Gwynne Dyer: Millions could die if Barack Obama allows Islamic State and Nusra Front to take over Syria

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      The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State troops on Wednesday (May 20) was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.

      The fall of Palmyra on Friday (May 22) was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.

      The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.

      The Al Nusra Front had to fight very hard for Idlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but Islamic State met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. And Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to Islamic State this month after just four days.

      It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in the zone. If the Assad regime does go under, Islamic State and the Nusra Front will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.

      Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates”, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-third of Syria’s population are “apostates” by this definition—Alawites, other Shias, and Druze—and they are all at great risk.

      True, the Nusra Front has been less outspoken about its intentions than Islamic State, but that’s just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and the Nusra Front in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.

      An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.

      You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.

      It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime—and, more importantly, put U.S. airpower at the service of the Syrian army.

      Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more and better weapons and U.S. air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.

      U.S. planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.

      The U.S. president didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of its neighbours.

      Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.



      Kai Anne

      May 25, 2015 at 11:48am

      Hopefully the Obama admin is negotiating w/Assad and offering salvation in exchange for his stepping aside. Remember that this whole situation began when Assad refused to step aside and allow someone more palatable to his people to take charge. He deliberately chose to bomb his nation into ruin rather than cede power. Problem is that it is too late now, and who could possibly emerge to unite what is left of Syria?

      Like I posted on Al Jazeera years ago (and was banned), his sweet western-educated wife needs to do the right thing, and some bliss-filled night, take out and use that gold-handled derringer. For the good of her people, for god's sakes!


      May 25, 2015 at 12:30pm

      Considering this angle from zerohedge:
      the US seems hell-bent on keeping their military-industrial complex (MIC) rolling along and sucking big bucks from Joe Taxpayer.
      Historically, the MIC has treated the death of millions of foreign civilians as just a cost of doing business; there's no reason to expect that to change now.

      I Chandler

      May 25, 2015 at 3:33pm

      DYER:"The U.S. president didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land"

      Just like LBJ was stuck in the fantasy-land of Vietnam? Is Obama just another president damaged by a country that he's trying to help?

      The Pentagon Papers described how presidents are Not stuck in fantasy-land but they do to tell stories - See Seymour Hersh's cognitive disonance:

      Dyer: "American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime."


      Lewis S

      May 25, 2015 at 3:39pm

      Gwynne Dyer assessment of the situation in Syria is the best solution is to opt for the perceived lesser of two evils.

      Note the nuances between the polices of Gunboat diplomacy, Big Stick (speak softly but carry a big stick) and the Military-Indusrial Complex (carry on any war to provide an market for military hardware.


      May 25, 2015 at 4:55pm

      Supporting Assad always was the least bad option . Hopefully the US won't elect another rookie president next year.


      May 25, 2015 at 5:36pm

      Can strategic bombing stop a determined guerilla force? It never has. Bomb the cities and you create rubble for the fighters to hid in and emerge later to bedevil the soldiers sent to winkle them out. In other words, if the Syrian military's morale is cracking, bombing won't help. Dyer is right, however, an ISIS victory would unleash an orgy of rape and murder. And all of it vividly depicted on social media to insight reprisals against European Moslems and lure the West - the Crusaders - to war. ISIS would just love that.
      But one thing Obama could do is help the Russians supply the Syrians. He could also come down hard on his so-called allies, the Saudis and Turks, who are both supporting radical factions against Assad's government. As Dyer has said before, it's not that hard to close the border between Turkey and Syria, despite what the Turks say. Let's see if Obama has the nerve. A lame duck president can do a lot. But Obama has not always been gutsy. Now, let's stop playing armchair president and decide what Canada should do. Canada should do nothing, except send humanitarian aid since our interests are not affected. This is a mess Uncle Sam made. Let him clean it up. Wanna bet that Harper, Mulcaire and Trudeau will rise to the bait and support a humanitarian intervention? Stay tuned.

      Jim Evans

      May 25, 2015 at 7:11pm

      I'm inclined to say let them get on with it...There is no solution to the growing hatred between the warring muslims..So pent up with hatred are they that nothing is going to stop them from killing each other..It's a universal problem, wherever there are muslims there is death and destruction. The fallout inevitably means collateral deaths of innocent people, mainly women and children, a huge price to pay..Eventually, left uncontrolled, the solution is self-perpetuating as many hundreds of thousands muslims take up arms to protect themselves and their families. The UN clearly is hamstrung by the influence of a powerful minority islamic vote so they are not going to intervene any time soon.

      The war is going to last for a generation and the outcome is totally unpredictable. Left uncontrolled, I can visualise the Israelis being drawn into this conflict and with the potential for a nuclear engagement, we could all be on the brink of WWIII. Perish the thought.


      May 25, 2015 at 9:39pm

      There is no going back in Syria, Asad and Alawaties knows very well what would happen if Sunni groups topple Asad. Alawaties coming hundred of massacres of Sunni and the civilized humane west deliberately choose not to protest Sunni civilians from the butchery of Asad. US will get bankrupt if it send troops and this time the economy will tank for good.


      May 26, 2015 at 1:45am

      Mr. Dyer had this one pegged from the get go. Its unfortunate that our national leaders are simply coffee boys in short pants.


      May 26, 2015 at 5:15am

      This ISIS situation is bad, with a lot of potentially disastrous outcomes and very few remotely good one.

      First, I think the US's regional alliance strategy is looking terrible strategically. The Saudi & Turkish militaries are large and well equipped forces by any world standard. Yet, both are useless so far in this conflict. Manufactured allies like the Bagdad and Kabul governments are both incapable of surviving without the US and cynical about the alliance.

      Second, we need to remember that Radical Islamism is a radical ideology. ISIS could open another front anywhere without moving troops. They expand by conversion, not just capturing territory. Marching into Damascus could earn them a fighting force in Riyad.

      While hail mary attempts like saving the Assad regime are good, I think it's time to go into containment mode just in case. I also think Obama's right about needing allies. Turkey & Saudi Arabia need to be involved or else. If they refuse to form the main fighting force, Syria is basically conceded.