Beginning early last month with Russia's active militarily involvement against the potpourri of jihadist groups operating in Syria, many with the direct support of Western intelligence services and GCC funding, the war in Syria began to shift. Islamic State struck back by blowing up a Russian charter jet in the Sinai two weeks ago, followed by a suicide bombing in a Beirut neighborhood, capped off by the assault on Paris on Friday.
Indications that this ISIS assault on a Western capital city has elicited a move away from the cosmetic to the substantive in the war against the caliphate are contained in two stories this morning: "France Strikes ISIS Targets in Syria in Retaliation for Attacks," by Alissa Rubin and Anne Barnard, and "U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria," by Michael Gordon.
First, Michael Gordon's story. Many commentators have pointed out that if the U.S. were truly serious about knocking out the caliphate it would go after its black-market oil pipeline. As Pepe Escobar argued ten-days ago in "What's the Big Deal Between the Russians and the Saudis?":
Meanwhile, fomenting all sorts of wild speculation, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh still manages to collect as much as $50 million a month from selling crude from oilfields it controls across “Syraq”, according to the best Iraq-based estimates.
The fact that this mini-oil caliphate is able to bring in equipment and technical experts from “abroad” to keep its energy sector running beggars belief. “Abroad” in this context means essentially Turkey – engineers plus equipment for extraction, refinement, transport and energy production.
One of the reasons this is happening is that the US-led Coalition of the Dodgy Opportunists (CDO) – which includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey – is actually bombing the Syrian state energy infrastructure, not the mini oil-Caliphate domains. So we have the proverbial “international actors” in the region de facto aiding ISIS/ISIL/Daesh to sell crude to smugglers for as low as $10 a barrel.Or as John Newsinger points out in a footnote to his "Wars Past and Wars to Come" in the latest Monthly Review:
The U.S. fight against Islamic State is compromised by the covert support that America’s allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, continue to provide for that regime. When considering IS it is worth adopting the old adage of following the money. Who is helping produce, sell and distribute the Islamic State’s oil? It is certain that Western intelligence agencies know the answer to this question, but obviously those assisting IS are too important to be named, let alone be sanctioned for their actions.Now, according to Gordon, the U.S. has finally decided to target the Islamic State's oil:
ISTANBUL — Intensifying pressure on the Islamic State, United States warplanes for the first time attacked hundreds of trucks on Monday that the extremist group has been using to smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria, American officials said.
According to an initial assessment, 116 trucks were destroyed in the attack, which took place near Deir al-Zour, an area in eastern Syria that is controlled by the Islamic State.
The airstrikes were carried out by four A-10 attack planes and two AC-130 gunships based in Turkey.
Plans for the strike were developed well before the terrorist attacks in and around Paris on Friday, officials familiar with the operation said, part of a broader operation to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to generate revenue to support its military operations and govern its territory.
American officials have long been frustrated by ability of ISIS to generate tens of million of dollars a month by producing and exporting oil.
To disrupt that source of revenue, American officials said last week that the United States had sharply stepped up its airstrikes against infrastructure that allows ISIS to pump oil in Syria.
Until Monday, the United States had refrained from striking the fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1,000 tanker trucks, because of concerns about causing civilian casualties. As a result, the Islamic State’s distribution system for exporting oil had remained largely intact.
The new campaign is called Tidal Wave II. It is named after the World War II effort to counter Nazi Germany by striking Romania’s oil industry. Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who in September assumed command of the international coalition’s campaign in Iraq and Syria, suggested the name.
To reduce the risk of harming civilians, two F-15 warplanes dropped leaflets about an hour before the attack warning drivers to abandon their vehicles, and strafing runs were conducted to reinforce the message.Don't believe the window-dressing about concern for civilian casualties. Just ask the survivors from the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. The U.S. and its allies obviously wanted to maintain the viability of the caliphate as a way to pressure the governments of Iraq and Syria.
My concern is that these airstrikes on the oil-tanker trucks are going to be a PR one-off, evidence of good faith for the voters back home who are paying attention. Kerry's statement coming out of the negotiations in Geneva stick to the "It's All Assad's Fault" script, which is the same one that got us ISIS to begin with. According to Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Attacks in Paris Add Urgency to Talks on Ending Syria War":
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov sparred openly over the fate of Mr. Assad, a central question in any final agreement.
The United States, along with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, believes Mr. Assad must go as part of any final settlement, and Mr. Kerry described him on Saturday as an enabler of the Islamic State and a “magnet” for foreign fighters who are spreading terror through the region and beyond.
“This war won’t end — this war can’t end — as long as Bashar al-Assad is there,” he said. [Clear statement that there will be more terror attacks like Friday's in Paris.]
But Russia has been a strong Assad supporter, and Mr. Lavrov argued that the conflict in Syria goes far beyond him, noting that past crises in Iraq and Libya only worsened with the ouster of their leaders, Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“I cannot agree, therefore, with the logic that Assad is the cause for everything,” Mr. Lavrov said to Mr. Kerry, seated with him in a hotel ballroom for the news conference. “The Paris attacks have shown, alongside with ISIS claiming responsibility for it, that it doesn’t matter if you are for Assad or against him; ISIS is your enemy, so it’s not about Assad.”
Also left unresolved was the critical question of which groups would be considered terrorist organizations and which legitimate members of the opposition would be included in the political transition talks, an issue that the diplomats agreed to work on in the days ahead.Not good. Yet in the Rubin and Barnard story about French airstrikes on the caliphate's capital of Raqqa, there is some hopeful news that the West is finally getting serious:
There is a growing focus on both reducing the Islamic State’s territory and its financing, said French government officials and experts.
“We need to push the organization away from its territories,” said Jean Charles Brisard, a terrorism expert, who worked in the French government and now is the chairman for the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris-based research group.
“Most of its resources are from the territory, so we have to push it away from its resources in Syria and Iraq and that means going in on the ground with a regional power,” he said.
The United States currently has soldiers on the ground in Iraq working with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to dislodge the Islamic State. France has not yet said whether it will adopt a similar course.
On Sunday, Mr. Hollande met his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the Élysée Palace. Afterward, Mr. Sarkozy urged decisive action against the Islamic State — a position Mr. Hollande has also taken.
“We need everybody in order to exterminate Daesh,” Mr. Sarkozy told reporters, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.We'll see. A danger here is this "going in on the ground with a regional power" could be the green light that Erdogan has been looking for all along -- a buffer zone in northern Syria. Erdogan is going to get his billions and his special session in Brussels for Turkey. He has been playing his cards like a poker shark.
So despite hints here and there of a shift, it looks like business as usual. It is going to take a shift in Europe away from the United States and closer to Russia and China to bring about real change. That is not going to happen unless there is a cracking of the European Union. Something that "business as usual" is rapidly bringing about. Look for Marine Le Pen in 2017.