By James A. Lyons
April 18, 2017
One of the hallmarks of the 2016 presidential campaign was Donald Trump’s insistence on being honest about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” It’s a phrase that President Obama refused to speak, preferring the euphemism “violent extremism.” Hillary Clinton muttered the taboo expression half-heartedly only after Mr. Trump shamed her into it. Actually, I reject the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” as it implies there is some “moderate” form of Islamic terrorism. There isn’t.
The Obama-Clinton disdain for naming the real enemy allowed them to pretend that the Islamic State (ISIS) was the only problem in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, groups with an identical jihad ideology got a pass. Al Qaeda was barely mentioned. Arms continued to flow via Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to a rogues gallery of supposed “moderates” — Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, the Free Idlib Army and the Islamic Front. These jihadists operate mainly in alliance with al Qaeda, but sometimes with ISIS.
President Trump’s administration shows signs of translating ideological clarity into military action. The noose is tightening around the ISIS, with the fall of Mosul to U.S.-supported Iraqi and Iranian militia forces in sight. The stage is being set for a U.S.-Kurdish offensive to take Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. American-led coalition airstrikes are hitting al Qaeda and its “moderate” terrorist allies in Syria’s Idlib province.
This is being done quietly, without the bluster that characterized the Obama policy. Like Mr. Trump said, you don’t show the enemy your game plan. This discretion was certainly on display with the recent cruise missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat air base near the city of Homs. It was from this base that Syrian aircraft took off to deliver a deadly chemical attack against its own people.
Congress is late in catching up with military realities. But that is beginning to change as well. Two items deserve particular mention.
First, Rep. Jim Banks, Indiana Republican, last month introduced H.J.Res. 89, an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, plus “successor organizations and associated forces.” This means the jihadists we are fighting right now, under whatever name they try to hide.
When, in 2015, Mr. Obama asked for a new AUMF to replace the outdated one enacted in 2001 after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, congressional Republicans rightfully turned him down. They knew they couldn’t trust him.
Now things are different. Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomes a new AUMF that fits the real war that needs to be fought: “I think not only would it be a sign of the American people’s resolve, truly I think our men and women would benefit from an authorization for the use of military force that would let them know that the American people, in the form of their Congress, were fully supportive of what they’re doing out there every day as they put their lives in harm’s way.” Destroying ISIS as a functioning entity is a tactical objective. However, we should not get involved in a 1,400-year sectarian war. Never forget, both sided have joined forces to kill us.
Second, the Stop Arming Terrorists Act (SATA, H.R. 608) was introduced with bipartisan backing by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Hawaii Democrat, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, and in the Senate (S. 532) by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. SATA would prohibit the use of federal funds to arm or support al Qaeda, ISIS “or any individual or group that is affiliated with, associated with, cooperating with, or adherent” to them. It also would bar sending funds to the government of any country that the director of national intelligence determines has provided assistance to such groups within the last year.
SATA is almost the mirror image of the new AUMF. It seeks to defund and stop our allies from arming the very groups our military personnel are risking their lives fighting against.
It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to stop our tax dollars from going to arm people we know are terrorists. Sadly, it’s far from clear that cutting off such aid can be assured without a legal prohibition. Press coverage of the war in Syria over the past six years has been replete with reports of groups supported by the Obama administration — either directly via covert programs or via our allies — that either fight alongside al Qaeda or decide to defect, taking their U.S.-provided arms with them.
The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and the BBC reported that in March 2015 the U.S.-backed group Fursan al-Haq, equipped by the CIA with anti-tank missiles, participated in an al Qaeda-led campaign in Idlib. However, there is no clear affiliation today. After the city fell to the jihadis, Christians were driven out amid a terror campaign of abductions and church destructions. Many of the Druze residents were massacred.
Idlib remains under al Qaeda control today, assisted by Fursan al-Haq, now rebranded part of the Free Idlib Army under the protection of Turkey’s jihadi president (and America’s dubious NATO ally) Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Has the weapons pipeline been cut off? Even if it has, turning it back on may just be a matter of another change of name and flag.
There is no such thing as a moderate jihadi terrorist. Arming one group of terrorists to fight another group of terrorists can only have one outcome: more terrorism. It’s time to slam the door on a wrongheaded and self-defeating policy.
• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.