Analysis

Will San Bernardino Shooting Spur U.S. War on Terror in Syria and Iraq?

The series of attacks clearly sends the message that civilians in the West cannot feel safe at home while their governments are bombing Islamic State bases in Syria and Iraq.

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the San Bernardino shootings in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 3, 2015.
Bloomberg

The news that Tashfeen Malik, one of two suspected attackers in Wednesday’s mass killing in San Bernardino, California, had declared her allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook posting has removed any doubts about the ideological background to the shooting that killed 14 people and injured 21.

On Friday the FBI announced it was investigating the deadly mass shooting, which Malik is suspected of carrying out together with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, as an “act of terrorism.”

According to the FBI, at this point there are no signs that the shooters were part of a broader network. It therefore appears at this stage that the attack was inspired by the Islamic State and carried out by by people who underwent radicalization either during their time in Saudi Arabia or over the Internet.

In any event, the Islamic State leadership in Syria and Iraq can claim a string of deadly successes. Since the end of October, members or wannabes have carried out attacks in Egypt’s Sinai (where a Russian passenger plane exploded in midflight), in Beirut, in Paris and now in California.

More than 400 people were killed in those terrorist attacks, which are beginning to resemble the dimensions of Al-Qaida’s against Western targets after 9/11.

This death toll doesn’t include the daily massacres that the Islamic State carries out against its opponents in Iraq and Syria, where the compilation of precise death tolls has long become impossible.

Beginning with the explosion of the Russian plane in Sinai in late October, these attacks have buttressed the image of the Islamic State as an organization that is capable of bringing the battle to the home court of its enemies in Egypt, in Europe and now in the United States as well. The series of attacks clearly sends the message that civilians in the West, including Russians), cannot feel safe at home while their governments are bombing Islamic State bases in Syria and Iraq.

Potential for great public impact in U.S.

While the United States has in the past seen mass shootings that were inspired by radical Islam and by criticism of American policy in the Middle East — these include killings at military recruitment centers in Tennessee and at a military base in Texas — the massacre in San Bernardino appears to have the potential to have greater impact on the public than any incident since 9/11.

It will sharpen the focus on two highly sensitive political issues: the controversy over the unbearable ease with which weapons can be bought in America (over which the Democrats have been attacking the Republicans for their refusal to tighten controls) and the controversy over steps to be taken against Islamic terror (over which the Republicans accuse the Obama administration of laxity).

In the background is a third highly charged issue, that of immigration policy, even though Farook, the male assailant in San Bernardino, was born in the United States. It can be assumed that anti-Muslim sentiment will again erupt on the right-wing margins of the political landscape, as happened in the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Looking at the situation from the Middle East, the main question is something else: After all the acts that Islamic State and its followers have committed around the world over the past five weeks, whether the massacre in California will spur President Barack Obama to take firmer steps in the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. For the time being, it doesn't appear this will happen. Obama has been proceeding forward in this war with measured steps. Reports of small numbers of American troops on the ground in northern Syria do not reflect a real departure from his administration’s fundamental policy of relying on air attacks.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, whose ties with the Americans have never been characterized by an overabundance of tact, actually chose on Friday, two days after the Californian killings, to express veiled criticism in a lecture at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution in Washington of the Obama administration’s approach to Islamic State.

Ya’alon argued that the United States needs to stop sitting on the fence in the Middle East and start leading the fight. In Syria, he added, Russia is currently fulfilling a more important role than the United States and therefore Arab countries are looking increasingly to Moscow.

The Russian presence in Syria is indeed exceptional in its scope. According to international media estimates, about 100 Russian aircraft are deployed in the north of the country, along with advanced aerial defense batteries, tanks, armored personnel carriers and more than 4,000 soldiers and civilian advisers.

The Russians are building a second air base in the Latakia area to serve they forces, but despite dozens of Russian aerial sorties a day since the middle of September, the results on the ground have been limited.

The Russian assault is not directed only at the Islamic State, and rebel organizations acting against Syrian President Bashar Assad have not withdrawn from substantial territory under Russian pressure. And the ambitious ground operation that the Russians tried to lead in support of the Assad regime via the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias has not so far yielded real results.

Arab media outlets claimed last week that the Israel Air Force had attacked in Syria for the third time in less than a month. This time, it was claimed, the target was a Scud missile base. The attack took place two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly acknowledged that Israel was at times carrying out bombing raids in Syria to prevent the smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah.

If these reports are correct, they reflect surprising Russian patience with regard to the Israeli actions directed at Moscow’s allies. Against this backdrop, several European countries are developing concerns that the Israeli-Russian cooperation is becoming too close, as if the two countries are discussing other aspects of the fighting in Syria beyond their shared desire to avoid unnecessary aerial battles. That apparently is the reason for the clarification last week by a senior Israeli officer that Israel was not “budging one centimeter” when it comes to the talks with Russia on Syria without consulting first with the Americans.