News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
With Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed shuttle diplomacy long dead and forgotten—and with President Obama seemingly unwilling to say much at all about the Israel-Palestine crisis—it’s getting ugly again, amid talk of a new intifada. (Of course, a new intifada is the last thing the Palestinians need, if it turns violent.) And what is ugliest about the current violence is the shocking crime committed by “nationalist” (read extremist) Israelis against an unarmed and defenseless boy. It isn’t surprising that Israel’s settler-right and other religious and political extremists might use unchecked violence against the Palestinians living under occupation, since that happens every day. But as in many such situations, a single, highly personal traumatic event can create shock waves that ordinary “statistical” violence doesn’t generate. Thus, listen to the authors of an editorial in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily that sometimes serves as Israel’s conscience. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:
There are no words to describe the horror allegedly done by six Jews to Mohammed Abu Khdeir of Shoafat. Although a gag order bars publication of details of the terrible murder and the identities of its alleged perpetrators, the account of Abu Khdeir’s family—according to which the boy was burned alive—would horrify any mortal. Anyone who is not satisfied with this description, can view the horror movie in which members of Israel’s Border Police are seen brutally beating Tariq Abu Khdeir, the murder victim’s 15-year-old cousin.
The Israel Police was quick to label the murderers “Jewish extremists,” meaning they aren’t part of the herd, they are outliers, “wild weeds.” This is the police’s way of trying to justify a sin, to “make the vermin kosher.” But the vermin is huge, and many-legged. It has embraced the soldiers and other young Israelis who overran the social media networks with calls for revenge and with hatred for Arabs. The vermin was welcomed by Knesset members, rabbis and public figures who demanded revenge. Nor did it skip over the prime minister, who declared “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.”
Abu Khdeir’s murderers are not “Jewish extremists.” They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of “the Jewish state”: Those for whom every Arab is a bitter enemy, simply because they are Arab; those who were silent at the Beitar Jerusalem games when the team’s fans shouted “death to Arabs” at Arab players; those who call for cleansing the state of its Arab minority, or at least to drive them out of the homes and cities of the Jews.
No less responsible for the murder are those who did not halt, with an iron hand, violence by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian civilians, and who failed to investigate complaints “due to lack of public interest.” The term “Jewish extremists” actually seems more appropriate for the small Jewish minority that is still horrified by these acts of violence and murder. But they too recognize, unfortunately, that they belong to a vengeful, vindictive Jewish tribe whose license to perpetrate horrors is based on the horrors that were done to it.
Prosecuting the murderers is no longer sufficient. There must be a cultural revolution in Israel. Its political leaders and military officers must recognize this injustice and right it. They must begin raising the next generation, at least, on humanist values, and foster a tolerant public discourse. Without these, the Jewish tribe will not be worthy of its own state.
If you’ve read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, an important investigation into the culture and beliefs of Israel’s far right (and you can read my review of Goliath in Middle East Policy), then you know that for decades the intolerant, Arab-hating radicals who thrive both in the occupied West Bank and in Israel proper have been gaining momentum for decades, and so Haaretz is right on point in calling for a “cultural revolution” and for arguing that the radical “vermin is huge, and many legged.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s crocodile tears over the death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir are belied by his decision to order airstrikes against Hamas and other, more extreme Palestinian Islamists in Gaza, strikes that accomplish nothing but to inflame passions even further while allowing the prime minister to exercise his “vengeance.”
The kidnapping and execution of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian thugs does not, of course, justify the murder of Khdeir. That, too, was a horrific crime, and it can’t be excused by saying that it was a legitimate form of resistance to Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank. But there is clearly an imbalance here: Israel is all-powerful and militarily supreme in the occupied West Bank, and its Jewish radicals have the support and encouragement of the Israeli state, while a battered and flailing Palestinian Authority government manages to exercise little or no actual “authority” in the areas in which it has nominal control, and its radicals, extremists and murderers are spawned in the hellish conditions under which they live.
Meanwhile, Khdeir’s cousin was savagely beaten, arrested and jailed in a clear instance of police brutality. That event reached the corridors of the State Department in Washington, which issued the following comment (in its entirety) on July 5:
We can confirm that Tariq Khdeir, an American citizen, is being held by Israeli authorities in Jerusalem. He was visited by an official from the US Consulate General in Jerusalem today. We are profoundly troubled by reports that he was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force. We are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for any excessive use of force. We reiterate our grave concern about the increasing violent incidents, and call on all sides to take steps to restore calm and prevent harm to innocents.
That was followed, on July 6, by this statement, also in its entirety, from State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki:
There was a hearing today at 11:15 AM this morning (July 6) where it was agreed by the judge that Tariq would be released under house arrest while the criminal investigation is conducted. An official from the US Consulate General was at that hearing. Mr. Khudeir’s family was asked to post bail and Tariq is restricted to his uncle’s home in the Beit Hanina area of East Jerusalem. He is also permitted to make arrangements to visit medical facilities if needed. If the investigation is concluded promptly, Mr. Khudeir should be able to return to Florida as planned with his family later this month. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. We are profoundly troubled by reports that he was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force. As we stated yesterday we are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for the apparent excessive use of force.
It’s hard to remember the last time that the State Department condemned Israeli violence without issuing an “on-the-other-hand” type of “balance.”
And if there’s any hope in any of this, it’s that Yishai Fraenkel, whose nephew, Naftali Fraenkel, was one of the three murdered Israeli teens, spoke by telephone with Hussein Abu Khdeir, the father of the murdered Palestinian, and presumably both exchanged condolences.
One key to solving the ISIS crisis is hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus, and his name is Bashar al-Assad. Demonized by the United States and by neoconservatives long before he waged a ruthless, take-no-prisoners blitzkrieg against the American- and Saudi-supported rebellion that began in 2011, Assad has proved to everyone (with the possible exception of Secretary of State John Kerry) that he’s staying put, at least for the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, Assad has won the civil war in Syria, and short of an Iraq-style invasion—which isn’t in the cards—there’s no way for the United States to oust Assad. Which is a good thing, because his ouster would immeasurably strengthen the extremists who’ve led the fight against him, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now “the Islamic State,” the Caliphate-mongering radicals who are an Al Qaeda offshoot. On the other hand, by ending its support for the Syrian rebels, who don’t have a prayer anyway, the United States would strengthen Assad and allow him to crush ISIS.
It’s gradually dawning on America’s foreign policy establishment that Assad isn’t going anywhere. Back in December, a foresighted Ryan Crocker—no weenie, having served as US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars—suggested that the United States ought to accept that Assad has won. In a December 21 New York Times op-ed, Crocker wrote:
It is time to consider a future for Syria without Assad’s ouster, because it is overwhelmingly likely that is what the future will be.… Better armed, organized, supported and motivated, Assad isn’t going. Most likely, he will get the country back, inch by bloody inch. Perhaps Al Qaeda will hold a few enclaves in the north. But he will hold Damascus. And do we really want the alternative—a major country at the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda? So we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad—and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse. A good place to start is Geneva next month and some quiet engagement with Syrian officials.
Assad, who’s wrongly been accused of covertly supporting ISIS, last week joined the war against ISIS in Iraq officially, sending his air force into Iraq—with the support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government—to bomb ISIS positions near the Syria-Iraq border. Taking note of that, Leslie Gelb—another US foreign policy graybeard—opined that the United States ought to ally itself with Assad’s potent forces:
The second step of this strategy is to set President Bashar al-Assad of Syria against the jihadis in Iraq, an offensive he started on his own with airstrikes last week. This would acknowledge the reality of Iraq and Syria as one strategic, anti-jihadi battlefield. But instead of capitalizing on Mr. Assad’s anti-jihadi instincts, the Obama team now proposes to do what it has resisted doing for almost three years—to send hundreds of millions of dollars in arms aid for the Sunni rebels battling the Assad government. This move has American priorities backward. It will turn Mr. Assad away from the jihadis in Iraq, and back to fighting American-backed rebels in Syria.
From the start, President Obama’s wrongheaded support for the anti-Assad revolt is what led directly to ISIS’ resurgence. By calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011 and 2012, by green-lighting Saudi and Turkish aid to the rebels, by ordering the CIA to train anti-Assad forces in Jordan, by drawing red lines that he couldn’t enforce, and by supplying those ragtag rebels, Obama unleashed hellish forces in Syria that neither he nor his Saudi and Turkish partners could control. Unspeakable atrocities have been committed on both sides, and it’s obvious that Assad is no friend of humanity. But he’s there, and he’s better than ISIS.
According to Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast, there’s an actual debate going on inside the White House and the State Department over whether to call it quits in Syria. Writes Rogin:
There’s a battle raging inside the Obama administration about whether the United States ought to push away from its goal of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and into a de facto alliance with the Damascus regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.… The 3 1/2-year grinding civil war is Syria has been put on a back burner for now. Some officials inside the administration are proposing that the drive to remove Assad from power, which Obama announced as U.S. policy in 2012, be set aside, too. The focus, these officials argue, should instead be on the region’s security and stability. Governments fighting for survival against extremists should be shored up, not undermined.
Some analysts suggest that there’s an emerging “Shiite crescent” or a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus “axis,” but that way too simplistic. True, in battling ISIS, all three governments ought to be seen as potential partners of the United States. But Assad, while an ally of Iran’s, isn’t an Iranian stooge, and he’s not really even a Shiite. And, whatever the eventual outcome of the civil war in Iraq, it won’t eliminate the Sunnis there, who will continue to press their claims for a share of power in Baghdad, with the support of the Arab heartland. And Iran has no imperial interest in the Arab world. It’s interest in Iraq is to prevent the emergence of a threat to Iran, and it’s interest in Syria and in Lebanon’s Hezbollah is mostly as leverage against Israel and its continued threats to bomb Iran over its nuclear program. So the solution in the Syria-Iraq civil war is political and diplomatic, not military. And it starts with an entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are alarmed by ISIS’ recent gains, and both of which can vastly influence their proxies in Syria and Iraq.
Read Next: Will Obama strike a nuclear deal with Iran?
Let’s parse, if you will, Rear Adm. John Kirby’s press briefing at the Pentagon, which focused heavily on Iraq and the American actions so far is trying to stem the tide of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) nee the Islamic State-cum-Caliphate. His comments, especially in response to questions from a fairly skeptical media corps—thankfully, more skeptical than the 2002–03 media on Iraq—reveal a potentially slippery slope toward escalation in Iraq, in which President Obama has already ordered an incremental series of military deployments there.
As Admiral Kirby laid it out, to begin with:
So the first order was the on the 16th of June for 270—actually, it was up to 275, is what the War Powers Resolution letter said, but roughly 270 is what we ordered up inside the military channels. A hundred and seventy of them got on the ground that same day—actually, as you know, they kind of flowed in a little bit before the war powers letter went to Congress. So back then, we had a total of 270 authorized, 170 in country.…
The second order, the second War Powers Resolution letter went on the 26th of June. That authorized up to 300 advise and assess troops, advisers. And on the 27th of June, 180 had been in country. That’s—so you have 90 supporting the joint operations center in Baghdad and another 90 that comprised our assessment and advise teams. That brought the total to 570 authorized, but 350 actually on the ground.…
The third order came on the 30th of June yesterday. That was for an additional 200 in the security assistance mission, separate and distinct from the assessment mission, an additional 200, and all 200 of them are now in and around Baghdad.
So in total the president sent troops to Iraq three times, on June 16, June 27 and June 30. As Kirby put it: “And then so all that comes down to the bottom there, a total of 770 authorized, 650 on the ground. And that’s where we are right now.”
The first question involved the weaponry that the troops are bringing with them, including helicopters, drones and so on. Kirby said that the aircraft include “a mix of helicopters and UAVs [drones],” adding, “The helicopters are attack helicopters, Apaches.” And, he said, they’ll be flown by American crews, not Iraqis.
Kirby was asked about whether the stepped-up deployment is a sign that things are getting worse in Iraq, and if that means that more deployments might follow, and he didn’t quite answer, saying only that “our assessment teams are, are just getting, well, not just now starting, they’ve been working. We need to give them time to get out and about and to come back with their findings, so I’m not going to get ahead of that work or what they’ll report back.” Which led to this exchange:
QUESTION: So you can’t say now if the situation is getting worse or not?
ADM. KIRBY: I’m not—I’m not—I certainly wouldn’t—I would be in no position to declare, you know, the meter today one way or the other. It continues to be very dangerous. The threat continues to be very real.
When a reporter asked if there is “ceiling that the Pentagon won’t go beyond that when it comes to number of troops,” Kirby said only that the president as commander in chief “makes these decisions.”
Still, the media pushed him, asking, “Should we expect additional deployments in the near term?” Kirby didn’t answer that one. So the press tried again:
QUESTION Nonetheless, the president has added three times in the last two weeks additional troops, and you have just acknowledged that, in your words, there is no grand total limit on this at this point. So my question is, with all respect, how is this not escalation? How is this not mission creep?… What is the exit strategy?
ADM. KIRBY: …There’s—there’s no mission creep, because the missions have been clearly defined from almost the outset.
Since first getting back in, the United States has now moved to protect the airport in Baghdad and the access road linking the capital to the airport, which during the 2003–11 war was a major point of contention between the United States and the insurgency. A reporter asked a bout the airport deployment, and about why the Iraqis can’t protect their own airport, but Kirby made it clear that the United States doesn’t trust Iraq in regard to the safety of US troops who will be flying into the airport. And then this:
QUESTION: I don’t mean to take too much time here, but one more time. Two weeks ago, there was no discussion of needing to have U.S. troops at the Baghdad airport. For whatever reason now.…
ADM. KIRBY: No, that’s not true.… Two weeks ago, when—on the 16th of June when we ordered those 100 airport security personnel into the region—now, we kept them outside of Iraq, but we ordered them into the region because we had even back on the 16th of June reason to be concerned about the security of our facilities and our people at the airport.
Since the ISIS offensive began, Iraq has gotten help from both Iran and Russia. Iran, a close ally of Iraq, will defend Baghdad as it’s defended Damascus in Syria’s civil war (also against ISIS), and recently Russia has sent fighter jets, technicians and pilots to Iraq, amid broad hints from Iraqi officials that they’ll turn to Moscow if Washington doesn’t step up:
QUESTION: Can you confirm a report that the Russian pilots are going to fly these fighter jets that Iraq has purchased? And if they are, does this building have concerns about Russian forces operating aircraft over top of U.S. forces operating on the ground?
ADM. KIRBY: No, I can’t confirm—you know, the Russian Ministry of Defense should talk about what they’re doing with their pilots. I can’t do that. It’s my understanding that these aircraft were purchased for the use—for use by Iraqi pilots, but you’d have to talk to Moscow about what they’re doing with their planes and their pilots.… There are no active discussions with the Russian military now about what they are or are not doing in Iraq. These are—Iraq is a sovereign nation.
And this follow-up:
QUESTION: How concerned are you—the Iraqi ambassador this morning was talking about if Iraq doesn’t get what it needs from the U.S., again requesting air strikes, says they may turn to Iran for those types of capabilities. To what extent, as you put more and more forces on the ground, does it concern you that Iraq is saying “not enough and you’re not doing the job, so we’ll turn to the Iranians.”
ADM. KIRBY: Again, it’s a sovereign state, sovereign government. They have the right to speak to whoever they wish to in terms of security discussions. I would just go back to what I said before, that we continue to urge all nations involved and interested in this to whatever actions they take, whatever decisions they make, that it doesn’t further inflame the sectarian tension on the ground there. And we’ve had that message consistently from the beginning, particularly that’s been our message to Tehran and it doesn’t change. But we can neither control nor can we dictate the discussions that one head of state has with another.
Asked if the involvement of Iran might make the United States role “untenable,” Kirby said that, in fact, the United States might be able to work alongside Iran, as least in parallel if not in direct cooperation.
Then, answering a follow-up on drones, Kirby said that the drones now in Iraq are not either Predators or Reapers, the deadly drones used in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but apparently smaller ones. He said that the United States will be sending Iraq additional F-16s soon, and more Hellfire missiles for Iraqi aircraft. “There’s hundreds of other Hellfires that I know are being expedited to go to Iraq,” he said.
The press followed up on Iran:
QUESTION Do you see any possible cooperation with Iran to counter ISIS in Iraq? As you may know, Chairman [of the Joint Chief General Martin] Dempsey last Friday didn’t rule out the possibility to—to cooperate with—with Iran. So what’s your reaction on that?
ADM. KIRBY: I would say what I’ve said before, alright. There are no plans right now to collaborate or communicate about military activities between the United States military and either the Quds Force or the Iranian military, no plans to—coordinate military activities at all.
As I’ve written before, the United States is backing Maliki in Baghdad and battling Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran supports both Maliki and Assad. And ISIS is fighting both. So the American policy is clearly schizophrenic. If the United States were to end its support for the anti-Assad forces, they would free Assad’s troops to crush ISIS in Syria’s northern and eastern areas, and that would ease the pressure on Baghdad. As Leslie Gelb wrote in a New York Times op-ed on July 1:
But instead of capitalizing on Mr. Assad’s anti-jihadi instincts, the Obama team now proposes to do what it has resisted doing for almost three years—to send hundreds of millions of dollars in arms aid for the Sunni rebels battling the Assad government. This move has American priorities backward. It will turn Mr. Assad away from the jihadis in Iraq, and back to fighting American-backed rebels in Syria.
The greatest threat to American interests in the region is ISIS, not Mr. Assad. To fight this enemy, Mr. Obama needs to call on others similarly threatened: Iran, Russia, Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, Jordan, Turkey—and above all, the political leader with the best-armed forces in the region, Mr. Assad. Part of the deal would need to be that the Syrian regime and the rebels largely leave each other alone.
It’s ugly in Syria and Iraq (and, as we shall see, the Obama administration seems to want to make the war in Syria worse), but there’s been some good news out of Syria this week: the joint US-Russian plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has worked—to the chagrin, no doubt, of the hawks and neoconservatives who said it wouldn’t. We’ll wait for their apology, right after they apologize for the war in Iraq.
Here’s an excerpt of the press release from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with the task:
A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour. … The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
In an editorial titled “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” The New York Times says:
Less than a year ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his forces were sporadically using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the civil war. Today, the stockpile that he grudgingly admitted to under international pressure is gone. … President Obama’s critics excoriated the deal, but they have been proved wrong. The chemical weapons are now out of the hands of a brutal dictator—and all without firing a shot.
A feature article in The Washington Post makes it clear that the incredibly difficult logistics of locating, packing up, transporting (through a war zone) and loading onto ships of all XXX was done with the cooperation of not only the United States and Russia, plus the Syrian government, but Iran, too:
The Iranians, [Sigrid Kaag, who heads the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW] said, provided technical advice. “They obviously lived through a terrible chemical weapons experience themselves,” when the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein made liberal use of chemicals during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “They see themselves as quite committed to eliminating the use of chemical weapons anywhere. “They’ve also been helpful to us in contacts with Syrian authorities . . . in amplifying our messages, validating our approach,” Kaag said.
Some of the idiots who said it “couldn’t be done” include Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, former Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, neocon scribbler Peter Feaver, right-wing Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the reliable neoconservative skeptics at the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Iraq war architect Douglas Feith, the usual suspects at the “thinktank” called the Foreign Policy Initiative (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman) and, well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, weirdly, Secretary of State John Kerry seems intent to sending more aid to the supposed moderates of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The right strategy, given that the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gobbling up territory in both countries, would be halt aid to the anti-Assad forces, since that would free up Assad’s military to go after ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. But, as the Associated Press reports, the Syrian “moderates” are hopelessly disorganized and outgunned. The Los Angeles Times reports “deep divisions, clashing rivalries and considerable disarray within the Syrian National Coalition.” Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? It’s time to surrender in the Syrian war.
At the end of the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film, Fargo, the intrepid law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) famously addresses the less-than-competent bad guy after she’s arrested him:
And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
One might say the same thing about the less-than-competent bad guy who is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin: And for what? What, exactly, has Putin accomplished by stoking fires in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, mobilizing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, backing thuggish separatists who’ve created ersatz “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, bringing economic sanctions down on Russia, and destroying whatever good will Russia had built up by hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics? Well. I just don’t understand it.
There’s reason to be optimistic, of course, that the fighting in Ukraine will wind down, that an accord will be reached, and that the surprise talks between Kiev and at least some of the rebels will succeed.
But the entire crisis might have been avoided if Russia hadn’t gotten its britches in an uproar just because Ukraine—run, by the way, back in 2013 by a corrupt but mostly pro-Russian wheeler-dealer—wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For most Ukrainians, linking up with the EU was a no-brainer—after all, what Ukrainian in his right mind, if that mind weren’t clouded by pro-Russian political or religious ideology, would prefer to tie Ukraine’s economy to the crumbling Russian one and its powerful economic alliance with, well, Kazakhstan? Now, after all the hubbub, the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko—far less pro-Russian than his predecessor, though still a wheeler-dealer and probably corrupt—says that he’ll sign an association agreement with the EU on June 27.
Of course, none of that means that the Ukraine crisis is over, just yet. For reasons that remain unclear, in terms of what he can accomplish, Putin is still apparently keeping the flame of rebellion in eastern Ukraine flickering, even secretly supplying the rebels there with a limited number of tanks and heavy weapons. The Kremlin is still making a fuss about the idea of Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, and Russia can create trouble in breakaway mini-republics in all three countries. Still, it seems obvious that every move that Putin has made has backfired, blown up in his face, and made things worse for him—except, perhaps, at home, where Putin has rallied ultranationalists, ex-CPSU types and the religious right to his side. But by creating a crisis over Ukraine, Putin has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches into relations between Russia and both Europe and the United States, allowed Washington to pressure the Europeans to increase military spending, strengthened advocates of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, given hawks new leverage in the United States against President Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, and more. Way to go, Vlad!
As The Washington Post, in reporting the new efforts between the EU and the three eastern European nations, noted:
Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating. The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.
Putin, who’s blinked and blinked again during the crisis, is sending mixed signals, and it’s unclear if and how he’ll react to the EU signings. On one hand, he’s been speaking regularly with Poroshenko—yesterday, together with the leaders of Germany and France—and he’s endorsed the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks between Kiev and the rebels. And in a symbolic act—though not a practical one—Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to withdraw its authorization for Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, however, the Russians have apparently moved military units back to the Ukrainian border, after having withdrawn most of them earlier, and according to US officials Russia is allowing some heavy weapons, including tanks, to move across the border into the rebels’ hands. Worse, the rebels seem to have gotten their hands on some sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, which they’ve used to deadly effect.
So what is Putin trying to accomplish, given everything that the Ukraine crisis has cost him? Despite some fears that Russia wanted to swallow Ukraine whole, à la Crimea—never a likely outcome—it seems obvious that Putin is in part trapped by and in part fueling the almost romantic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine. Is it to create a mini-state inside Ukraine that will weaken Kiev and give Russia leverage over the country? Is it something else? Time will tell.
Read Next: Did the Obama-Putin encounter help ease the Ukraine crisis?
How weird, weird, weird is the Iraq-Syria civil war? Well, consider this: not only is the United States increasingly involved in military support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-sectarian government, but it finds itself in direct military alliance not only with Iran but with Syria, too.
Unlike the United States, which supports the Baghdad government against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq but supports ISIS’ allies in the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran strongly backs both Maliki and Assad. Now Syria, which is battling not only ISIS but other Islamist fanatics in Syria who have US and Saudi support, is intervening militarily in Iraq in support of Maliki! According to the Associated Press:
A US official says there are indications Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq yesterday to slow the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.… The US official said the strikes appear to be the work of the Assad government but offered no other details.
Meanwhile, The New York Times today carries an extensive account of Iran’s military support for the government of Iraq, including massive arms shipments, surveillance drones and military advisers:
Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
Rather hilariously, the Times quotes that noted geopolitical strategist, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) saying, “The Iranians are playing in a big way in Iraq.” Well, duh, senator: Iran has been active in Iraqi politics, military affairs, economics and intelligence since long before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the United States topped Iran’s chief enemy and handed Iraq over to the control of Shiite groups closely affiliated with Iran since the 1980s.
Running the show in Iraq for Iran is General Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its foreign intelligence arm. Soleimani is the coordinator of Iranian support for both Syria and Iraq against ISIS as well as against other Sunni-led forces supported by Saudi Arabia. And, according to the Times, Soleimani is less willing than some of Iran’s political leaders to cooperate with the United States. Indeed, those who believe that the United States can work with Iran in Iraq while opposing Iran in Syria ought to have their heads examined. The Iraq-Syria crisis is now a single war, and one can’t end without the other. That means that Washington has to sit down with Tehran to discuss Iraq and Syria simultaneously. And since the United States isn’t part of the neighborhood, Iran’s interests in the region—in having a nonthreatening, Iran-leaning government in Iraq and an ally in Syria that can work with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon—are paramount. Long distance, there’s not a lot that the United States can do about any of this, other than to seek a diplomatic accord among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that takes into account all three countries’ strategic needs.
Inside Iraq, a new political coalition could conceivably emerge to replace Maliki with a broader, more unifying government that could appeal to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But it’s hard to see that happening until the various parties test the limits of what they can win on the ground. The ISIS forces are every day getting more support from Sunni tribal military councils and the Baath party, especially in the battle for control of Iraq’s main oil refinery/power plant complex, while Maliki is falling back on Iranian support and on uncontrollable Shiite militias, including forces led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, the greedy Kurds—taking advantage of Baghdad’s weakness—have seized control of Kirkuk and no doubt plan further expansionism on the way to their imagined, but impossible, “independent Kurdistan.” (It’s sad to see The Nation publishing outright Kurdish propaganda, too.)
As long as Iraqi factions believe that they can win by fighting, the war will go on. In the end, perhaps some accord can be reached by which Iraq holds together, but that will depend on serious outreach by Baghdad to Sunnis (including the Baath party) and Kurds.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss, on the folly of helping Iraq’s shattered army.
As the joint civil war in Iraq and Syria expands—and now Israel has joined the fight—Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Baghdad to do, well, what exactly?
Let’s give Dick Cheney credit for saying the obvious: that by sending 300 American special forces to Iraq, nearly three years after the United States pulled the last of its forces out, Washington is trying to do long-distance with a handful of troops what it had initially thought to do with 20,000-plus residual forces. (That was the level proposed by the US military in 2011, far beyond what President Obama would accept and, in any case, 20,000-plus more than the number that Maliki might accept, which was zero.)
So now the United States proposes “intense and sustained” help for Iraq, says Kerry—maybe including airstrikes. But can the Iraqi armed forces, which suffered a breathtaking collapse after the start of the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), be saved? Maybe not. In today’s newspapers, all three major US dailies—The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, take long, sad looks at the state of Iraq’s hollowed-out, politicized and demoralized security forces. It’s not a pretty picture.
The Times calls Iraq’s army a “defeated force.” It quotes US officials who say that five of Iraq’s fourteen army divisions—including the two overrun in days in Mosul—are “combat ineffective,” and it cites a thinktank official who says that sixty of the 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot be accounted for, and all their equipment is lost.” (Much of the materiel, of course, is now in the hands of ISIS.) Adds the Times, “morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.” Much of the corruption, of course, starts with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who replaced semi-competent commanders, many US-trained, with loyal but wildly corrupt and incompetent Shiite officers.
The Post, in a deeply pessimistic story, says that the Iraqi army faces “psychological collapse.” Quoting former US Ambassador James Jeffrey—who cites “sycophantic generals,” low morale and a sectarian Shiite volunteer force as key problems—the Post adds:
The crisis in the armed forces is a result of corruption, poor leadership and intelligence, and severe inattention to training, said a former US adviser to the Iraqi armed forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Those problems have turned what was a functioning military when US troops withdrew in 2011 into an “empty shell that is resorting to a call to arms of men and boys off the street,” he said. He added that the scale of the reverses this month has been “catastrophic.”
Says the Post, the Iraqi army is “bleak,” “in shambles” and “will take years to restructure.”
Meanwhile, a pair of articles in The Wall Street Journal build on this theme. The first, titled, “Iraq Army’s Ability to Fight Raises Worry,” reports:
Across the military US military personnel found the Iraqis were failing to properly maintain equipment. Training standards have declined sharply from 2011, when US military forces advised Iraqi units.
And it says that the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul fled so quickly in part because they believed that the city would have risen up against them, in support of ISIS and its allies—including Sunni tribal militias and the forces led by the Baath party. Like many other sources, the Journal also suggests that the commanding officers of the Iraqi forces in Mosul and other parts of the north and west either sold the territory to ISIS and its allies or were otherwise complicit in the takeover. (Maliki, while recruiting thousands of Shiite-sectarian volunteers now, is planning show trials of commanders.)
A second Journal piece, recounting a secret 2013 US effort to aid Iraq’s military, says that the United States tried to build a “fusion intelligence” center in Iraq last year, but it failed in part because of Iraqi resistance to the idea. And the article reports shock at the highest levels of the US government when the scope of Iraq’s military crisis emerged months ago:
Administration and congressional officials say the US also miscalculated the readiness of Iraqi forces: The White House’s limited investment in the intelligence center was driven at least in part by the assumption that Iraqi forces would be more competent, the official said. Then, at the end of April, the Pentagon dispatched a team of special-operations personnel to assess the capabilities of Iraq’s security forces, a defense official said. The assessment they brought back was bleak: Sunni Army officers had been forced out, overall leadership had declined, the Iraqi military wasn’t maintaining its equipment and had stopped conducting rigorous training. The response in Washington, summed up by a senior US official, was: “Whoa, what the hell happened here?”
That phrase—“whoa, what the hell happened here?”—could be the mantra for the entire US involvement in Iraq. The utter collapse of the Iraqi armed forces is so bad that it raises serious questions about Obama’s supposed option of launching drone attacks and other airstrikes against ISIS forces in the north. It’s obvious that Iraq’s problem is political, not military, and so Kerry’s haphazard effort to reconstitute a new Iraqi government may be the only (long-term) way out of the crisis. Building a new Iraqi government that is inclusive of Sunnis, rather than launching a political war against them, and which negotiates a new accord with the Kurds in the northeast, is the only way to stabilize Iraq. But Kerry—who’s been meeting with a wide range of Iraqi politicians—can’t do it himself, and he’ll need to get buy-in from Iran and other neighbors of Iraq. Meanwhile, Maliki’s effort to recruit Shiite militiamen for his shattered army will only create more sympathy for ISIS and its Sunni allies across Anbar and other parts of Iraq. (The same goes for American airstrikes, which will be seen as using US firepower on behalf of the Shiites, not Iraq.)
It’ll get a lot worse before it gets better.
Read Next: Obama sets the US on a slippery slope to war in Iraq.
President Obama’s statement and answers to questions at a mini–news conference at the White House yesterday—and you can read the whole transcript at the White House’s site—signals a major shift by the United States on Iraq, which Obama has been trying to forget since 2011. And it’s s sign—as I’ve argued repeatedly here and as The Washington Post reported in a separate piece today, noting that the administration “has begun to consider the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge”—that the civil war in Syria and the civil war in Iraq have become one. But it’s a crisis that needs a political-diplomatic response, and not a military one. Unfortunately, Obama is doing both, and that’s not good.
On one hand, the president is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe, the Middle East and Baghdad in a diplomatic push, and the United States is signaling to all of Iraq’s political factions that it favors getting rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and creating a government of national unity there. Because doing so means getting buy-ins from Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, accomplishing that will require some intricate diplomatic maneuvering, and finding a replacement for Maliki—who won’t go easily—will be very, very difficult. (Believe it or not, there’s even talk that Maliki might be replaced by that wily wheeler-dealer Ahmad Chalabi, though he’s likely no one’s first or second choice.)
But, on the other hand, Obama has set into motion actions likely to expand the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT, “rhymes with jihad”) from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa deep into Iraq, too, with drones and airstrikes. In his announcement that he’s sending an additional 300 US forces to Iraq, the president made it clear that the US military is getting ready to target the bad guys of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the air. He said that the United States has “significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq [and] positioned additional US military assets in the region.” And he added ominously, “Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with [ISIS]. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action.”
Worse, it seems clear that the United States is also considering a significant expansion of military support to Syria’s “moderate” rebels in the civil war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and in this context the president cited his just-announced $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.” Never mind that, in fact, the United States is thus on both sides of the same war, fighting Sunni rebels in Iraq and supporting them in Syria. (Both Iran and Saudi Arabia exhibit no such schizophrenic behavior, with Iran backing the governments in Baghdad and Damascus and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels, though not ISIS, in both Syria and Iraq.) The real problem with bombing ISIS is that there’s no way to avoid civilian casualties, which will increase Sunni tribal and Baathist support—already strong—for the ISIS-led offensive. And unless a new government of national unity, inclusive of Sunnis, comes into power tout de suite in Baghdad, the United States will be going to war on Maliki’s behalf, and jointly with Iran, against Iraq’s Sunni minority—or at least that’s how it will be seen by those on both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide.
On the diplomatic front, Obama made it pretty clear that he’s calling for regime change in Iraq—“a new government should convene as soon as possible”—and that Kerry’s mission is designed to foster that:
The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners. And just as all Iraq’s neighbors must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists.
Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds—all Iraqis—must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities. Now that the results of Iraq’s recent election has been certified, a new parliament should convene as soon as possible. The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
And Obama signaled to Iran that Tehran can help stabilize Iraq:
Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive and that if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected. If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation and the prospect for government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term.
Indeed, since the beginning of the ISIS offensive Iran has said repeatedly that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds need to work together against ISIS. On the other hand, Iran will exercise its veto power over the next prime minister of Iraq, which means that someone like Ayad Allawi—the secular Shiite who has lots of Sunni support—won’t be named. And just as the United States is getting involved militarily in Iraq, Iran is already deeply engaged with Iraq’s armed forces and Shiite militia, and General Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force has been visiting Baghdad to explore how Iran might get even more involved.
The action by Obama is something ordered up by neoconservatives, however, but by pro-military, liberal interventionists inside the administration. Outside the administration, they’re allied with people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security, both Democratic-leaning. (It’s especially ironic to see the Center of American Progress and its chief national security analyst, Brian Katulis, supporting airstrikes in Iraq, having led the charge in 2008 for the United States to withdraw unilaterally from Iraq.)
At yesterday’s news conference, Jim Acosta, evidently a dim bulb, stupidly asked Obama if he had any “regrets” about his “decision” to leave Iraq in 2011, picking up on a nonsensical trope from neocons and Dick Cheney who accuse Obama of abandoning Iraq when the last US forces pulled out back then. Did Acosta not know that the decision to pull the troops out in 2011 was made by President George W. Bush in 2008, and that in fact Obama—disappointing his antiwar base—tried to extend that deadline, but that Iraq said no? Anyway, Obama set him straight. Here’s the full exchange:
Q Just very quickly, do you wish you had left a residual force in Iraq? Any regrets about that decision in 2011?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government. We offered a modest residual force to help continue to train and advise Iraqi security forces. We had a core requirement which we require in any situation where we have US troops overseas, and that is, is that they’re provided immunity since they’re being invited by the sovereign government there, so that if, for example, they end up acting in self-defense if they are attacked and find themselves in a tough situation, that they’re not somehow hauled before a foreign court. That’s a core requirement that we have for US troop presence anywhere.
The Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki declined to provide us that immunity. And so I think it is important though to recognize that, despite that decision, that we have continued to provide them with very intensive advice and support and have continued throughout this process over the last five years to not only offer them our assistance militarily, but we’ve also continued to urge the kinds of political compromises that we think are ultimately necessary in order for them to have a functioning, multi-sectarian democracy inside the country.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to fix the Iraq crisis
It’s appropriate that two of the leading liberal interventionists, both of whom have served in prominent positions in Barack Obama’s administration—are named Power and Slaughter.
Samantha Power, of course, is Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and a leading advocate of using American force overseas, especially when in her opinion civilian casualties can be exaggerated as “genocide.” And Anne-Marie Slaughter, long a foreign policy insider and currently head of the New America Foundation, served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning at the State Department (2009–11). Back in 2011, Power and Slaughter joined Clinton and a handful of White House aides in supporting the US military action to topple Muammar Qaddafi, an action that turned that country into a warring mosaic of militias, terrorists and freelance warlords.
So it’s not surprising that in today’s New York Times, the influential Slaughter issues a clarion call for US military action in both Iraq and Syria. In the piece, “Don’t Fight in Iraq and Ignore Syria,” Slaughter asks what the United States can do about the twin crises, concluding that the answer “may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries.” And she says that the United States should ignore and go outside the United Nations if the UN Security Council won’t authorize action. Arrogantly, she says:
If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power. This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.
So, like the hawks and neoconservatives of the Republican party, Slaughter is blaming Obama for the crisis, since if he acted with force “two years ago” everything in Iraq and Syria would be dandy.
It’s certainly true, as I’ve argued in this space, that the wars in Syria and Iraq have become a single conflict. But the conflict is a regional one, pitting Saudi proxies and allies against Iranian ones, in a war that is both sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite) and a geopolitical, state-vs.-state struggle for regional hegemony. But the solution is political and diplomatic, not military. (Indeed, in Syria the government of President Bashar al-Assad has turned the tide, and he’s winning that war, while in Iraq—after huge setbacks and shock in Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to rally his sectarian Shiite base and recapture cities seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
To ease the crisis, as I wrote yesterday, President Obama ought to wind down US support for Syria’s rebels, who are dominated by Islamists, ISIS and Al Qaeda, thus freeing up Assad’s forces to concentrate on ISIS-held territory in Syria’s north and west. And as The New York Times says in an editorial today, Turkey “should shut its border to militants and to materiel flowing into Syria and Iraq.” That would go far to deprive the Syrian rebels, of all stripes, of the oxygen that they need to fight Assad.
And then the president should order a round-robin of diplomacy with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get them to use their vast influence inside Iraq to end the war there. Most likely, that would involve working with Iraq’s kaleidoscope of political players to settle on a replacement for Maliki, someone who could credibly brings Sunni political leaders into government and strike a workable accord with the Kurds, who’ve carved out a fiefdom in northeast Iraq.
It does appear that Obama, egged on no doubt by liberal-interventionist advisers such as Slaughter and Power, will use limited airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS. It’s possible, still, that the White House will decide against such action, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that Maliki has no intention of heeding the Obama’s demand that he become more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, Maliki is rallying Shiites to his side, even those who might have joined Sunnis and Kurds to push him aside as factions jockey in the wake of the recent elections in Iraq. Even the Times, in its editorial (“A Balancing Act on Iraq”), acknowledges that Obama may well carry out military action against ISIS.
Need we add that countless hawks of the conservative and right-wing variety agree with Slaughter? Says The Wall Street Journal today, in its own editorial:
[Obama’s] abdication on Syria created a mecca for jihadists and his total withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum for regional sectarians and Iran to fill. Mr. Obama could still save Mr. Maliki and reclaim US influence with a diplomatic and military intervention of the kind that Danielle Pletka and Jack Keane laid out in these pages on Tuesday. But if would have to be a large enough intervention to convince Mr. Maliki that it was worth making political compromises with his Kurdish and Sunni opponents.
Pletka and Keane, by the way, call for interdiction bombing against ISIS, providing air cover for an Iraqi offensive, US coordination with Iraqi ground forces, and the use of US Special Forces to guide the Iraqi action.
According to The New York Times, Obama is “considering a targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants …most likely using drones.” But, the Times adds, such strikes would be difficult to carry out, in part because the United States has poor intelligence about ISIS, and so the White House is primarily focused on a “political solution” and “diplomatic options.”
Given the pressure from the GOP hawks and the echoes from Slaughter and Co., it’s a good sign that a fair number of liberals and Democrats in Congress and the establishment are urging Obama to stay out. Today, Obama meets with the four leaders of the Senate and the House, to brief them on the Iraq crisis. The McClatchy story on that meeting, which takes place mid-afternoon on Wednesday, includes the following intelligent comment from Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat:
The president should be wary of calls to intervene militarily through an air campaign that will not affect the strategic balance on the battlefield, and is as likely to alienate the local population as it is to accomplish any tactical objective.… Our limited intelligence and the civilian nature of the battle space make the use of our air power even more problematic.… We do not want to be perceived as siding with Shia over Sunnis in another increasingly sectarian conflict, which would inevitably be the case if we should unintentionally cause Sunni civilian casualties.
And as The Hill reports, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to another US adventure in Iraq, by a margin of 74-16. (The poll addressed only the question of sending US troops, not airstrikes.)
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to fix the Iraq crisis.
It’s still possible that the United States will use airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al Qaeda offshoot whose surprise seizure of Mosul and a string of other cities in Iraq has left devastation, chaos and mass executions in its wake. But since President Obama has said, pretty much explicitly, that he won’t defend the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unless Maliki reconciles with the Sunnis and Kurds and becomes more inclusive, and since Maliki isn’t likely to do so, there doesn’t seem to be much of an opening for the United States to act militarily in his defense.
In any case, in the short term Maliki probably doesn’t need Washington’s help. (Not that US airstrikes would help: they’d cause many civilian casualties, inflame the Sunnis against the United States and embolden Maliki to continue his sectarian course.) Maliki can count on getting whatever help he needs from Iran, which is next door, has a strong interest in crushing the Sunni revolt in both Iraq and Syria and has ready-made militias in Iraq who are already mobilizing to defend Baghdad and Shiite shrines in Samarra, Najaf and Karbala. Many of them are religious fanatics, equal in their zeal to the Sunni fanatics of ISIS, and the first signs of sectarian, tit-for-tat massacres are already emerging. As in 2006, things in Iraq will probably get very ugly, very fast.
The central irony of the joint Iraq-Syria civil war—and it has, indeed, become a single war now—is that the United States is on both sides of the war. In Iraq, the United States supports Maliki. In Syria, the United States backs the Islamist rebels who are battling President Bashar al-Assad. (Iran shows no such signs of schizophrenia, and it supports the governments in both Baghdad and Damascus.) And while it’s wrong to blame Obama for leaving Iraq too soon, in 2011—that schedule was set by President Bush in 2008, and Obama tried to extend the deadline but failed—it’s certainly legitimate to blame Obama’s support for the anti-Assad rebels for helping to strengthen and intensify ISIS military force in both countries.
So the first thing that Obama could do to blunt the ISIS offensive in Iraq is to stop American support for the Syrian rebels. The Obama administration hasn’t figured it out quite yet, but Assad has already won that war, and the rebels have lost. Even so, ISIS and its radical, Al Qaeda–linked allies control parts of Syria’s north and east, and by ending American (and Saudi) support for the anti-Assad forces, it might free up enough Syrian troops to head north and east and crush ISIS et al. Meanwhile, the United States can try to work with Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia to negotiate a political deal in Syria.
If any deal in Syria is to happen, and the same goes for Iraq, the essential element is a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As I’ve written before, the Syria-Iraq civil war is a proxy war pitting Iran and its Shiite-Alawite coalition, including Hezbollah, against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni bloc, including Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, remnants of the Iraqi Baath party and Syria’s majority Sunni population. Obviously, Maliki’s intransigent refusal to deal fairly with Iraq’s Sunnis and Assad’s dictatorial refusal to accommodate Syria’s own Sunni-led opposition both generates radicalism among the region’s Sunnis and creates recruits for extremists such as ISIS and the Al Nusra Front in Syria.
How would a détente help? Iran could twist Assad’s arm to force him, newly re-elected, to negotiate a government of national unity in Syria, bringing in some of the opposition forces (though not the terrorists). And Saudi Arabia could help isolate the terrorists, such as ISIS and Al Nusra, along with some of the egregious hotheads among the Qatar-backed Syrian militants, and persuade them to sit down with Assad at a Geneva-style peace conference. It could take years for that to work, but the first step could be a cease-fire, and that could happen a lot more quickly. So that’s Syria.
In Iraq, Maliki is probably not capable of leading a peaceful transition. He’s a hated figure. But Iran, with vast influence among the Shiites, could find another candidate who’d agree to succeed him and who’d reach out to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militias. Iran doesn’t want to “own” Iraq, it just wants an Iraq that doesn’t threaten Iran à la Saddam, in which the Sunnis are contained and the Kurds neutralized. As for Saudi Arabia and Turkey, they’d have to pave the way for the Sunnis in Iraq to accept a new Iraqi prime minister, who’d give them a proper share of Iraq’s oil wealth and adequate prestige and recognition. That, too, could take several years, and many thousands of Iraqis are going to die before ISIS is exhausted and is destroyed.
Weirdly enough, the United States is talking to Iran about some sort of cooperation in Iraq. (Not so in Syria: there, the United States is escalating its military opposition to the pro-Iran government in Damascus.) Since 2003, Iran has held the high cards in Iraq, even during the US occupation, by virtue of its close ties to Maliki’s Al Dawa party, to Ahmed Chalabi, to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and other anti-Saddam Shiite groups. Now Iran has close ties to powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Badr Organization, which was founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as SCIRI’s own private army. Lately, the head of the IRGC’s Al Quds force has been in Baghdad, working out anti-ISIS strategy with Maliki.