The worst part of Obama’s strategy on ISIL

The worst part of Obama’s strategy on ISIL

Ankara has been holding security meetings one after the other for the last few days in order to fine tune its stance regarding the U.S.-led efforts to organize coordinated action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which claims statehood on parts of territories in Iraq and Syria.

Efforts have stepped up since the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama during the NATO summit in Britain between Sept. 4-5. This was followed by a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Ankara on Sept. 8 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to have talks in Ankara today, Sept. 12, after his contacts in Iraq and his attendance at the first meeting of the international coalition against ISIL in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia yesterday, Sept. 11. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was also there.

Obama announced the U.S. strategy to fight ISIL late Sept. 10, almost half a day after the Turkish stance was discussed in a security meeting in Ankara, chaired by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and half a day before the Jeddah meeting.

The content of the strategy was no surprise; it has been leaked in parts for the last few days anyway. The U.S. is going to hit ISIL targets from the air, give intelligence and command-control support for the Iraqi military and Iraqi Kurdish forces, (in a way "outsourcing" the ground war), provide and coordinate logistical and humanitarian support for civilians under ISIL attacks, and train local forces against ISIL and similar radical Islamist forces.

The only part of this strategy that does not raise questions is the one about logistical and humanitarian aid to civilians. Questions start to appear with the air strikes in mind. To hit ISIL targets in Iraq is OK, as long as the Iraqi government (and Iran, behind closed doors) cooperates. But hitting targets in Syria could be problematic: The Bashar al-Assad regime has an effective air defense system, supported by Russian technology and a Russian military base by the Mediterranean Sea. But the worst part of Obama’s strategy is the one about training local forces in Saudi Arabia, presumably calling them “moderate” Islamists.

There are reports from the day of the Jeddah conference that Saudi Arabia has agreed to fund such an effort to train and arm ground forces to fight against ISIL, al-Qaeda and others in Syria and Iraq.

That recalls memories of Afghanistan, where the U.S. administration of the time had found "moderate" Islamist fighters ("moderate" meant Saudi-backed Sunni tribes back then, since “evil” meant the Shiite Islamic revolutionaries of Iran), in order to stop the Russian invasion by Soviet armies in 1979. They were called the “Mujahedeen,” meaning “Warriors for Jihad,” with a particular, appreciative tone. The Taliban first flourished in the Mujahedeen with the backing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence service of another Islamic regime-U.S. ally, Pakistan, which was also trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The Soviets were defeated and withdrew, which contributed to their disintegration in 1991. However, Afghanistan had been turned into a major training ground and base of a new generation of Islamist organizations, defying national borders and using terrorist methods extensively. As such, the entire Afghan experience worked as an incubator for al-Qaeda. Like a metaphoric Frankenstein, al-Qaeda turned against the U.S. and the West, which had trained and fed its first fighters.

It takes a particular effort of timing for the U.S. president to make his statement about the anti-ISIL coalition on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11. This is especially so for Obama, who had given the order to find and kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Afghanistan was not the first example of the West (not only U.S.) trying to use, or rather abuse religion - in this case, Sunni Islam - for their global policies. The British tried it in India and Ottoman Arabia in the 1910s and 1920s. Nazi Germany tried it with the Muslim Brotherhood, pious Palestinians and Turkic-origin Muslims in Central Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. The Americans and British took the file from Nazi intelligence after World War II and kept trying, thinking that it was a strong antidote against the “Communist threat.” So, the Afghanistan experience had a deep background.

And now the training of new “moderates” to fight against new “radicals,” all belonging to different shades of the same Sunni Islamic faith? Supporting autocratic regimes in the region for the sake of energy security and market sustainability, and training and arming the sufferers of those regimes against each other? Is that really a good idea?

Turkey should side with the Western alliance against terrorism, but it should try not to get too involved in this fight, which could horrendously affect its internal peace.