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Perspective: Considering ISIL and Options for the U.S.     Print Email
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 By John Barry. Former National Security Correspondent at Newsweek

Among the precepts Henry Kissinger plentifully permitted himself in his multi-volume memoirs were four which seem especially urgent now that President Obama is, step-by-slippery-slope, committing America’s military once more into the cauldron of Iraq.

 

Confronting a crisis, Kissinger opined, the first and most essential task of statecraft is to identify what the crisis is really about. That can be hard because --- his second observation --- in government the immediate tends to crowd out the important.   Next: a temptation rarely resisted is to attach labels to people or movements. Reality being invariably more complex, labels insidiously inhibit analysis. So to his final dictum: Once a President has committed America to a goal, its superpower prestige --- its clout, as a previous Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it --- requires that the goal be achieved.   The corollary is that a President should not commit America to goals it cannot attain.

The conflict in Iraq has already offered lessons in the first three of Kissinger’s hard-eyed observations. Now Obama is unleashing ever-more air-strikes against the rebellion broadly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL); he is committing ever-growing hundreds of American soldiers as “advisers” to Iraqi and to Kurdish forces battling this rebellion; he has authorized American spy-aircraft and reconnaissance drones to overfly Syria; he is contemplating military action inside Syria. Obama is thus confronting himself and the nation with Kissinger’s fourth challenge—The necessity of succeeding once committed. As Obama arrives at the NATO summit in Wales, it’s time to ask: what should be America’s strategic goal in Iraq ?  Is it one that America has a good chance of attaining at a price Americans or their allies would be willing to pay?

All presidents face unexpected challenges. But, ISIL is different and vastly more serious. Unless and until the U.S. and such allies as it can muster can devise not merely a strategy to combat its offensive in Iraq and Syria, but a strategy with a reasonable chance of success at a reasonable price in blood, Obama is well-advised to hold his hand.

At  this week’s NATO summit in Wales --- Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine will occupy most of the time.   But Ukraine poses known challenges.   The decisions for America and its European NATO allies will be whether to supply Ukraine with arms; whether to send troops; how forcefully to pressure the European Union to impose further trade sanctions on Russia; and how to prepare NATO to respond more effectively to what are almost certain to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s further demands on former Soviet satellite nations ---- the Baltic trio being on the front line.

ISIL confronts President Obama and the West more broadly with a new sort of challenge. It’s way past time to step back and think very, very hard. The movement spreading like an ink-blot across Syria and Iraq has transitioned through several names: ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, seems the most apposite. ISIL was for months dismissed by Administration spokesmen and by the commentariat as a “terrorist organization”, albeit responsible for an “insurgency” in Iraq.

While the American political stage is being set for the electoral battle-cry: “Who lost Iraq ?” the answer is that the Iraqis have lost Iraq. Three presidents in succession --- Clinton, Bush, Obama --- surely made their share of blunders there.    But, the current shambles lie overwhelmingly at the feet of Iraqi politicians --- none more than its departing prime minister, Nouri Kamal el-Maliki. It is not evident what America could have done to avert the present debacle in Iraq, short of coercive occupation by tens of thousands of troops --- a course President George W Bush rejected, President Obama concurred in, and the Iraqi government did not want.  Now, more urgently, it is far from evident what America can do --- even try to do --- to rebuild the state that Iraqi sectarian and tribal intolerance have shattered.

Far too belatedly, Washington has begun to acknowledge that what engulfs Iraq is not an insurgency. It is civil war.   Nor are military gains by ISIL the real crisis. The real crisis is the collapse of legitimacy of the governments in Iraq and Syria-- -and with that, in all probability, the future of unified Iraqi or Syrian nations.   ISIL’s public face, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi --- a nom de guerre: he was born Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayilah --- declares that “Sykes-Picot is dead,” referring to the secret Anglo-French deal in 1916, carving the northern Arab expanse of the decaying Ottoman Empire into French-controlled Syria and Lebanon and British-controlled Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.

To apply Kissinger’s precept: The first task of statecraft in this crisis is surely to realize that Baghdadi is probably correct.   Even if ISIL could be defeated --- a distant prospect and a wholly un-defined goal --- it is in the highest degree unlikely that Iraq or Syria can be rebuilt as unitary nation-states. U.S. Army General Jay Garner --- now retired but involved in Iraq for almost 25 years --- said after his most recent visit to the country: “The Iraq that we knew no longer exists.” The same is surely true of Syria, ravaged by a conflict that United Nations monitors reckon has cost close to 200,000 lives so far. By those tokens, “Sykes-Picot” is dead.   America’s goal should be to midwife the birth of whatever order will succeed it --- not waste its energies trying to rebuild failed states.

A corollary task for statecraft is to recognize that the “insurgency” is not a jihadi crusade --- not primarily that in Iraq, at any rate. The black cloaks, turbans and flags of ISIL zealots dominate the video footage ISIL purposefully displays on the internet. ISIL fanatics slaughter; they carry out unspeakable atrocities; they destroy historic mosques and monuments; they impose their brand of Islam on communities they conquer and massacre those of different faiths; they boast ambitions without boundary.   Baghdadi grandly proclaims the birth of a new caliphate, with himself the new “Caliph Ibrahim.”

But when Baghdadi, sporting his Rolex watch, preached in Mosul’s Great Mosque that July morning his version of a frugal Islam --- a sermon distributed on-line by ISIL as a declaration of victory --- the mosque (according to accounts by some present) was half-empty.   The same accounts say that the occupiers of Mosul --- Iraq’s second city and ISIL’s greatest prize to date --- are overwhelmingly fighters from the Sunni tribes, not ISIL jihadis. (The disproportion, by one account, is 80/20.) Two former Ba’ath generals in Saddam’s military are reportedly now the governors of Mosul and --- another ISIL capture --- Tikrit.

Too slowly, it has dawned that what’s really under way in Iraq is an uprising by Iraq’s Sunnis --- enough having abandoned hope of a seat at the table in Baghdad. Crucially, the Sunni tribes have made common cause with Ba’athist officers from Saddam’s army who never accepted the 2003 invasion’s overthrow of Sunni ascendancy. Seeing the power of a religious crusade, both groups have aligned to allow Baghdadi and his cohorts to lead a revolution in Iraq.

How many fighters ISIL commands is much disputed; the best estimates put the number around 20,000 --- a coalition of jihadis from multiple Arab nations, hundreds from the West, Sunni tribesmen and former Ba’athist soldiers.  ISIL’s shock-troops are thought to number at most 5,000, the Jihadis being cannon fodder in ISIL’s advance: the defeated Kurdish defenders of Mosul said jihadi suicide bombers were in the van of the attack.  But ISIL’s brains are to be found elsewhere. The blitzkrieg across northern and western Iraq in June and July of this year was no light-cavalry charge in pick-up trucks. It was an impressive military operation.

ISIL’s preparations were as impressive. For an offensive into Iraq from the territory ISIL controls across northern Syria, ISIL’s leadership realized they needed hardened troops. Following the Willy Sutton rule, they went where the troops were. In the year from July 2012, ISIL organized eight prison breaks from Iraqi jails holding Sunni fighters. ISIL even publicized their campaign: “Breaking the Walls,” they called it. The culminating assault was on Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, locale of the notorious pictures of prisoner abuse by U.S. guards. Some of the prison-breaks failed; two brought the escape of perhaps a thousand imprisoned Sunni fighters ---“hard-core veterans” said Jessica Lewis, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.   (The Washington-based institute has become the go-to source on ISIL’s offensive.) Ms. Lewis was the earliest analyst in the public domain to catalog ISIL’s preparations and capabilities.   As early as last October, she was warning that ISIL was “an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organization that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria.”

The strategy behind ISIL’s June/July offensive across Iraq this past year was as calculated as its prison-breaks. ISIL capitalized on the fact that the Iraqi government under Maliki was overwhelmingly Shia.   ISIL forces moved purposefully towards Baghdad, then amped-up their threat by feinting a move towards Samarra ---- menacing simultaneously the capital and one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines.     On cue, Maliki and the Shia militias he could call upon hastened to defend both.   ISIL meanwhile wrapped up their occupation of a string of towns along the Euphrates river--- establishing thereby a coherent and defensible boundary to their territory.

That operation was swift and tactically competent. ISIL assault companies deployed mortar fire with considerable accuracy; counter-attack platoons used RPGs to demolish such vehicles and light-armor as the Iraqi Amy could muster; operation after operation was carried out in disciplined radio silence.  ISIL’s assault had trained military minds behind it.

Whose?   The answer is not far to seek. The military brains behind ISIL’s offensive in Iraq are largely officers from Saddam’s Iraqi army.   Their titular leader is reckoned to be Izzat al-Douri, who for years was Saddam’s right hand.   Douri is lone survivor of the small group of plotters --- another was Saddam --- who organized the 1968 coup that brought the Ba’ath party to power in Iraq.   At the time of the 2003 invasion, Douri was vice-president and deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council --- second only to Saddam, in other words.   (One of Douri’s daughters married one of Saddam’s sons.) Douri evaded capture by American forces --- the most senior Ba’athist to do so, despite his being “Ace of Clubs” in the card-deck of ‘wanted’ that coalition troops carried for ID purposes.   He proceeded to organize the Sunni resistance, ably brokering alliances between Ba’athists and hard-core Islamist groups which were the seeds from which grew ISIL in Iraq.   Now, after operating for some years in Syria --- interrupted by a spell in Qatar --- Douri is believed to be back inside Iraq.

But Douri is 72 years old and reportedly in poor health. (His lengthy spell in Qatar around 2000 is thought to have been for treatment for leukemia.)  Douri could recruit former Ba’athist military into ISIL’s ranks --- none better.  He is not up to the burden of operational command. That job was reputedly taken by a former colonel --- some accounts say one-star general --- in Saddam’s army.   Haji Bakr, another nom de guerre, reportedly took over military command of ISIL in 2010 after his predecessor, also a former Ba’athist officer, was killed by U.S. and Iraqi special forces.   Haji Bakr seems to have been instrumental in persuading ISIL’s religious figurehead, Baghdadi, to expand operations from Syria into Iraq.   In January this year, however, Haji Bakr too was killed --- in Syria in a firefight with rival militia.   His successor has not been publicly identified.

What comes next?   The West’s mantra in armed conflicts in non-Western nations is invariably: “There is no military solution.” That tends to reflect hope rather than analysis. In the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, it is probably true. No Arab military in the region has the capability to roll back ISIL’s gains.

Retaking those towns along the Euphrates, for example, would likely require a tank assault preceded by a creeping artillery bombardment to clear the way for the armor. Against a less coherent assault, determined defenders with RPGs and counter-battery fire could destroy a scattered tank force.

Other objectives would be tougher still. In the first days of this year, ISIL fighters overran Fallujah and established themselves in Ramadi, thereby achieving dominance over Anbar, Iraq’s vast western province --- Ramadi its capital, Fallujah the commercial hub. Back at the end of 2004, U.S. Marines fought to retake Fallujah from Sunni insurgents. The operation took six weeks and cost the Marines 650 casualties. Marine commanders said it was their toughest battle since Vietnam.

Nothing suggests that today’s Iraqi Army is remotely capable of offensives against the Sunni insurgents once more in Fallujah and the Euphrates towns. Under Saddam the Iraqi Army was competent --- better than its showing against western invaders in 2003. (Unit commanders had to clear even tactical decisions with Baghdad, not a prescription for rapid response.) But the Army’s hierarchy --- Sunni officers, Shia rank-and-file --- mirrored Saddam’s social order.   Paul Bremer’s much-criticized 2003 decision to disband the Army --- his first as viceroy in the wake of the invasion --- was actually close to inevitable. The Army had disintegrated; nobody was reporting for duty; looters had destroyed the barracks; the social order it embodied had been destroyed along with its facilities. Bremer and his colleagues saw, correctly, that the army would need rebuilding from the bottom up.   What really did the damage was the “de-Baathification” program that Bremer put in train and Maliki vengefully pursued.   The army’s Sunni officer corps was purged almost to a man.   Their replacements were not merely, and inevitably, Shia: they were also trusties loyal to Maliki and his Dawa Party.    Add corruption to the mix.   Over the past decade, the Iraqi Army has all but collapsed as a fighting force.

Even if it had the capability, it appears not to have the will.   Terror likely plays a part in this reluctance.  ISIL’s execution of Iraqi Army soldiers captured when Tikrit fell in mid-June was the single event that finally caught western attention and ensured ISIL’s label as a “terrorist organization.” The graphic video of that war-crime, released on an ISIL website, horrified the world.   It must have terrified every Iraqi Army soldier who viewed it.   That, surely, was the strategic point.   The implied message was stark: “Oppose us at forfeit of your lives.” Rank-and-file Iraqi Army units have made no significant counter-attacks since then.

That Mosul video is a textbook example of ISISL’s use of terror as a weapon. ISIL’s latest video, released this past week, showing the execution of perhaps as many as 150 Syrian Army soldiers captured in the taking of Tabqah airbase --- outside Raqqa, ISIL’s headquarters in north-eastern Syria --- was surely designed to terrify Syrian conscripts.

The videos of the beheadings of the American journalists Michael Foley and now Steven Sotloff surely have a similar, though arguably more subtle, purpose. After ISIL killed Foley, it announced that it would kill another U.S. citizen unless Obama halts air-strikes against ISIL forces. Now ISIL has murdered Sotloff.  But is a halt to American air-strikes really what ISIL wants? ISIL’s moves are tough to analyze because of its bifurcated nature. But neither of its factions can really have believed that the United States government would abandon its assault on ISIL forces to save the life of even two journalists. ISIL efforts at ransom had been ignored or rejected.

An alternative explanation is that the executions were done precisely to enrage the United States enough to provoke a major commitment of American troops back into Iraq.      That may sound crazy:   ISIL’s military capabilities are a minuscule fraction of America’s. But as U.S. strike aircraft and drones destroy with their precision munitions ISIL’s vehicles and artillery, they are untouchable.   American troops travelling the roads of Iraq once again would be anything but untouchable. ISIL wants to bleed America --- and that requires U.S. troops on the ground.

Absent that scale of U.S. commitment, the only Islamic army in the region with, perhaps, the capacity to combat ISIL is Iran’s. Even that is uncertain. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, the Shah’s army --- a competent force --- was purged of its officers. The result was apparent in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. The Iranian Army rarely managed more than human-wave attacks by lightly-armed infantry --- in human terms, teenaged recruits charging across Iraqi minefields in face of Iraqi machine guns. Since Iran’s demoralizing defeat in that grueling war, its army has focused on quelling internal dissent. External operations are handled by Iran’s Quds special forces, which are competent but lack the heavy weaponry needed for an offensive against ISIL.     Still, Iran’s military does have the necessary mass.

Now the dimensions of the crisis in Iraq are clear, the operative questions are: how much American assistance, with what allies, how long, and with what goal ?

President Obama confronts a dilemma. He accepts, in some degree, ISIL leader Baghdadi’s diagnosis that the Sykes-Picot order is dead. “I do believe that what we’re seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War 1 starting to buckle,” he told Tom Friedman of The New York Times in a fascinating interview in early August.   Obama also grasps that ISIL is a symptom, not a cause: “What we have is a disaffected Sunni minority in the case of Iraq, a majority in the case of Syria….ISIL has, I think, very little appeal to ordinary Sunnis [but] they are filling a vacuum…. and the question for us has to be not simply how we counteract them militarily but how are we going to speak to a Sunni majority in that area…”

What should America do?

Iraq poses the most immediate of multiple foreign policy challenges confronting President Obama. In his speech to the Atlantic Council, Iraq’s Ambassador Faily called ISIL’s offensive “an existential threat the likes of which we and our neighbors have not seen before.” He was correct. Three times in his address Faily called for U.S. air strikes to stem the advance. Obama has now initiated those. The reality, however, is that while air-strikes in Iraq can repel ISIL’s advance into Kurdish territory, they are unlikely to drive ISIL from the expanse it holds in western Iraq ---- nor in Syria..

The collapse of the Kurdish military, the peshmerga, precipitated Obama’s decision to intervene --- “a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened,” he told Friedman. That the Kurdish collapse took Washington by surprise indicates how poorly U.S. intelligence has been monitoring ground-truth in Iraq. (In fairness, Libya’s disintegration and other baleful products of the “Arab Spring” consumed the perennially understaffed Arab specialists within the community.) The peshmerga is a force cruising on past reputation.   In the decade since Saddam’s overthrow, the Kurds have enjoyed a freedom and prosperity they had never known.   “The Kurds have gotten fat and happy,” one source said. “And so have their peshmerga.”

 

Galvanized by ISIL’s advance, the U.S. has had American special forces in Irbil for three months in a fevered effort to revive the peshmerga. But to defend the 650-mile border along which the Kurds suddenly find themselves confronting ISIL, the peshmerga are hopelessly outmatched. They don’t even have the vehicles. Obama is re-arming them; supplies are arriving. U.S. air strikes on ISIL vehicles and artillery drove ISIL fighters from the Mosul Dam, though it was Iraq’s Special Forces troops that led the ground counter-attack. Realistically the peshmerga ---- even aided by U.S. air-strikes --- will remain a defensive militia, hopefully capable of resisting ISIL advances, but not a force trained, organized or equipped to mount more than limited tactical offensives.

As Iraq confronts Obama with a wholly new scale of challenge, he has evidently made the critical decision: “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL.   We are not going to let them establish some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” he told Friedman. The question is why.

Obama did not explain why he believes that combatting ISIL’s ambitions is a “strategic interest” of the United States. The questions start here: Why must the rise of ISIL or even the collapse of Syria and Iraq as unified states inevitably pose an actionable threat to U.S. security?

America was not a party to the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 --- a deal named for the two officials who negotiated it --- that, literally, invented Iraq and Syria..  President Woodrow Wilson was appalled when he learned of it.   (After the Bolsheviks’ victory in 1917, Lenin published embarrassing documents discovered in the Tsarist archives.)   The famous ‘Fourteen Points’ Wilson advanced at the post-war Versailles peace conference was in large part an effort to have Sykes-Picot annulled.

Wilson failed. Syria and Iraq remain: artefacts of an imperial order long-vanished: territorial conveniences, jamming together warring sects and tribes of vastly differing loyalties.

Neither Syria nor Iraq ever really coalesced into a unified nation. On both, dictatorial rule imposed a false tranquility. The only unifying political movement in either state was Ba’athism: an optimistic 1940s’ jumble of socialism and nationalism dreamed up in Paris by two Syrian intellectuals, both Christian --- precisely because Ba’athism, they hoped, would offer escape from Muslim sectarian rivalries.   Their dream failed.   One of Ba’athism’s founding pair was assassinated; the other died after years of political irrelevance.     Both nations succumbed to dictatorships.  In Iraq, Saddam Hussein preserved Sunni rule against an overwhelming Shia majority.   Syria achieved a precarious balance between communities by ceding military power --- ultimate guarantor of regime survival --- to the Alawites, a sub-sect of the Shia small enough to pose no challenge to the larger factions. Exhausted by a quarter-century of coups and counter-coups, Syrians in 1970 accepted the quietude of a stable military dictatorship. The Assad family --- father and son --- have presided ever since. Their rule was in many respects a success. Damascus was, after Beirut, the most socially liberal of Arab capitals: few burqa-enclosed women on the streets, young couples drinking coffee in cafes, even holding hands.   The price, understood by all, was to stay clear of politics. Transgressors were brutally handled by the General Security Directorate. More organized resistance was crushed: the Sunni revolt in Hama in 1982 was destroyed in a sustained bombardment by two encircling divisions of artillery razing the city. A generation on, when rural poverty --- deepened by four years of drought --- sparked first protests then rebellion in 2011, Syria’s brittle equilibrium finally imploded.

Why should Obama commit American power --- still less, American lives --- to preserve those two states in their present form?   The United States has only three overriding strategic interests in the region.   One is to defend its allies. The other is to keep the oil flowing. The third, a corollary of the second, is to ensure that the region’s oil-fields do not fall under the control of a single entity.    The first imperative impelled Obama to intervene to save the Kurds.   The second probably dictates that the U.S. supports an offensive to recapture the oil fields of northern Iraq currently in ISIL’s hands.   But so long as the rich fields of southern Iraq remain in Shia territory, Iraq’s oil will flow. (Oil from the Kurdish-controlled fields of northern Iraq flows out through Turkey. The Kurds made a financial deal with Turkish prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan under which the oil revenues are channeled through Turkey’s Halkbank. Halkbank is now engulfed in corruption investigations.)

Does America need to do more?   Obama used to speak of the need to “contain” ISIL, even “counteract” it.   That was realistic. U.S. air-strikes can disrupt future ISIL advances. (Witness recent announcement that three senior ISIL operatives, including an aide to Baghdadi were killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.)   A beefed-up U.S. air presence --- necessarily operating from an Iraqi airbase closer to the fray than the thousand-mile round- trip required from the carrier USS George H.W.Bush in the Gulf --- might provide enough strike-power that the best units of the Iraqi Army, with U.S. “advisers” embedded, could begin to roll back ISIL’s gains in Iraq.

In that event, though, ISIL would retreat into the swathe of northern Syria that it controls. There Obama’s real problems begin.   Sen McCain says: “We have to defeat them, not stop them.”   But what does “defeat” mean?   Even if ISIL were to be driven from the territory it controls across Iraq and even Syria, that would not defeat ISIL in the fundamental sense of quashing the ideology driving their jihadis.

That ideology is presumably what has attracted perhaps a couple of hundred American Muslim youths to join ISIL.   Is it they who pose Sen McCain’s “existential challenge of the security of the United States of America”? Rep Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, believes they do: “They are one plane ticket away from U.S. shores,” he said. Horrifying memories of 9/11 certainly explain their concern. But it is hard to see how combatting ISIL militarily --- even crushing it, were that possible --- would remove that threat.   It’s as likely that surviving volunteers would return to the U.S. even more embittered about America and its role in the region.   Or is the unspoken notion that all Americans in ISIL’s ranks must be killed ?   The uproar over the targeted killing of two American citizens in Yemen in fall 2011 demonstrates how unthinkable that is.   American volunteers in ISIL’s ranks are indeed a potential threat to their homeland’s security --- but a threat to be combatted by border controls and domestic intelligence, not by war.

In searching for options against ISIL in Syria, President Obama is constrained by law and politics.   It would be a disaster if American incursions into Syria’s sovereign territory could be held to resemble, however remotely, Russia’s activities against Ukraine. Obama does have some wiggle-room. International law on ‘self defense’ would permit pre-emptive strikes by Iraq against ISIL forces approaching its border. For U.S. aircraft legally to carry out those strikes requires that the new government in Baghdad formally request American military assistance. The Syrian government might object; Iraq’s response would be that its territory is threatened by forces operating from Syria that Syria’s own government is unwilling or unable to control.   Declaring along Syria’s border a no-drive zone extending, say, twenty miles-or-so into Syria --- enforcing this with air-strikes --- would be operationally feasible and permitted under international law

Strikes deeper into Syria --- targeting ISIL’s bases and depots, even its leaders if they could be found ---would be a very different matter. International law demands either that the Syrian government publicly agrees to those strikes; or that a United Nations Security Council resolution declares ISIL a threat to peace in the region and authorizes military action.   Absent either, America would be guilty of aggression --- putting Obama on the same footing as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Could Obama get an authorizing resolution from the U.N. Security Council? It’s close to unarguable that he must at least try --- giving Iraq’s ambassador to the U.N., Mohamed Ali Alhakim, the forum to confront council members with the horrors of ISIL, as shown in ISIL’s own videos.  Obama would have the votes of three of the council’s five permanent members: US, Britain, France.   Would Russia or China apply their veto?   Russia has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main supporters. If Assad quietly told Moscow that he would welcome any efforts to combat ISIL but felt he couldn’t say that publicly, then Russia might abstain.   China, embroiled in maritime disputes with almost all its neighbors, is mightily distrustful of American military power and would likely seize the chance to vote against legalizing its employment anywhere. On the other hand, Iran is deeply involved in helping Iraq’s Shia battle ISIL; Iran is meanwhile one of China’s main suppliers of oil and gas.   If Tehran were to indicate to Beijing that it too sees benefit in having U.S. airpower plaster ISIL, then China too might, just might, abstain.

Win or lose, Obama has to try the Security Council route. In Wales this week, he will be concentrating on persuading NATO allies --- the usual handful of trusties, anyway --- to join in defending Iraq.   He will certainly get from the gathering some more general condemnation of ISIL --- even if that is not accompanied by pledges of military support.

The wider diplomatic effort Obama has put in train is to construct at least a declaratory coalition of Arab states proclaiming their intent to crush ISIL.   How successful this effort will be is unknowable. But it is just possible that Saudi Arabia may turn out to be Obama’s secret weapon.

American airpower has probably prevented further significant ISIL gains in Iraq.    The U.S. has “stalled ISIL’s momentum”, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proclaims.   In Iraq perhaps, but not in Syria.   As the Institute for the Study of War daily tracks, ISIL --- balked in Iraq --- has switched focus back to Syria. There, say ISW analysts, ISIL has embarked on a characteristically calculated campaign to consolidate its hold over adjoining swathes of eastern Syria and western Iraq.     If ISW analysts are correct in positing a deliberate ISIL strategy --- everything suggests they are --- then it is likely only a question of time before ISIL’s next move: to secure a port, an outlet essential to the national entity it’s creating.  Northern Syria has two on its Mediterranean coast: Tartous and Latakia.   For a variety of reasons, Latakia looks to be ISIL’s easier target.

ISIL’s other strategic option is more ambitious and much more threatening: Saudi Arabia.   The deepest concern of American, British and Israeli analysts is that ISIL will try to seize control of Saudi Arabia’s oilfields.

An ISIL incursion into Saudi Arabia would be ironic on multiple levels.   The Saudis’ puritanical Salafi version of Islam was the tap-root which nourished almost all the extremist Islamic ideologies now propelling global terrorism.   Saudi money fed this growth; Saudi clerics encouraged its growth. Osama Bin-Laden and al-Qaeda were direct products of Saudi extremism and Saudi money. For a decade, in their proxy war with Iran for influence across the region --- religion being the alibi for regional dominance --- the Saudis have been funding Sunni groups to combat Iran-financed Shia groups.   The origins of ISIL in Syria are tangled; Saudi money is a persistent presence in the tangle.

Now, however, ISIL has shown signs of turning on its foundational financiers.  In its desire to wreak havoc on the West and its abhorrent freedoms, ISIL has approvingly distributed rants advocating the overthrow of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities are clearly very very worried.

Geographically, ISIL’s control over Anbar province in western Iraq means it shares a border with Saudi Arabia.   Dhahran, operational hub of the oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia, is some 800 miles from ISIL-controlled territory in western Iraq.   A land assault across the intervening desert is close to impossible: it would be destroyed by airpower.   But there is mounting evidence that ISIL has already embarked upon undermining Saudi Arabia from within by fomenting unrest in Saudi cities.   Multiple indices point to this.   The ID tracks of Saudi computers logging on to ISIL sites demonstrate interest across the country. There are persistent reports of a rash of slogans and graffiti painted on walls nationwide.

The Saudi leadership is clearly deeply worried.   This past week the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of 88 who were, it said, in thrall to “strife and sick ideas” which lured them to “places of strife.”   An Interior Ministry spokesman was unusually frank:   “They showed their support to the organizations in Syria and Iraq and also in Yemen, and they wanted to get involved in their activities,” he said. Saudi authorities apparently reckon that some 2500 of their youth have gone to join these movements.   Since February, the Saudis have apparently detained some 300 either returning from service in jihad or planning to go.

Just how worried the Saudis are became apparent last Friday when King Abdullah broke the torpor of a ceremony welcoming foreign ambassadors by launching into a fevered warning of the dangers of these new terrorists.   “If we ignore them, I am sure they will reach Europe in a month and America in another month,” Abdullah said. Lack of action against this threat would be “unacceptable”.

Contemplating Saudi royals fears about a movement they had so large a hand in creating includes a certain schadenfreude.   So must Dr. Frankenstein have felt about the monster he had made.   But the Saudis’ worry is Obama’s opportunity.   If he can cajole the Saudi royals into using their clout in the region to organize real action against ISIL and its adherents, he might just have the regional coalition he is seeking.   Self-preservation is, after all, a powerful spur to action.

But whether even that coalition could preserve Syria or Iraq in their present forms is very dubious. Obama would be better advised to use any coalition to ease the birth-pangs of some new order.