For the second time in as many years, Thomas Friedman has explicitly advocated that the United States use the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a proxy force against Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The New York Times foreign affairs columnist made this suggestion in his Wednesday column, “Why Is Trump Fighting ISIS in Syria?” (4/12/17):
Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria? Of course, ISIS is detestable and needs to be eradicated. But is it really in our interest to be focusing solely on defeating ISIS in Syria right now?…
We could simply back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria and make it entirely a problem for Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad. After all, they’re the ones overextended in Syria, not us. Make them fight a two-front war—the moderate rebels on one side and ISIS on the other. If we defeat territorial ISIS in Syria now, we will only reduce the pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and enable them to devote all their resources to crushing the last moderate rebels in Idlib, not sharing power with them.
Friedman is not advocating the US stop bombing ISIS on anti-war grounds or because US bombing has led to thousands of civilian deaths—all perfectly correct and sensible reasons to oppose the US “War on Terror” in Syria—but because giving ISIS space to breathe will kill more Syrians, Iranians and Russians.
He doesn’t advocate finding peaceful ways of lessening the power and appeal of groups like ISIS (like, say, sanctioning governments that support them or export their vulgar brand of Wahhabism), but rather using them, and in effect empowering them, to do the United States’ dirty work in Syria.
As an example of how this approach can work, Friedman cites Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan—a group that later spawned Al Qaeda and killed over 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001:
Trump should want to defeat ISIS in Iraq. But in Syria? Not for free, not now. In Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache — the same way we encouraged the mujahedeen fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan.
The word “encouraged” is doing a lot of work here. The CIA, along with Saudi Arabia, assisted and funded the mujahideen and other foreign fighters to fight the Soviets and Soviet-aligned Afghans throughout the 1980s, resulting in a prolonged, brutal war, and spawning thousands of radical jihadists for years to come. That Friedman would use this as an example of how the US should wage war in Syria—and presumably drag the war on and spawn similar extremism—would be considered absurd on its face if it weren’t coming from a Very Serious Person at the New York Times.
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The piece climaxed with Friedman’s patented mix of racism and fatuous generality, painting all Syrians as brute savages:
Syria is not a knitting circle. Everyone there plays dirty, deviously and without mercy. Where’s that Trump when we need him?
“Everyone”? Everyone is bad, Friedman’s pseudo–tough guy argument goes, so let’s be just as bad by explicitly using ISIS in a weapon against Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.
This comes after a 2015 column in which Friedman (3/18/15) floated the idea that the United States should directly arm ISIS:
Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?
In a political climate where Americans are being arrested for merely sending out pro-ISIS tweets, and dozens are swept up in dubious FBI entrapment plots, it’s notable that one of the most influential columnists in the United States can call for arming the designated terrorist organization so long as he frames it as “just asking questions” and does so to the end of killing Evil Iranians. (Friedman is not the only establishment figure to suggest that the US goal in Syria should be to prolong the bloodbath indefinitely—but usually this ghoulish argument isn’t offered so blatantly.)
According to one 2015 poll by Virginia-based research firm ORB International, 82 percent of Syrians and 85 percent of Iraqis believe ISIS to be a creation of the United States. Indeed, the New York Times has spent considerable inches hand-wringing about why these type of “conspiracy theories” are so widespread in the Muslim world.
Perhaps, one can imagine, they would be less so if Western columnists weren’t casually cheerleading for using the extremist group as a bludgeon against America’s enemies.