US's Janus-Faced Policy on ISIS, Syria

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

As expected, Iran, Russia, and Syria have reacted negatively to US President Barack Obama's recent policy statement on the ISIS terrorists wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, raising concerns about the real motives behind this policy.

Thus, whereas Russia has interpreted Obama's planned air strikes in Syria, without seeking the consent of Damascus, as "illegal" and requiring UN authorization, Iran on the other hand has expressed the suspicion that the US is exploiting the ISIS threat in order to interfere in the domestic affairs of Syria and other regional states under the guise of counter-terrorism.

Clearly, there is a considerable mismatch between the Obama administration's policy on Syria on the one hand and on ISIS on the other. On the surface, Obama has adopted a unified approach that singled out the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, without bothering to explain that the US action against ISIS inside Iraq is (a) in response to the explicit request for international assistance by the Iraqi government and (b) US and Iraq have a legal basis for the US military action under the terms of Iraq-US counter-terrorism agreement.  Yet, there is no such agreement between Washington and Damascus and, what is more, the US's anti-ISIS policy in Syria is closely entwined with its "regime change" policy that has resulted in the US support for the anti-Damascus rebels, who are now promised to receive arms and training in the fight against the ISIS, which they will certainly use to combat Bashar al-Assad's army.

As a result, the bottle of US's anti-ISIS policy is half-empty, rather than half full, bound to cause growing frictions in the region, with powers such as Iran and Russia, who back the Syrian government and are weary of familiar US pattern of interventionism under the garbs of anti-terrorism or humanitarian assistance. 

Reflecting a back-to-the-past approach reminiscent of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, who excelled in the art of political camouflage through his post-9/11 "pretextual wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's new 'coalition politics' vis-a-vis the ISIS threat has all the markings of a textbook US hegemonic approach that will likely prove a pale  reenactment of the past play, simply because the world community has drawn precious lessons from the past and will not easily fall in the trap of blindly heeding Washington's new call to arms. Rather, as the reactions from around the world clearly show, the US has a serious credibility problem and people are suspicious of the familiar format that has already proved a recipe for disaster, in light of the horrendous level of deaths and destruction visited upon the region over the past decade or so.  

At the same time, whatever the US's intentions, there are unintended consequences and side-effects to every policy and the Obama administration's call for a united front against the ISIS menace raises the issue of tactical and or strategic cooperation between Iran and the US, even though the US Secretary of State John Kerry has explicitly rejected the idea of Iran's inclusion in the new anti-ISIS coalition. Obviously, until there is sufficient transparency about the US's motives and the related US's assurances that it does not seek the anti-ISIS policy as a 'trojan horse' in order to intervene in Syria, Tehran is highly unlikely to accept any US invitation to join this coalition. 

But, the incoherence of US's anti-ISIS and anti-Damascus policy aforementioned is unlikely to disappear overnight and, instead, promises to be a major thorn in the possibility of US-Iran cooperation against the ISIS. Should the US commence the air strikes against the ISIS without either the UN authorization or Damascus's prior notice and consent, then this will increase Tehran's disquiet and lessen, rather than enhance, the confidence-building process between Tehran and Washington. With respect to US-Russia relations, undoubtedly this would add a fresh log to their current furnace of hostilities that has been re-ignited over the Ukraine crisis; after all, Syria is Russia's close ally in the region and Moscow is suspicious of a US 'pay back' policy in Syria via the anti-ISIS excuse. In other words, the geopolitics of a new cold war certainly plays a role in US's new self-declared chapter in counterterrorism.

By giving itself the license to attack ISIS inside Syria "at a time and place" of its own choosing, to paraphrase the White House spokesperson, the Obama administration has taken one giant leap backward in reviving the image of US as a "rogue superpower" that can be corrected only when the US acknowledges the rule of international law, UN Charter, and the sovereign rights of Syria, which militate against such a scenario.

There is, of course, the option of a US policy turnaround on Syria, that could result in ingratiating Washington to Damascus and Tehran, thus redrawing the trajectories of 'alliance politics' in the region. The big question is if Washington is prepared to take a giant, and constructive, leap forward by exploring this realistic possibility?

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: US Policy, ISIS, Syria, Iran, Russia, International Law, Anti-ISIS and Anti-Damascus Policy, US's Intentions, Pretextual Wars, Air Strikes, Afrasiabi

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*Photo Credit: ABNA

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