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My social media news feeds have been covered the past two days with comments and links from people in extreme distress—and that includes me—over the Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra and the likely consequences for the archaeological treasures there. The fall of Palmyra to IS—or, rather, its abandonment by Bashar al-Assad’s army—has been grist for the mill for those in France—numerous on the right—who have been advocating a rapprochement with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. A high-profile tribune in Le Figaro yesterday, by Hadrien Desuin, an analyst previously unknown to me—he has a military background and is clearly on the souverainiste right—thus asked rhetorically “why such inaction from the [US-led anti-IS] coalition?” in the face of the IS offensive on Palmyra. Answering his own question, he asserted that the coalition preferred to watch Palmyra fall rather than support the Ba’athist army’s effort to fend off IS and save humanity’s historical patrimony. How abject of the coalition—and, ergo, France (i.e. François Hollande) and the US.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, the well-known Middle East specialist and islamologue—and who has been engagé on the Syrian issue—will have none of this. In an interview in Politis (May 20th), he asserted that Bashar al-Assad allowed the jihadists to approach Palmyra, so as to show the world that his regime was on the front line against IS—when, in fact, it has never been before and still wasn’t—, and then quit the city without putting up much of a fight, thereby getting the belles âmes in the West worked up into an even greater tizzy over the IS fanatics, deflecting attention away from Bashar’s crimes, and thereby hoping to neutralize Western opposition to the Ba’athist regime. In other words, the fall of Palmyra was cynically engendered by Bashar al-Assad himself, as it’s only Palmyra after all—and whose loss does not, in fact, increase the threat to Damascus or Homs—and what does Bashar care about archaeological treasures anyway, as his regime, as Filiu reminds us, has also been pillaging and degrading those treasures for years? On all this, Filiu is rather more convincing than is Monsieur Desuin.
As for the IS capture of Ramadi, this has provided the usual suspects (neocons, etc.) another occasion with which to bash President Obama for the apparent failure of his Iraq policy (e.g. the Kagan couple and IDC Herzliya Rubin Center director Jonathan Spyer). Journalist Ann Marlowe, who’s done some good reporting from the Middle East—and has a smart piece in Tablet, dated May 18th, on Libya and why the post-Qadhafi order was not a preordained failure—went so far as to call Obama “the worst president ever” on account of Ramadi’s fall. Ouf, GMAB! Pour mémoire, defending Ramadi was the responsibility of the Iraqi government, not the United States, and the city’s fall reflected a failure in Iraq’s strategy against IS, not that of the Obama administration.
In a column in Slate (May 19th), Fred Kaplan, offering his own not very palatable options to Obama’s policy dilemma, rubbished the armchair warriors in Washington and its punditocracy. Money quote
Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.
For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?
In other words, neocons, other right-wingers, and their ilk who are beating up on Obama for losing Ramadi don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They just want to beat up on Obama, that’s all.
I just read journalist Graeme Wood’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS really wants.” It’s a great piece, long—34 pages printed out—but absolutely worth the read. Two big points: (a) IS is a serious, millenarian Islamic force such as we’ve never seen before and whose ideology and world-view is in no way un-Islamic, and (b) there is, for the US and the West, no military response except for containment and aiding local Muslim actors who oppose IS.
À suivre, certainement.
UPDATE: Nicolas Pelham has a most interesting, must-read report, datelined Baghdad May 6th, in the June 4th issue of the NYRB, “ISIS & the Shia revival in Iraq.”
2nd UPDATE: Journalist Patrick Symmes, who “cover[s] insurgencies, global environmental problems, travel, and the geopolitical fault lines that underlie them all,” has a compelling op-ed in the NYT (May 23rd) on Palmyra’s “ancient ruins [that] terror can’t destroy.”
3rd UPDATE: Paleocon Patrick Buchanan has a commentary (May 22nd) in TAC on “What the fall of Ramadi means.” Personally speaking, I can find no flaw in what he says. If someone can, please let me know.
4th UPDATE: Journalist Erika Solomon, writing for the FT from Beirut (May 22nd), says that the taking of Palmyra puts “Isis in [a] position to advance on Damascus.” Perhaps. On verra.
5th UPDATE: In an analysis (May 22nd) that would tend to confirm the one above, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov says “First Ramadi, then Palmyra: Isis shows it can storm bastions of Syria and Iraq.” The lede: “Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat.”
6th UPDATE: Hassan Hassan, the sharp analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Institute and co-author of a new book on the Islamic State, has a column in The Guardian (May 24th) on the “Religious teaching that drives Isis to threaten the ancient ruins of Palmyra.” The lede: “Most historical sites under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria remain intact. Palmyra might be different precisely because of western warnings.”
7th UPDATE: CSIS geostrategic specialist Anthony Cordesman, who knows more about Middle Eastern military matters than anyone inside the Beltway (and most outside of it), has an analysis (May 21st), on the CSIS website, on “The defeat in Ramadi,” which he says, in regard to US policy, signals “a time for transparency, integrity, and change.”
8th UPDATE: Dov S. Zakheim, who was a Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, has a commentary in The National Interest (May 23rd), in which he argues that “The only ISIS strategy left for America [is] containment.”
9th UPDATE: Amos Harel of Haaretz says (May 26th) that “Hezbollah leader’s speech makes [it] clear: Israel may soon be faced with post-Assad Syria.” The lede: “The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.” So it looks like the fall of Palmyra has increased the threat to Damascus, Homs, etc. after all.
10th UPDATE: Beirut-based reporter Kareem Shaheen, writing in The Guardian (May 27th), informs us that “Isis [has] release[ed] footage of Palmyra ruins intact and ‘will not destroy them’.” The lede: “Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area.” If true, that’s a relief. As for the humanitarian crisis, any calls from the belles âmes for a Western military intervention to deal with that?