In trying to decide what to do in response to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria, the Obama administration is caught in a dilemma. It wants to destroy ISIS in order to save the feeble government it supports in Iraq. But defeating ISIS would also help the Syrian regime of Assad which Obama wants to topple.
Iran, a U.S. adversary, is providing military support to Assad. And Russia, a long-time ally of the Syrian regime, is now bombing ISIS and other anti-Assad rebels in order to save Assad. It's ironic that ISIS and the opening it presents for Russian intervention in Syria are "blowback"--unforeseen consequences of the regime change imposed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A year after that invasion destroyed Saddam Hussein's regime, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI joined the Sunni insurgency against the occupation forces and the corrupt Shiite government supported by the U.S. A Sunni fanatic, Zarqawi waged a brutal war against the Shiite population of Iraq. In response to revelations of American torture in Abu Ghraib, AQI published a video of its beheading of American Nick Berg.
After Zarqawi was killed in a 2006 U.S. air raid, AQI metamorphosed into Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and in 2013 it expanded into the power vacuum of Syria's civil war (and is now known as ISIS or ISIL). In 2014, ISIS took control of Fallujah, 60 miles from Baghdad, and Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. It now governs, or at least exerts some degree of control over, a large territory straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. Continuing in the spirit of AQI, ISIS engages in torture, mass executions and videotaped beheadings.
At the opening of the 70 th session of the UN General Assembly, President Vladimir Putin defended Russia's escalating role in the Syrian civil war. He proposed that the U.S. and other nations join Russia in defeating ISIS and other jihadist organizations in Syria, an offer the Obama administration immediately spurned because Russia supports Assad.
It seems clear that the only hope for ending the Syrian bloodbath and refugee exodus is something like Putin's proposal: a military alliance to defeat ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting the government and each other for control of Syria and Iraq. These forces are incapable of governing; they can only create further chaos in the region.
Once the Islamists are defeated, Syria's recovery should include the government of Assad in a managed transition monitored by a coalition including the U.S., Russia, Europe and Iran. For once, the U.S. needs to let go of the arrogant fantasy that it can destroy an established government and create from scratch a replacement regime to its liking.
It was this fantasy that led the U.S. to disband the Iraqi army and purge the government of all members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party. The result was to drive embittered officers and soldiers into the ranks of the insurgency, while excluding from government most of the experienced civil servants in Iraq.
Then it called for elections that would deprive the powerful Sunni minority of its former dominance over the Shiite majority, further inflaming the Sunni insurgency. To this day we have in Iraq a weak and corrupt Shiite government still fighting Sunni rebels now led by ISIS. It's unlikely there will ever be a functioning Iraqi state again.
The adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Assad's ally Iran is another case of blowback from an American-imposed regime change. In 1953 the CIA caused the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. The coup enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to rule Iran for 26 years as a brutal police state. The Islamist revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 was driven by hatred not only of the Shah but also of the "Great Satan" that had imposed his regime on Iran.
The Obama administration has argued that it cannot possibly work with the Assad government because of the atrocities it has committed against its own citizens during the civil war. Yet it has no trouble cooperating with its principal Middle-Eastern ally Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. In the last five years, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia total $98 billion.
Saudi Arabia sentences dissidents to public flogging, regularly performs public beheadings, routinely tortures prisoners, and inflicts amputation and eye-gouging as punishments. Ali Mohammed al-Nimr has been sentenced to public beheading followed by crucifixion for participating in a political demonstration when he was 17.
So the U.S. should stop pretending that moral delicacy rules out a deal with Russia, Iran and the Assad government. As Putin argued at the UN General Assembly, a jihadist victory over Assad will only bring more chaos.