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Yesterday the U.S. launched multiple pre-dawn airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, stepping up U.S. involvement in the conflict there. In a press briefing, President Barack Obama emphasized the broad international coalition behind the strikes, including five regional powers. He also noted operations targeting an al-Qaida affiliated group known as Khorasan. We explore what it means for the U.S. and the region.
- Craig Whitlock Pentagon and national security reporter, The Washington Post
- Paul Danahar Washington Bureau Chief, BBC; Author, "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the price of progress in Rwanda. The Central African country's president is a favorite of Washington. But democracy advocates criticize his increasingly autocratic rule. But first, the U.S. and several Middle East partners used airstrikes to hit Islamic State targets in Syria. Late last night, a series of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk cruise missiles struck Islamic State targets, including training compounds, storage facilities and armored vehicles in parts of the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese strikes mark a new phase in the war against the Islamic State, as President Obama follows through on his plan to bomb the terrorist group in the Middle East. The effort is complicated by the ongoing civil war in Syria and Islamic State's fractured presence in multiple countries across the region. Joining me now to discuss it is Craig Whitlock. He is Pentagon and national security reporter at The Washington Post. He joins us by phone. Craig Whitlock, thank you for joining us.
MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKSure thing, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios of BBC Washington is Paul Danahar, author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." He's BBC's Middle East bureau chief. Paul Danahar, thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL DANAHARThanks for having me on.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. What do you think about the airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria? Will they be effective in your view in degrading and destroying the group. 800-433-8850. Or you can email to email@example.com. Paul Danahar, this is the first military action in Syria since President Obama announced his plan to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. What is the significance of this series of strikes?
DANAHARIt's very significant. It'll make a big difference, I think, in terms of trying to push this group back. The problem that the administration had trying to fight them in Iraq was they could reorganize themselves using their safe haven in Syria. You have to remember that ISIS originally came from Iraq. It was beaten almost into oblivion by the Americans. And they went into Syria to find a safe haven to rebuild and then go back into Iraq. So what America has done now is gone after then at their base. And they've gone after them very, very hard, judging by the reports we've seen today.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock, President Obama gave a statement earlier this morning to announce what happened. He stressed that this was a coordinated effort with five other countries in the region. What does that -- what does it mean? How important is it to have those countries involved?
WHITLOCKI think diplomatically, politically and just for popular opinion, it's very important that five Arab countries joined in the military operation last night over Syria. The United States have been trying very hard to assemble a coalition -- an international coalition and particularly wanted Muslim countries to join in, so it wouldn't appear as if the United States was waging war against Islam. There was some skepticism as to how successful that coalition-building would be. But having five countries -- five Arab countries, four of whom actually did drop bombs -- that's pretty significant.
NNAMDICraig, there was also a Pentagon briefing after the president's statement. What do we now know about the military operations last night?
WHITLOCKThe Pentagon was pretty clear in giving a pretty detailed briefing about the operations last night. It involved three different waves of airstrikes. The first were predominantly cruise missiles fired from U.S. warships against the Khorasan group, this al-Qaida affiliate in northern Syria, which has some training centers and other bases near Aleppo. That was the first wave. The second wave involved a combination of U.S. warplanes and its Arab partners in Al-Raqqah, in northeaster Syria. And that was against the Islamic State, where it has its self-declared capital.
WHITLOCKAnd the third wave came later in the evening along the Syrian and Iraq border, again against Islamic State targets, their supply lines, trying to sever their connections between their groups in Iraq and what -- their bases in Syria.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you think is the future of conflict with a fragmented enemy like Islamic States. Are there benefits of dropping bombs if they won't be enough to destroy the Islamic State entirely? 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul, the fact that these strikes happened in Syria, where there already is a civil war going on, seems to make this situation all the more complicated. What likely effect will this have on the Syrian civil war?
DANAHARWell, what the Americans will be hoping is that they will create some space for the moderate, vetted opposition -- what is called the FSA, the Free Syrian Army -- to start taking back some territory that they've lost to ISIS. What happened was that right at the beginning of this conflict, the moderate groups simply couldn't get any funding, because the West wasn't signed up to helping them out. So the money came from the Gulf. And the Gulf money went to more extreme groups.
DANAHARIt's interesting to note that the attack on the Khorasan group that took place last night, CentCom went out of its way to say that only the Americans were involved in that. And that's an illustration of how complicated it is, because there will be many people in the Gulf who would have some sympathy for this group. This group has come basically from a collection of different people that were hanging around in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and have moved to Syria, not to get involved in the Syrian War, but to use it as a safe haven where they can actually look at attacks against the West.
DANAHARSo what we've seen last night, with the range of attacks that have taken place, is just how complicated it is. It's isn't black and white. There aren't good guys and bad guys. There are good guys and bad guys and a whole range of different people in between.
NNAMDIWell, Paul, for the last couple of years, some people have been critical of President Obama, saying that the U.S. needed to do more to support the Free Syrian opposition to prevent extremist groups like ISIS from gaining ground. Would arming and supporting the opposition have helped? Or as some other people say, those arms may well have fallen into the hands of ISIS.
DANAHARWell, what's clear is not how helping them didn't work, because we've now got a situation where the vacuum was created and ISIS could move into Syria, reconstitute itself and then go after Iraq and take large parts of Syria. I do think that there was an opportunity back in 2012, in early 2012, where actually funding some of these brigades -- and I met many people in them when I was based over there -- could have made a big difference. And that was something that was felt also by members of the American administration. You know, Hillary Clinton was one of those saying we need to do something to fill this vacuum before somebody else does.
DANAHARSo I think there's no question now that the concerns at the beginning was it will only make it worse, it turned out that not getting involved did make it worse. We can't really know whether or not it would have gone in the right direction if they had have got involved earlier. What we do know is not getting involved didn't work.
NNAMDIWell, one more, Paul. The Islamic State has gained a significant amount of ground both in Syria and in Iraq. How is the group so effective at recruiting fighters to its cause?
DANAHARWell, there's a number of things. One of them is that they can offer people that come fight for them money to sustain their families. The other thing is, they can also offer people arms and ammunition that many of the moderate groups just didn't have. What you had at the beginning of the war was that the moderate groups started fighting, they would literally run out of ammunition. And they lost a lot of fighters to these more extreme groups, because they were heavily funded, they had all the arms they needed, and so they basically slowly got more and more people.
DANAHARAnd as they've taken territory, they've also taken oil wells. And they've been able to sell a lot of this oil across the border, through Turkey, to very sort of shady smuggling gangs. And that's one of the key things about what's going on now. You'll notice that Turkey has not been involved so far in any of this military action. Only Erdogan has talked now about maybe they can help logistically, maybe they can help militarily. But so far, they've been pretty absent in all of this. And that's because Turkey has got a very, very shady role in all of this. Many people say they were kind of a Petri dish for ISIS right at the beginning and they helped create a monster that they basically lost control of.
NNAMDIPaul Danahar is author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." He is the BBC's Middle East bureau chief. He joins us from studios at BBC Washington. Joining us by phone is Craig Whitlock, Pentagon and national security reporter for The Washington Post. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Craig, the United States is bombing inside Syria, a sovereign country. How has Syria responded to these strikes?
WHITLOCKWell, they've given them the green light, effectively. The Syrian government last night made public the news that the U.S. government had notified their envoy at the United Nations that they were going to conduct these airstrikes. United States officials acknowledged yesterday, they took great pains to say they didn't coordinate with Syria or try and cooperate with them in the military campaign. But they clearly gave them a heads-up. They said, don't get in our way. And the Syrians didn't. Lieutenant General Bill Mayville at the Pentagon, he's the director of operations for the Joint Staff, said the Syrian air defenses, which are quite formidable, were in a passive state when the U.S. came through.
WHITLOCKSo they weren't going to challenge the Americans at all. I think Assad's very happy that the Americans are coming in and bombing the Islamic State and other fighters that have been rising up against him.
NNAMDIThe group at the center of these strikes is the Khorasan group. What do we know about it and why was it targeted, Craig?
WHITLOCKWell, there -- as you point out, Kojo, there's two groups that they were targeting, two sets of enemies. The first one was the Khorasan group, which as Paul noted earlier, is sort of an assemblage of al-Qaida loyalists and castoffs who have survived over the past 13 years. And they found essentially safe haven in part of Syria. But their aims, according to U.S. officials, are to attack the West, whether in Europe or the United States or Western targets overseas. They aren't concerned so much with Assad or the civil war as much as finding some space where they can plot attacks outside Syria. And so the Pentagon is very concerned about them.
WHITLOCKThat's a much smaller group than the Islamic State, which is a whole 'nother adversary here, which according to the CIA, could draw on as many as 30,000 fighters and is seeking to create its own state, its own caliphate in the Middle East. Its threat level to the United States or to the West is less clear at this point. But its military prowess is much stronger.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Omar in Washington, D.C. Omar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OMARThank you for taking my call, Kojo. My name is Omar from Turkey. I'm living in D.C., Washington, D.C. Well, my question is, regarding the Turkey, why Turkey is reluctant to take a part of the coalition. And my second follow-up of that question, is why USA or Westerns -- they don't help the Kurds because the Kurds fighting against ISIS has been over three years. (sic) A special -- last week, since one week, a Kurdish city, which border of the Turkey, it's called the Kobani, under the siege of the ISIS. And Kurds have been fighting against them. So, and then they defeat ISIS in many fronts.
OMARBut unfortunately, not Turkey or USA or Western, they're reluctant to help Kurds. They just need the heavy weapons. Why USA, Western, they are -- they don't help Kurds. Because the only some forces, Kurds, they can fight against and then they defeat the...
NNAMDIAllow me to put that question to Paul Danahar and Craig Whitlock. How would it help, hurt or further complicate the situation if the U.S. was to give assistance to the Kurds?
DANAHARWell I think the -- I mean the issue here with Turkey is that they are -- they have a very complicated relationship with the Kurds. They have a very complicated relationship with the Islamist groups that are inside Syria. So in terms of why have they not got actively involved, they've allowed such a big network to be created of these Islamist groups, that they are very worried that these guys might turn on them inside their own country if they seem to be too actively involved in this fight.
DANAHARWith regard to arming the Kurds, I mean I think, you know, we did see -- there was always this talk that the Peshmerga were going to be, you know, this fantastic army that would basically stand up against anything. And they were a challenge to the Iraqi, et cetera, et cetera. America got involved in Iraq, in many ways, to help the Kurds, because they were worried that ISIS may actually sweep them away. The Kurds did stand and fight in many areas. But it did look like, at one stage, that they may actually get pushed back. So, yes, I think that there's probably arming going on with the Kurds. But the problem that the Americans have is if they arm the Kurds and then ISIS goes away, you leave the Kurds with an awful lot of weaponry.
DANAHARThe Turk's warfare could perhaps be used against them. So it's a very complicated thing to try to balance -- how much arms you give and where they end up. Look, for example, you know, the Americans gave all these arms to the Iraqi army. They are now being used by ISIS to fight against America's allies because ISIS captured basically huge amounts of American weaponry from the Iraqi army. So you might give your guns to people that are your friends and they may end up in the hands of people that are your enemies.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock, indeed it seems as if the U.S. and its allies in this situation being able to bomb Islamic State from some distance can be very effective. But the caller we just had indicates how underscoring all of this is still a very complicated situation.
WHITLOCKWell, that's right. Even at the Pentagon I think the generals here and admirals are pretty clear eyed in that the airstrikes, you know, can accomplish some things. They can blow up six targets, they can disrupt supply lines. If the Islamic State has, you know, large vehicles that they captured from the Iraqi army, those are easy to target. But what they said they've already seen starting to happen is that Islamic State guerrillas are melting into the populated areas. They're mixing in in the cities. It's going to be much harder to conduct these kinds of airstrikes, certainly not at the level we saw last night.
WHITLOCKI think that was the opening act. I think from now on things are going to be more intermittent. It's going to be more difficult to find targets. And you're going to see much more of a classical insurgency.
NNAMDIPaul, the other countries who got involved in these strikes, what exactly did they contribute? What do they stand to gain by getting involved?
DANAHARWell, in the case of most of them they don't want ISIS to get too strong a position, particularly Saudi Arabia, because they're worried about blowback. Many of the people who are fighting for ISIS have actually come from the Gulf states, particularly from Saudi Arabia. So there's quite definitely an interest for countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan to fight against ISIS. It's a bit more complicated with Qatar because Qatar, right at the beginning of this conflict, talked about how it was wrong to bracket people as al-Qaida or terrorists or anything else, that everyone should just be encouraged to get going after Assad.
DANAHARThey've always allowed money to flow from Qatar, and in some cases from the government, to support groups. And they, for example, were flying in lots of weapons from Libya into Syria at the beginning of the war. Because Qatar wants to have influence and it wants to have friends. And that's pretty much their entire foreign policy. We want people to like us. The problem is that sometimes they will play both sides against each other in the hope of having a winner from one side or the other. And that makes it very complicated when it goes against American policy. So even this coalition of Sunni states against the Sunni organization which is ISIS isn't as cut and dried as it seems.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Paul Danahar is author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." He is the BBC's Middle East bureau chief. Paul, thank you for joining us.
DANAHARThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock is Pentagon and national security reporter for the Washington Post. Craig, thank you for joining us.
WHITLOCKSure thing, Kojo. Take care.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the price of progress in Rwanda, the central African country's president is a favorite of Washington but democracy advocates criticize his rule as being increasingly autocratic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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