is true only to an extent. The marked increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under Obama has destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. While drones can eliminate leaders, however, they cannot dismantle terrorist networks. The unpicking of al-Qaeda’s global network, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was the result of conventional military deployment.

In this context, it is hard to imagine how Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) will be defeated with air strikes alone. The group controls swathes of land, has an army of tens of thousands and possesses highly sophisticated weapons. Were aerial bombardment enough to crush IS, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have put an end to the rebellion long ago.

For now, Obama has limited himself to ordering air strikes while ruling out a more vigorous military response. The perils of such an approach are many. There is the danger of mission creep – but there also broader issues that have been poorly understood.

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years. When the uprising in Syria first began, thousands of civilians were abandoned to Assad’s regime. He tortured and slaughtered them with impunity and practised the worst form of dog-whistle politics.

Many Syrians called for intervention to tip the balance. Instead, as law and order broke down and instability increasingly took hold, jihadists moved in to fill the power vacuum. The west, they told Syrians, doesn’t care about the deaths of Sunni Muslims. This was a repeat of the Bosnia narrative, which peddled the view that European governments were indifferent to the plight of Balkan Muslims.

Many Sunni Muslims in Syria have similarly questioned the west’s concern over the fate of minorities in their country. What about the majority, they ask? They were abandoned to the regime and Obama was stirred into action only in defence of the Yazidis.

Although the US president has stopped short of saying so explicitly, we are left to understand that Assad is the lesser of two evils. So it is that discreet diplomatic channels have been reopened to the Assad regime. That much is clear from a statement issued by Lieutenant General William Mayville, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed that Syrian air defence systems were “passive” during US raids on IS targets in Syria.

We have been here before. Months before the 2011 uprising, Vogue showered encomium on the Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, describing her as “a rose in the desert”. The American academic David W Lesch similarly described Bashar al-Assad as “the new lion of Damascus”. The authoritarian bargain that the Syrian president offered seemed to enchant western observers. Asma al-Assad launched civic empowerment projects for children, the Four Seasons opened new hotels in Damascus and laws were passed allowing for casinos. Yet, behind the scenes, it was business as usual. President Assad continued to crush all dissent, while providing a vital air route for Iranian intelligence to supply Hezbollah.

Those clambering to support Assad should remember just how much blood of our troops he is responsible for. In the last Iraq war, Syria provided the primary thoroughfare for foreign jihadists wanting to fight western coalition forces. Syrian intelligence not only turned a blind eye to the fighters passing through the country but also actively supported their efforts, releasing a number of senior jihadists from prison.

Obama’s initial inaction helped to create the conditions in which the jihadists could flourish. Now, he has reacted with hasty half-heartedness and delivered the worst of both worlds. This confrontation with IS will almost certainly extend beyond the end of Obama’s presidency in 2017, after which he will be able to repent at leisure. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

0800 7318496