By Faisal Abbas
12 August 2014
It is as if a totally new Barack Obama has emerged over the past few days. Indeed, anyone who has read his recent interview with Thomas Friedman and, more importantly, listened to his statement regarding the ongoing US airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters in Iraq is right to question whether this is the same US president that has remained idle for so long.
Regardless of whether this sudden change in tone is a result of a change in advisers or an overdue realization that problems don’t just solve themselves (especially in the Middle East!), an American willingness to take action is certainly most welcomed and, while late, it is definitely much better than never.
Now, Senator John McCain — one of Obama’s most vocal foreign policy critics —may be right to think that these limited strikes will not be enough and that they need to be expanded into areas controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria as well. However, this doesn’t undermine the fact that Obama’s recent change in tone could be quite reassuring.
For nearly two years, we have been hearing a view among advisers and experts that it is actually in America’s best interest to stay put and let extremist groups, such as the ISIS, fight it off with the extreme Shiite militants which are formed and managed by Iran. This belief holds that fighting between the extremist groups of Sunnis and Shiites would make them too busy in fighting each other to attack the West and that this will inevitably mean that would both be weakened.
However, recent events have proven that this view – had it existed – was absolutely wrong. If anything, we went from a stage where extremist groups were suffering from a serious blow following the killing of Osama Bin Laden to a stage where extremism has re-emerged nastier, deadlier and more popular than ever.
Indeed, we went from a situation where we had a few hundred ISIS fighters to a situation where we have thousands, some of them holding American or European passports, and with the ongoing land grab, the ISIS now forms a direct threat to the United States, Europe and their biggest allies in the region.
In his news conference, Obama acknowledged that ISIS’ advances over the past few months have been far greater than what had been predicted by intelligence reports and policy makers inside and outside of Iraq. And one hopes that this acknowledgment is the first step toward a better informed and more effective Middle East policy.
Another point worth highlighting is Obama’s emphasis on Iraq's need to form an inclusive government. This serves as yet another clear signal that US support for the disgraced Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has finally ended.
While this wasn’t the first time the United States has indicated that it has had it with Maliki, one can’t but wonder why the United States remained silent throughout his two terms when it was crystal clear that he had been doing nothing but was bringing more corruption, more sectarianism and more instability for the country while he consolidated power, served an Iranian agenda, quadrupled his personal security and continuously discriminated against the country’s Sunni population.
Indeed, it was Maliki’s policies which allowed some Iraqi Sunnis to become sympathetic with the likes of the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS after he excluded them, denied them their rights and sought to humiliate them.
It is also worth noting that Maliki, whose obsession with power and desire to run Iraq in what seems more and more like his own family business led him to secure for himself an unconstitutional third term in office, has turned even a number of the country’s top Shiite clerics against him.
As such, President Obama is absolutely right to suggest that forming a unity government will make it “easier to mobilize all Iraqis against ISIS and mobilize greater support from friends and allies.”
It is also interesting that Obama praised the Kurds in his New York Times interview. The US president said that the Kurds had used well the time that was given to them by the sacrifices of US troops and that the Kurdish region is in fact “functional.” Of course, this is the absolute opposite of what Maliki did throughout his tenure.
Nevertheless, such praise only means that Obama should cooperate with the legitimate Kurdish request for protection from ISIS. The US administration must understand that its absence from the region has left all minorities, including the Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and Sunnis who don’t share the same extremist views, and even the Shiite majority, to be exposed to the barbaric threats of the likes of ISIS.
What President Obama should also understand is that ISIS is the same in both Iraq and Syria and it would be wrong deal with one side of the crisis but not the other.
Actually, when it came to the New York Times interview, Obama got it completely wrong is when he shared his views on Syria. What the US president essentially said is that it was a fantasy to think that arming the rebels would have made a difference, given that the rebels were up against a well-armed state backed by Russia.
If we are going to dwell on the past then it would be fair to say that had the United States intervened as quickly as it did in Libya to aid the peaceful protesters in Syria that were being slaughtered by the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the situation wouldn’t have reached a point where we have more than a 150,000 causalities, more than two million displaced refugees and a fertile ground for both Sunni and Shiite extremism.
What the United States could have done was to pressure Iran, the Assad regime’s biggest supporter, rather than become a good friend of Tehran overnight while the Damascus regime continued to use chemical weapons or barrel bombs against innocent people or have the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah fighters slaughter them.
Nevertheless, one hopes that the US has finally come to its senses about the dangers of leaving a vacuum in the region and one also hopes that for the remainder of his term, the US president will work closely with America’s long-time allies to bring a bit of peace and sanity to the region.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies.