By Stephen Zunes

At the start of classes one year ago, I was having to explain to my students why the United States appeared to be on the verge of going to war against the Syrian government. At the beginning of this semester, exactly one year later, I’m having to explain to my students why the United States may be on the verge of going to war against Syrian rebels.

It is not surprising, therefore, that while the horrors unleashed by forces of the so-called Islamic State are all-too-real, there is skepticism regarding the use of military force.

Already U.S. planes and missiles have been attacking ISIS forces in northern Iraq. Given the real threat of a heightened genocidal campaign against Yazidis and other minorities and the risks of ISIS control expanding into the Kurdish region, even some of those normally averse to unilateral U.S. military intervention abroad were willing to acknowledge it may have been the least bad option.

Within days, however, there were already indications of “mission creep,” as what had been officially declared an exclusively defensive mission turned offensive when the United States provided air support for Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which seized the Mosul Dam from ISIS forces.

Even if one can make a convincing strategic case for such a military operation, the failure of President Obama to go before Congress for authorization of this renewed military intervention in Iraq is extremely disturbing.

 Ironically, however, President Obama has been getting the most high-profile criticism from those wishing he had been more aggressive with projecting American military power. For example, in a well publicized interview in The Atlantic, his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, appeared to blame the rise of ISIS on Obama’s failure to sufficiently arm and support the so-called moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Such a charge defies logic, however. The Free Syrian Army consists of literally hundreds of separate militia without a central command, largely composed of relatively inexperienced fighters, who would have been no match for the well-armed, experienced, disciplined fighters of ISIS, regardless of the amount of weapons the U.S. might have provided. In fact, it was an awareness of ISIS’s potential dominance of the Syrian rebel movement, which served as an important reason why the Obama administration didn’t go beyond the relatively limited arming and training of a few small groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

Indeed, part of ISIS’s military prowess comes from weapons they captured from overrunning FSA positions and from their ranks supplemented by FSA fighters who, in the course of the three-year battle with Assad’s regimes, became radicalized and switched sides. 

In any case, ISIS has found an even stronger foothold in Iraq, a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation. In a profile of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a one-time moderate Sufi turned Salafist extremist, the New York Times observed, “At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.”

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, U.S. occupation forces systematically dismantled the country’s secular national institutions, which were quickly filled by both Sunni and Shia extremists (actions which Hillary Clinton, as a U.S. Senator, strongly supported). 

The biggest division among Iraq’s Arabs, however, is not between Sunnis and Shias but between nationalist and sectarian tendencies within both communities. Under the corrupt and autocratic U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Shia sectarians dominated. This resulted in an initially nonviolent Sunni backlash, which was met by severe government repression. This backlash was eventually hijacked by ISIS, which rid the major Sunni-dominated cities of government control. 

As with the Thieu regime in South Vietnam in the 1970s, the United States can provide all the arming and training of an allied armed force it wants, but if people aren’t willing to fight and die for the regime, they cannot win. Whether the new Iraqi leadership will actually be willing to rid the government of Shia hardliners and become more inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic remains to be seen.

Ironically, though, the eventual demise of ISIS will more likely stem from the group’s own fanaticism than from any action by Baghdad. ISIS—which even the Al-Qaeda network believes is too extreme—sees not just those who aren't Sunni Muslims as "infidels," but anyone who doesn't subscribe to its extremist ideology. Since almost everyone under its rule is therefore at risk, the prospects of the Iraqi and Syrian people eventually rising up against ISIS is high.

Most Muslims are terribly offended by the actions of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Almost every true caliphate from the time of the Prophet Muhammad through the Ottomans—while not granting full rights for non-Muslims—allowed religious minorities to worship freely and run their own judicial system and provided them legal protections.

Just as Sunni tribal leaders were more effective than either U.S. forces or the Iraqi government in driving out Al-Qaeda from northwestern Iraq in 2007-2008, they may be the key in ridding their region of ISIS. Massive Western military intervention, by contrast, might create a backlash that could strengthen political support for the extremists.

This does not mean that some limited well-targeted U.S. air strikes can’t be moral defensible in some cases when innocents are imminently threatened by a well-armed genocidal cult. At the same time, it is important to remember that the United States has been bombing Iraq on and off for nearly a quarter century and things have only gotten worse, for the people of Iraq, and for the security interests of Iraq’s neighbors and ultimately for the United States.

 There may be a lesson in that.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as program director for Middle Eastern Studies.






The U S of A has mounted a full pincer movement against the possibility of opposition to western actions in Syria and Iran. When the world is at war it is difficult to oppose war.
Dear Sir Bombing will not get rid of ISIS. ISIS is well financed. If the rest of the world is serious about fighting ISIS I suggest the following: 1- Track antiquity dealers and bring them to justice because they benefited from dealing with ISIS by emptying prophet's tomb , other saints' tombs, ancient churches and mosques. 2- Turkey should be put on notice that it will not be acceptable to allow hundreds of oil tankers coming from Iraq and Syria to cross into turkey. This business is controlled by the Turks who obviously benefiting from the oil trade. 3- GCC countries should also be put on notice that contributions in the name of the displaced and going to takfiris will not be allowed. 4- USA and it's allies should admit that their military support against the Syrian government only benefited ISIS and it's sisters. They were aware of it, but as always thought they are smart enough to control these groups!! 5- u tube and other sites should immediately block any executions or any ISIS propaganda. These clips act as magnets to the psychotic individuals who will gladly join an organization that espouse maiming butchering raping and occasionally have fetish to eat human organs!! 6- If nazi school of thought is universally condemned , then takfiri Wahhabi school of though should also be universally condemned. If these steps are adopted then there is a strong chance to defeat ISIS and it's sisters. Regards Ali M Rasi
I thoroughly agree with Mr. Rasi. That said, I don't see how US on the ground leadership can be avoided to win this conflict. Maybe its special forces attacks backed by Syrian Rebels, Kurds, Iraq Army, etc... The Saudi's also need to get their hands dirty here but they are afraid to fight against a Sunni enemy. Instability, however, only favors Iran. The Saudi's cannot allow an expansion of Iranian influence. Their leadership in the Middle East is eroding quickly enough already.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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