Former CIA director and retired Army general David Petraeus is suggesting America should team up with al-Qaeda to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
That is the word from sources who relayed Petraeus’ advice to the Daily Beast. To be more specific, Petraeus has been “quietly urging U.S. officials to consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front to fight ISIS in Syria.”
Petraeus’ idea may not be strategically foolish or indefensible. It is a variation on the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend” play, a tactic the Daily Beast likens to Petraeus urging cooperation with some rather unsavory Sunni militias in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda elements of the insurgency. The idea is that some members of the Nusra Front might be sufficiently distant from “core al-Qaeda” and the heirs to Osama bin Laden’s bloody throne to make useful American proxies against the far greater menace of ISIS.
Unfortunately, the Western world’s ability to identify reasonably reliable “moderate” elements from hotbeds of terrorist extremism has not been great. It is noted that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, has some similar “enemy of my enemy” proposals for reaching out to jihadis, but he has a different group of Islamist extremists in mind, Ahrar al-Sham.
The Daily Beast reports U.S. officials they interviewed thought Petraeus’ plan was “politically toxic, near-impossible to execute, and strategically risky.”
Among other problems, we have been bombing the Nusra Front in Syria, after the Obama Administration targeted the affiliated “Khorasan Group.” The rest of al-Nusra would probably be harder to sell on this fine distinction than the American media was.
Also, as the disastrous experiment with locating “moderate” Syrian rebels to bear American arms demonstrates, it is very difficult to get any party involved in the bloody Syrian crossfire to abandon its preferred mission and carry out American policy against ISIS. Al-Qaeda and its franchises are at war with ISIS, yes, but they are both also mindful of their goal to overthrow the Assad regime, as are the less heinous elements of the Syrian rebellion. For all their savagery, the more heinous elements of that rebellion seem to have a pretty keen sense of how hard they can hit each other without handing ultimate victory to Bashar al-Assad. What leverage or inducements would the U.S. have to persuade any sizable faction of the Nusra Front to abandon its strategic calculations and hit ISIS harder than it is already inclined to?
Petraeus would not go on the record about his recommendations, but those who did offer commentary thought it was a clear sign of desperation over failed Obama policy. “This is an acknowledgment that U.S. stated goal to degrade and destroy ISIS is not working. If it were, we would not be talking to these not quite foreign terrorist groups. Strategically, it is desperate,” said analyst Christopher Harmer of the Middle East Security Project.
Everything about Syria has gotten worse through the Obama years. Along with the gigantic Obama-Clinton disaster in Libya, Syria is now the source of a massive refugee crisis threatening to overwhelm Europe, placing a humanitarian ticking clock over all that transpires today. Elements of the rebellion that might have been useful to American policy have been either absorbed or destroyed by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
As for the Assad regime, it is clearly in bad shape, falling back to protect a few key population centers while ISIS sacks cities and lays waste to priceless historical treasures. Working with Assad against ISIS would be almost as unpalatable as working with al-Qaeda, especially given President Obama’s reckless “red line” blather and half-hearted effort to launch military strikes against the regime not long ago. Also, Assad is Russia and Iran’s proxy, so helping him defeat the most effective element of the rebellion plays far more into their regional interests than America’s.
To complete the grim picture, the most reliable and combat-effective U.S. ally in the conflict has been Kurdish militias, and they are currently at odds with our ally and NATO member Turkey, whose agreement to allow American planes to fly missions against ISIS in Syria out of Turkish airbases has led to our most effective direct strikes against the Islamic State. If the U.S. is forced to choose between Turkey and the Kurds, ISIS seems to be the only player in this grisly game that does not have to worry about getting maneuvered into checkmate position any time soon.