By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The New York Times just published a column by Thomas Friedman (‘Why is Trump fighting ISIS in Syria’) that argues for supporting ISIS in Syria. Surely that can’t be, you say? Well, the sick and twisted column really does say “In Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” Friedman argues for treating the Nazi-like Islamist extremist group that carried out genocide of Yazidis and still holds thousands of Yazidi women as slaves, “the same way we encouraged the mujahedeen fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan.” A reminder: The US spent hundreds of millions supporting the mujahedeen.
You need to read the Friedman piece to believe it.
He starts out by asking “Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria? Of course, ISIS is detestable and needs to be eradicated. But is it really in our interest to be focusing solely on defeating ISIS in Syria right now?”
Friedman claims that ISIS “controls pockets in western Iraq and larger sectors of Syria. Its goal is to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria — plus its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies — and to defeat the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Iraq, replacing both with a caliphate.”
What evidence is there that ISIS has spent its main resources fighting Assad? It has spent most of its resources fighting the Kurds in Syria and persecuting minorities, blowing up religious shrines and historical sites and committing crimes against humanity. ISIS has also undermined the Syrian rebellion through fighting other Syrian rebel groups. On April 9th ISIS attacked a Syrian rebel base near Jordan. If you want to know what ISIS has been doing since 2014 read the accounts of Yazidi women sold into slavery and raped by the group. See the photos and videos of ISIS mass graves.
Friedman claims that “We could simply back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria and make it entirely a problem for Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad. After all, they’re the ones overextended in Syria, not us. Make them fight a two-front war — the moderate rebels on one side and ISIS on the other. If we defeat territorial ISIS in Syria now, we will only reduce the pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and enable them to devote all their resources to crushing the last moderate rebels in Idlib, not sharing power with them.”
This is simply not true. The main group ISIS is fighting in Syria is the SDF and YPG, the Kurdish and their allied forces who have been fighting ISIS for more than two and a half years. US forces, including Rangers and Marines are working closely with the Kurds to defeat ISIS and Friedman ignores them in his fantasy that ISIS is fighting Syria and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Friedman pretends this is a Trump-era policy when it has been US policy to increasingly fight ISIS in Syria for more than two years. The Kurdish and allied forces recently reached the Raqqa-Damascus highway. ISIS doesn’t share a battlefield with Hezbollah. Most of its frontline, something that is readily clear from just looking at a current map.
Where do you see a major frontline? Between the yellow (Kurds) and the black (ISIS). You also see frontlines with Syrian rebels. Most of the frontline ISIS has with Assad is open desert and Assad has not invested serious resources in fighting ISIS and ISIS has not invested serious resources in fighting Assad.
Next he claims that “ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias — because ISIS is a Sunni terrorist group that plays as dirty as Iran and Russia. Trump should want to defeat ISIS in Iraq. But in Syria? Not for free, not now. In Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache — the same way we encouraged the mujahedeen fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan.”
It’s hard to believe this appeared in a major mainstream newspaper, it is even harder to believe it appeared in the New York Times. Of all the groups in the world to argue for letting it be someone else’s problem, why would ISIS, after its years of genocidal crimes, be let off the hook? Why would anyone claim that “we” should even encourage it the way the US encouraged the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Hasn’t anyone learned that the tragedy of Afghanistan was partly because of US support, and then walking away, from the mujahedeen and allowing the Taliban to take over Afghanistan? Hasn’t anyone learned that working with jihadists and extremists doesn’t work? And why choose the worst of the worst. ISIS isn’t “moderate” Islamism, it isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas, it isn’t even Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria), it is even more extreme. ISIS murdered James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Has everyone forgotten? Have they forgotten that ISIS burned people to death? It beheaded and murdered 1,700 people at Camp Speicher in Iraq.
I was just in Qaraqosh in Iraq and saw what ISIS did to churches there, where it systematically destroyed them. This is the face of ISIS.
ISIS has persecuted minorities, slaughtered people, destroyed shrines, cleansed the archaeological treasures of Syria and Iraq, it continues to carry out the worst crimes against the people under its control. How can anyone suggest suddenly allowing this group to have relief from the pressure it is under?
We cannot let ISIS just “be.” Not only does its war in Syria and Iraq provide its followers ammunition and inspiration abroad, but it must be defeated for its crimes against humanity. Suggesting that it should be allowed to “be” in order to make Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia “bleed” is not merely cynical but tantamount to saying that the US should have reduced pressure on the Nazis to keep the Soviets bleeding. The answer to evil such as ISIS is not to use it against one’s other enemies. There is no evidence that ISIS has harmed Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, in fact the rise of ISIS dovetails with the empowerment of these four groups because they used fighting ISIS as an excuse to increase involvement in Syria.
If people want to topple Assad, allowing ISIS to grow and “let it be” is not the way. Friedman is not the first person to say that we should hold off on defeating ISIS. Another oped at the NYT argued something more tame last year before the Mosul offensive in Iraq. An August 2016 piece at BESA by Efraim Inbar also claimed defeating ISIS was a “strategic mistake.” He also mistakenly argued that defeating ISIS would enhance “Iranian control of Iraq.” In addition he wrote that “Furthermore, Hizballah – a radical Shiite anti-Western organization subservient to Iran – is being seriously taxed by the fight against IS, a state of affairs that suits Western interests.” He concluded “The Western distaste for IS brutality and immorality should not obfuscate strategic clarity. IS are truly bad guys, but few of their opponents are much better.”
This is all incorrect. ISIS does not suit western interests and it isn’t true that ISIS is stopping Iranian hegemony. ISIS empowers Iranian hegemony. Without ISIS there would be more moderate rebel groups, ISIS has allowed Assad and Iran to claim that if Assad falls then Syria will be run by ISIS. Instead of pretending that extremists fight Iran, strategists should realize they empowered Iran, just as the Nazis empowered Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. If there had been no ISIS, Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq would be less. ISIS allowed Shia militias to come to Mosul, as I saw first hand this month.
Instead of publishing columns supporting ISIS and repeating the 1990s in Afghanistan, or pretending ISIS should be allowed to maintain itself and keep raping and murdering and inspiring worldwide terror, the NYT should be publishing opeds by victims of ISIS, such as Yazidis. Read the accounts of these women, here and here and ask yourself how can you allow ISIS to continue to exist in Syria, Iraq or anywhere. Not only is this column immoral in its argument and ignoring human suffering, but it is factually incorrect, ignoring the Kurds and SDF in order to push is agenda.