Though an anti-war type I am not on the same page with many anti-war types when it comes to poo-pooing President Obama’s call for military action against the Islamic State caliphate. The caliphate is a big deal, in my opinion, a big bad transnational deal with significant consequences throughout Asia, and something should be done. “Something,” unfortunately, would be a big, disruptive military campaign coordinated through the UN Security Council and Arab League, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and involving lots of Saudi and Turkish casualties, both military and civilian, and a prolonged, agonizing, and expensive effort to reassert the control of the Iraqi and Syrian governments over the territory they had lost.
Understandably, nobody, including the United States, is willing or able to make sure that something actually gets done and it looks like what we are getting is a collection of ineffectual half-measures justified by hyped-up “threat to the homeland” agitation whose main purpose is to exploit the crISis in order to enhance US clout in the region.
IS took root in Iraq and Syria, in large part because of the Obama administration’s willingness to enable a jihadi solution to its dump-Assad problem and the very, very bad decision of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to support the operation. I don’t think President Obama and his foreign policy team should be judged generously for their “let ‘er drift” casual approach to the dangerous and unpredictable mechanics of regime collapse through jihadi insurgency, with the details handled by two rather incompetent local allies who claim to be regional powers but are actually risk averse opportunists who look to the United States to do all the heavy lifting.
The depressing part of the US strategy is that, as far as I can tell, it views the anti-IS campaign as a Trojan Horse, a chance to favor, strengthen, and advance anti-Assad forces. So instead of cooperating with literally the only Middle Eastern state willing to field an army against IS—Syria—the US is refusing to work with Syria and instead will train and equip an anti-Assad and anti-IS force, reportedly in Saudi Arabia, that is less of a US-backed militia of venal “insurgents” and more of a controlled and disciplined military strike force created, controlled, and deployed by the CIA and, unlike our most famous previous experiment in this vein, the Bay of Pigs invasion, this force will have lots and lots of airpower.
The idea, presumably, is that as IS is pummeled by drones and air strikes (and its fleet of tanker trucks ferrying crude oil to Turkey is destroyed) and retreats, the US-backed force will advance and occupy the vacated territories before Assad can. And hopefully, the force will attract the fairweather allies of IS who prefer a US paycheck and immunity from air strikes to getting plastered. And then the US can orchestrate demands from a finally viable Syrian opposition for Assad to step down in the name of national unity, full US support, and an all-out war against IS. Victory!
My admittedly imperfect knowledge of US government decision making implies to me that somebody had to bring President Obama a proposal like this for an American win in Syria—or at least a borderline plausible case for a chance for an American win in Syria-before he made the politically unpalatable decision to re-enter the Middle East quagmire. Assad, Russia, and IS are, of course, not going to stand idly by as this clever plan is implemented. My prediction is that the US will experience its usual success in the counterinsurgency nuts and bolts of “clearing” territory, and its usual difficulty in the complicated political task of “holding” territory. So my expectation is for several more years of inconclusive and expensive bloodshed as the people of Syria and Iraq suffer through another overly optimistic US geostrategic experiment.
I think the spectacle of the US dilemma in the Middle East will also spur the PRC to adopt a massively-preemptive hard line against Islamist militancy in Xinjiang. China, after all, considers itself an empire on the rise and with the will and resources to go toe to toe with its political enemies, not waiting, US-style, for disaster to pound at the door before thinking about doing something.
If things heat up in west China with blame being attached to jihadi havens in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or wherever, don’t be too surprised if the PRC embarks on its own regional military adventure, probably through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of Asian states (the PRC recently hosted a big anti-terrorist military drill for SCO forces) but unilaterally if need be. And if the PRC chooses the military option, don’t expect half-measures. If a region in Xinjiang shows promise of becoming a stronghold of anti-PRC sentiment, the regime will pave it over before it allows a IS-style force to establish itself.
If as I believe the PRC determines not to repeat the US mistake in letting IS take root, its first order of business may be alliance w/Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban, as opposed to the Pakistan Taliban, has maintained a modus vivendi with the PRC and not seriously threatened PRC interests in Pakistan and Xinjiang. The proclamation of the IS Caliphate is a direct challenge to Mullah Omar’s emirship in Afghanistan and various Islamist militant organizations in South Asia are fracturing as a result. In this case, I think Mullah Omar and the PRC will look at each other as “friends in need” when it comes to countering the IS push into Pakistan (ongoing) and Afghanistan.
We should look at Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil campaign as an example of what happens when the PRC gets serious about counterinsurgency. Everybody wanted the Tamils crushed but quailed at the humanitarian cost. So the PRC helped the Sri Lankan government do the dirty work and let the West handle post-hoc human rights handwringing. An ugly affair, and one of the few successful counterinsurgency ops post-WWII.