Why you should care
America and the West are engaging more deeply in the Syrian conflict, with effects that will reverberate for years to come. Here are some of the pivotal players.
When President Barack Obama announced this week that his administration was prepared to launch an aggressive campaign against the Islamic State, American analysts pounced to figure out what it might mean for his presidency. Obama, after all, has built his foreign policy around extricating America from wars in the Muslim world.
But the implications of direct American action in the war in Syria, which has now spilled over into Iraq, extend far beyond the White House. And so do the key figures. Indeed, the success or failure of American-led operations in the region will depend on a whole range of contingencies and responses from other actors, many of whom are hard to predict at this point. OZY looks at four of the most influential,
Bouthaina Shaaban: Assad’s Karl Rove
A United Kingdom-educated feminist, Shaaban is not just the spokesperson for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, but also his consigliere. She’s been one of the most prominent public apologists of the regime’s war against Arab Spring-era dissidents — terrorists, she calls them.
Born in Homs, which is now a hotbed for anti-Assad insurgents, Shaaban was the first woman to earn an English degree from the University of Damascus, before going on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Warwick in England. She quickly worked her way up in the Syrian regime of Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s, and ultimately became his official interpreter. Her Westernized views on women, education and democracy gave Bashar Assad’s government a sophisticated gloss and raised hopes in the West that his ascension in 2000 heralded a new day in Syria.
Like the younger Assad, the 61-year-old Shaaban has bitterly disappointed reformers in Syria and abroad. With Obama’s announcement of a new broadside against the Islamic State, she suggested on CNN that it’s time for the U.S. and Assad’s regime to work together. America “will benefit a lot from cooperating with the Syrian government against terrorism, because we have been truly fighting terrorism for the last four years.”
Quite a smooth rhetorical maneuver. And you can bet that as the Syrian regime weighs its response to pending Western strikes on its territory, Shaaban will be right in the thick of the discussion.
Joseph Votel: Special Forces Strategist
Succeeding the highly regarded Adm. William McRaven this summer, Votel has big shoes to fill. As the commander of America’s special operations forces, he coordinates the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets and the military’s other elite, specially trained fighters. He’ll have to acclimate quick: his command is likely to be key if the president is to succeed in keeping the fight against the Islamic State from morphing into a full-fledged, boots-on-the-ground war.
The 56-year-old former Army Ranger has kept a low profile for most of his career, which is probably a good sign, given the clandestine nature of much of the special forces’ work. But now Votel will be front and center in one of the biggest presidential gambles since W’s surge.
David S. Cohen: Financial Warrior
Undersecretary of the Treasury does not sound like a sexy title. But as Obama said in his remarks to the nation on Wednesday, one reason the Islamic State is such a threat is that it has money — lots of it. To defeat the militant group, the United States will need to muster sophisticated financial tools to cut off its sources of illicit financing — which include extortion, smuggling, robbery, hostage ransoms and oil sales — and freeze the assets it already has.
Fortunately, the United States has developed just those skills, honed over the last decade by finance wonks and intelligence operatives housed in the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. It started under Stuart Levey, Cohen’s predecessor, as a way to ratchet up the economic pressure on al-Qaida and Iran.
Cohen took over the bureau from Levey in 2011, after holding several other Treasury posts. Now the 51-year-old, Ivy League-educated attorney is the man in charge of waging America’s financial war on the Islamic State.
King Abdullah II of Jordan: America’s BFF in the Arab World
The United States can’t defeat the Islamic State on its own. It needs major support from players in the region. That includes Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has been quietly helping the the United States’ efforts to aid moderate forces in next-door Syria since the conflict began in 2011.
More than Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iraq, it’s Jordan and Abdullah — in power since 1999 — that have been America’s most consistent, faithful ally in the region in recent years. But Jordan itself is under strain. Syrian refugees now make up more than 10 percent of its population, and a growing numbers of Jordanian extremists are joining the fight in Syria, making King Abdullah, 52, and his government very nervous.
With plans to now step up Western aid to the Syrian forces battling Assad and the Islamic State, the question will be how the urbane, Georgetown- and Oxford-educated Abdullah walks that fine line of helping the U.S. — allowing launching pads on its soil and assistance across its border — without alienating or radicalizing his own population. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Abdullah in Amman on Thursday and the Jordanian king declared his full support for the international effort to combat the Islamic State. He’s likely to be far less public about what that help looks like, in practice.