Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace)
Why are Islamic militants wreaking havoc from Brussels to Lahore? The best way to answer this question is by taking a close look at how The New York Times covered this weekend’s liberation of Palmyra from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
The article, entitled “Syrian Troops Said to Recapture Historic Palmyra From ISIS,” began on a snide note. While the victory may have netted Bashar al-Assad “a strategic prize,” reporters Hwaida Saad and Kareem Fahim wrote that it also provided the Syrian president with “something more rare: a measure of international praise.”
The article noted that “Mr. Assad’s contention that his government is a bulwark against the transnational extremist group” has been bolstered, but added that “his foes and some allies argue that he must leave power as part of a political settlement to end the war in Syria” – without, of course, specifying who those allies might be.
Then it offered a bit of background: “Lost in the celebrations was a discussion of how Palmyra had fallen in the first place. When the Islamic State captured the city in May , the militants faced little resistance from Syrian troops. At the time, residents said officers and militiamen had fled into orchards outside the city, leaving conscripted soldiers and residents to face the militants alone.”
Since the Times claims to have “several hundred” surreptitious contacts inside Syria, the charge that Assad’s troops fled without a fight may conceivably be correct. But it’s hard to square with reports that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) had to battle for seven or eight days before entering the city and then had to deal with a counter-offensive on the city’s outskirts. But even if true, it’s only part of the story and a small one at that.
The real story began two months earlier when Syrian rebels launched a major offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province with heavy backing from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Led by Al Nusra, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, but with the full participation of U.S.-backed rebel forces, the assault proved highly successful because of the large numbers of U.S.-made optically guided TOW missiles supplied by the Saudis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
The missiles gave the rebels the edge they needed to destroy dozens of government tanks and other vehicles according to videos posted on social media websites. Indeed, one pro-U.S. commander toldThe Wall Street Journal that the TOWs completely “flipped the balance of power,” enabling the rebels to dislodge the Syrian army’s heavily dug-in forces and drive them out of town. Although the government soon counter-attacked, Al Nusra and its allies continued to advance to the point where they posed a direct threat to the Damascus regime’s stronghold in Latakia province 50 or 60 miles to the west.
Official Washington was jubilant. “The trend lines for Assad are bad and getting worse,” a senior official crowed a month after the offensive began. The Times happily observed that “[t]he Syrian Army has suffered a string of defeats from re-energized insurgents… [which] raise newly urgent questions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.”
Assad was on the ropes, or so everyone said. Indeed, ISIS thought so as well, according to the Associated Press, which is why it decided that the opportunity was ripe to launch an offensive of its own 200 miles or so to the southeast. Worn-out and depleted after four years of civil war, the Syrian Arab Army retreated before the onslaught.
But considering the billions of dollars that the U.S. and Saudis were pouring into the rebel forces, blaming Damascus for not putting up a stiffer fight is a little like beating up a 12-year-old girl and then blaming her for not having a better right hook.
So the U.S. and its allies helped Islamic State by tying down Assad’s forces in the north so that it could punch through in the center. But that’s not all the U.S. did. It also helped by suspending bombing as the Islamic State neared Palmyra.
As the Times put it at the time: “Any airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra would probably benefit the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focused on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”
The upshot was a clear message to ISIS to the effect that it had nothing to worry about from U.S. jet bombers as long as it engaged Assad’s troops in close combat. The U.S. thus incentivized ISIS to press forward with the assault. Although residents later wondered why the U.S. had not bombed ISIS forces “while they were traversing miles of open desert roads,” the answer, simply, is that Washington had other things on its mind. Rather than defeating ISIS, it preferred to use it to accomplish its primary goal, which was driving out Assad.
But what does this have to do with Brussels and Lahore? Simply that America’s fundamental ambivalence toward ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups — its policy of battling them on one hand and seeking to make use of them on the other — is what allows Sunni terrorism to fester and grow.
The administration is shocked, SHOCKED, when Islamists kill innocent people in Belgium but not when they kill innocent people in Syria. This is why the White House long regarded ISIS as a lesser threat: because it thought its violence would remain safely contained.
“Where Al Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the West and U.S. homeland,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes explained in August 2014, “ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State.”
Since the only people in harm’s way were Syrians, there was no cause for alarm. The rest of the world could relax.
Hence the confusion when ISIS did the unexpected by striking out at Western targets after all. As the Times observed in a major takeout this week on Islamic State’s Western operations, officials were slow to connect the dots because Euro-terrorism was not supposed to be ISIS’s thing: “Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policymakers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.”
Turkish officials made essentially the same point last week in response to widespread complaints that they have done little to prevent Sunni terrorists from making their way to Syria. Not so, they countered. When they tried to return the jihadis from whence they came, they found that members of the European Union were none too eager to have them.
“We were suspicious that the reason they want these people to come is because they don’t want them in their own countries,” a senior Turkish security official told the London Guardian. Instead, they preferred to see them continue on their way. And why not? At home, they would only cause trouble, whereas in Syria they would advance Western interests by waging war against Assad’s Baathist government.
Thus, Brussels was unresponsive when Turkish officials informed it that they had detained a Belgian citizen named Ibrahim el-Bakraoui in the border town of Gaziantep on suspicion of traveling to Syria to join the jihad. The Turks deported him anyway, but the Belgians remained unconcerned until El-Bakraoui turned up among the suicide bombers at Zaventem airport.
The same thing happened when the Turks intercepted a Syria-bound French national named Omar Ismail Mostefai. Paris was also unresponsive until Mostefai wound up among the ISIS militants who stormed the Bataclan concert hall last November, at which point its attitude turned distinctly less blasé.
In June 2014, Turkish security officers in Istanbul intercepted a Norwegian citizen traveling to Syria with a camouflage outfit, a first-aid kit, knives, a gun magazine and parts of an AK-47, all of which E.U. customs officials had somehow overlooked.
Two months later, they intercepted a German citizen with a suitcase containing a bulletproof vest, military camouflage and binoculars that customs had also failed to notice. When they apprehended a Danish-Turkish dual citizen on his way to Syria, they sent him back to Copenhagen. But the Danes gave him another passport regardless so he could continue on his way. Everyone figured that what happens in Syria stays in Syria, so why worry?
Now, of course, everyone is worried big time. With the AP reporting that Islamic State has armed and trained 400 to 600 fighters for its European operations, talk of ISIS sleeper cells is ubiquitous. Referring to the Brussels district where the March 22 bombing plot was hatched, Patrick Kanner, the French social-democratic minister of youth, warned ominously: “There are today, as is well known, hundreds of neighborhoods in France that present potential similarities to what happened in Molenbeek.”
But as much everyone would like to blame it all on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of that ilk, none of this is really their fault. To the contrary, the West’s disastrous Syria policy is entirely the creation of nice-guy liberals like Barack Obama. Desperate to appease both Israel and the Sunni oil sheiks, all of whom for various reasons wanted Assad to go, he signed on to a massive Sunni jihad that has turned Syria into a charnel house.
With death estimates now running as high as 470,000, which is to say one person in nine, the idea that massive violence like this could remain confined to a single country was absurd to begin with. Yet Obama went along regardless.
Indeed, the administration is still unwilling to back down despite all that has happened since. When a reporter asked point-blank at a State Department press briefing, “Do you want to see the [Damascus] regime retake Palmyra or would you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands,” spokesman Mark Toner hemmed and hawed before finally admitting that a takeover was preferable because “we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case.” (Exchange starts at 1:05.)
But the next day he walked back even that mealy-mouthed statement. Refusing to endorse Palmyra’s fall at all, he declared: “I’m not going to laud it because it’s important to remember that one of the reasons Daesh is in Syria is because Assad’s brutal crackdown on his own people created the kind of vacuum, if you will, that has allowed a group like ISIL or Daesh to flourish. Just because he’s now, given the cessation of hostilities, willing and-or able to divert his forces to take on Daesh doesn’t exonerate him or his regime from the gross abuses that they’ve carried out against the Syrian people.”
Since Assad is the only one to blame, the U.S. doesn’t have to ponder its own contribution to the problem. Instead, it gives itself a clean bill of health and moves on. Rather, it would like to move on if only ISIS would let it.
But the more aid the U.S. and its allies funnel into the hands of Sunni terrorists, the more groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda will grow and the farther their reach will extend. The upshot will be more bombings and shootings in Paris, Brussels, and who knows where else. Racism and Islamophobia will continue to surge regardless of what bien-pensant liberals do to talk it down.