Vice President Joe Biden got into hot water over the weekend when he accused Turkey and other U.S. allies of complicity in the rise of the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS).
Biden, who was forced to apologize to President Recep Tayib Erdogan, was factually accurate – if diplomatically gauche – when he noted Turkey’s less-than-scrupulous vetting of aspiring jihadis crossing its territory into Syria and the provision of arms to Syrian radicals by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Biden might have softened the blow by admitting some U.S. culpability for the rise of IS and its predecessors, and by appreciating the conflicting agendas of those that are ostensibly part of the U.S.-led coalition opposing the terrorist group.
Victory, John F. Kennedy once said, has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.
When it comes to IS, the reverse is true.
The antecedents for this terrorist army can be found in Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States funded and armed militants who battled Soviet invaders in the 1980s. When the Americans left, the militants fought among themselves until the Taliban, a radical Sunni group, took control. Al-Qaida, which had supported the radicals, found refuge in their midst until the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Al-Qaida got a second wind after another poorly thought-out foreign intervention. Had the George W. Bush administration not invaded Iraq and overturned a centuries-old, Sunni Muslim-dominated political order, there would have been no Al-Qaida in Iraq, now reborn as IS.
Barack Obama’s mistakes, according to a growing number of critics who served in his own administration, have been more errors of omission.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggests in a new memoir that Obama could have tried harder to retain residual U.S. forces in Iraq, which might have moderated the Shi’ite-centric policies of ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and prevented IS from seizing so much territory in areas hostile to the Shi’ites.
Panetta – like Hillary Clinton in her earlier book – also faults Obama for not intervening more forcefully after Syrians rose against their government in initially peaceful demonstrations in 2011. U.S. passivity, Panetta asserts, opened the door to uncoordinated and poorly considered actions by Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and Qataris who doled out money and weapons to Syrian rebels, including extremists that are now affiliated with IS, the Nusra Front – the official Al-Qaida affiliate in Syria - and the Khorasan movement, which is said to have plotted against American and European targets.
The biggest culprit in the rise of IS, as Atlantic Council scholar and former Obama State Department official Fred Hof has pointed out, is the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
His murderous response to Syrian protests, use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons and refusal to negotiate seriously with moderate opposition figures radicalized the Syrian opposition and turned Syria into a magnet for thousands of misguided, violent Muslim youth from all over the world. Assad also contributed to the rise of IS by emptying Syrian jails of al-Qaida detainees and concentrating Syrian government firepower on other opposition groups.
The need to contain IS has temporarily bolstered Assad and led his prime enablers – Russia and Iran – to suggest that the U.S. and Sunni Arab states cannot defeat IS and at the same time topple the Assad regime. But it is hard to envision any sort of long-term stability in Syria or the rest of the region without an eventual political transition in Damascus that sends the Assad family into retirement and/or exile.
Meanwhile, Turkey is also showing ambivalence and struggling to rise above its own concerns as it watches IS battle Syrian Kurds in the town of Kobani on the Turkish border.
Last week, the Turkish parliament voted to authorize military action against IS but there is little indication so far that Turkey is willing to become involved in the fighting. The Ankara government fears strengthening a Syrian Kurdish militant group, the PYD, which is affiliated with the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish organization that Turkey labels a terrorist group but with which it is also negotiating.
Erdogan has also renewed demands for the U.S. to create a no-fly zone or safe haven for Syrian refugees inside Syria across from Turkey – something the Obama administration has resisted in the past. Turkey wants the U.S. to pledge to do more to remove Assad before Turkey will exert more effort against IS.
Another country with its own agenda in this fight is Iran.
The Iranians insist that it is impossible to defeat IS while also changing the Syrian government. Iranian leaders have also suggested that they might be more able to cooperate with the U.S. on a host of regional issues if Washington is more flexible in ongoing nuclear talks that are approaching a Nov. 24 deadline. The U.S. has refused to mix the two topics but recognizes the centrality of Iran to an ultimate resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Iran is also deeply concerned about Iraq, with which it fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.
Tehran was instrumental in convincing Maliki to reject a status of forces agreement that would have allowed American troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011. Now, the Iranians are watching hundreds of American soldiers return to advise Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, and fly bombing runs over IS positions near Baghdad and in the north not far from the Iranian border.
IS advances in Syria and Iraq have to some extent overcome old divisions between external actors. But conflicting agendas are still making effective, coordinated responses difficult to craft.
The next time Biden is asked who is responsible for the growth of this militant menace, he should point a finger at Washington and at a long list of other capitals. There are no innocents in this crisis except for the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire of a conflict they have little ability to influence, let alone end.