As Americans watched the World Cup soccer games, the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the interesting but less exciting nomination battles leading up to the 2014 congressional elections, there was a strange lack of serious discussion about yet another significant regional political and military crisis. The breakdown of political order in the Middle East which initiated the “Arab Spring” overthrew the old order of authoritarian governments in Tunisia Egypt, Libya, and Egypt and falsely heralded, as the media inspired label implies, a new Middle Eastern paradigm of representative government and nascent democracy. But the reality of tribal and sectarian conflict killed democracy in its crib and naïve Western visions of new national unity in these states vaporized in as the internal conflicts became more violent. Nowhere was historic reality more ignored than in Iraq and Afghanistan where the wartime strategies of the U.S. and an array of allies, morphed into a hopeless belief in “nation building”.
The failure of the “elected” government in Iraq to address the severe sectarian divide in terms of political inclusion and the benefits which flow from the central authority, left the state in a tinder box condition. In simple terms, the Shi’ite majority felt no responsibility towards the Sunni minority which had enjoyed power and privilege for decades under the reign of Saddam Hussein.
The Sunni minority expressed their opposition to the Shi’ite government by almost daily bomb attacks on government facilities, police and civilian Shi’ite populations after the American withdrawal , but the tinder box was lit by the civil war which broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011 after peaceful protests similar to the Arab Spring revolts were put down by military force. The resulting militarization of the conflict resulted in the fragmentation of the forces opposed to Bashar Assad’s government. Once again the conflict is based on sectarian divisions. The Assad regime is a minority Alawite government which represents only 12% of the Syrian population. The rest are predominately Sunni’s. Alawites are a sect with theological connections to Shi’ism and thus Assad found support from Shi’ite Iran.
The Sunni based opposition forces attracted militant extremists from across the Middle East who formed separate and competing armed militias.
Thus the Syrian conundrum faced by President Obama was whether to supply military aid to the insurgency which might then fall into the hands of extremists groups who would then represent a threat to regional stability, or to stand by and let the Assad regime continue its brutal suppression of the insurgency and the civilian population. Obama’s indecisiveness and ineptness in the early stages of the revolt when “moderate” Sunni forces were leading the effort, no doubt contributed to the escalation of the violence and the radicalization of the opposition forces. Obama’s famous “red line” threat and retreat in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons on the civilian population turned the conflict first into a stalemate and then into the government’s advantage. This early equivocation allowed Russia’s President Putin to score a diplomatic coup by negotiating a phased removal of Assad’s chemical stock pile. It thus encouraged the regionalization of the war by bringing in radical Islamist elements and energizing the domestic radical Sunnis.
Now the most radical Sunni militias whose extremism exceeds the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have coalesced into a quasi-military force which has gained control of important sections of northern Sysria and have spread across the western border of Iraq. It has declared itself a modern version of the 7th Century Islamic caliphate which swept across the Middle East.
As preposterous as this sounds, the underlying facts of such an extremist group gaining control of large sections of Syria and Iraq presents serious problems for other states in the region and for the expansion of international terrorism.
The magnified threat this group poses is based on the differences between it and its former affiliation with the terrorist Al-Qaeda network which has evolved into loosely affiliated separate terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which now has become The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) then the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL); and which now has taken the name of simply The Islamic State. Unlike AQI, the Islamic State has defined itself as a regional political entity. It seeks control of trans-national territory and has had significant success in northern Syria and most dramatically in Iraq.
The chronology of its success is striking:
In March, 2013 it occupied the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa.
In January 2014 it took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Since then it has partially occupied the Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi.
On June 10, 2014, Iraq’s third largest city Mosul fell to ISIS.
Currently, the forces of the Islamic State are within 50 miles of the capital of Baghdad.
A failure of the current Shi’ite government in Iraq and the occupation of large portions of the nation by the Islamic State would produce a multi-party civil war between the radical Islamists, the Shi’ite majority, tribal based Sunnis and the Kurds who currently control the Northeast portion of Iraq.
This is the medium term bad news. In the longer term, a successful consolidation of the Islamic State in northern Syria and Iraq would present the Western world with another terrorist state with significant oil based wealth. The inherent regional instability this would cause would stimulate irregular energy markets including higher prices as well as security threats. The Islamic State’s publicly announced regional territorial ambitions should be taken seriously. After consolidation in Syria and Iraq it should be expected that the more moderate and Western oriented governments of Syria’s border states Lebanon and Jordan would be at risk.
The Islamic State’s military is not exceptionally large but it is well equipped with weapons, captured from Syria and U.S. weapons provided to and captured from, the Iraqi military. While assistance to the current government in Iraq is problematic the fundamental issue is one of supporting the lessor evil. It is widely recognized that the vulnerability of Iraq is partially due to the unwillingness of the Maliki government to extend participation and equity to the large but minority Sunni population. This has caused an attitude of indifference or actual support among this population for the Islamic State’s forces as they move south across Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki is being pressured by the U.S. and elements of the international community to form a more inclusive government or even to resign but so far has resisted both efforts. However these are medium term political efforts which will take time to produce any positive effect. The military occupation of more and more Iraqi territory won’t wait for difficult political solutions.
As usual in international security crises, European nations are indecisive and lack the initiative to take robust action, preferring to let the U.S. take the lead. This allows them political cover from any backlash by Islamic entities and domestic political cover from potential casualties or large defense expenditures. Unfortunately, President Obama prefers to “lead from behind”, an oxymoron which in this case translates into doing the minimum and hoping for some unforeseen positive outcome. While nobody is leading from the front, and the Islamic State advances on Baghdad, he has emphatically stated that American ground troops will not be reintroduced into Iraq. This is typical Obama rhetoric since no credible member of Congress has suggested such a response. Instead, Obama’s response is simply political posturing.
At a recent news conference Obama outlined his “response” to the military crisis in Iraq.
“As I said last week, ISIL poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to U.S. interests. So today I wanted to provide you an update on how we’re responding to the situation.’
First, we are working to secure our embassy and personnel operating inside of Iraq.
Second, at my direction, we have significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq.
Third, the United States will continue to increase our support to Iraqi security forces. We’re prepared to create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL. Through our new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, we’re prepared to work with Congress to provide additional equipment. We have had advisors in Iraq through our embassy, and we’re prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisors -- up to 300 -- to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.
Fourth, in recent days, we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region. Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it. If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region.
I want to emphasize, though, that the best and most effective response to a threat like ISIL will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces, like Iraqis, take the lead.
Finally, the United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq.
In summary, President Obama’s response to the creation of a radical Islamist state in parts of Syria and Iraq is to; protect the U.S. embassy; increase reconnaissance; send 300 “advisors” to “train and support” the Iraqi army after eight years of training and equipping that very army; send an additional aircraft carrier and two cruisers to the Persian Gulf in what is essentially a “show the flag” exercise since it is highly doubtful that Obama will commit manned aircraft to the conflict.
The IS forces are highly mobile and moving quickly. While it is true that it will be up to the recently ineffectual Iraqi military to ultimately defeat the insurgency, the use of armed drones or U.S. tactical aircraft would be a significant help and provide an important motivational boost to the Iraqi forces who are struggling with a lack of commitment and poor leadership. Air support has once again been criticized as too dangerous to civilians who may be intermingled with the IS forces. However, the IS forces must travel by road between cities and regions where they are exposed. Civilian populations should not be expected to sit by during battles in populated areas, intermingling with combatants. Air controllers on the ground and precision ordnance could be expected to minimize civilian casualties while providing the one major advantage to government forces fighting the insurgency.
Calls for “diplomacy” as a strategy make little sense since the IS has nothing to negotiate. They are successful aggressors motivated by an intransigent religious ideology to accomplish a single goal; an Islamic caliphate stretching across the Middle East.
The “Arab Spring” has died. The region is in chaos in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa only being the most obvious cases. Iran continues to meddle in the Syrian and Iraq conflicts while it stalls serious negotiations on it’s nuclear weapons program. (Obama has just granted another in a series of extensions for the resumption of negotiations, taking the process well into the Fall of 2014.) Another terrorist state in the region, even one without well defined borders would be disastrous for regional and world security. Special envoy to the Middle East and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained the situation quite clearly:
“It is in our interests for this jihadist extremist group to be stopped in its tracks. I understand entirely why people say ‘it is nothing to do with us and I don’t want to hear about it’.”
But he said the Jihadis “are not simply fighting Iraqis and they are also willing to fight us and they will if we don’t stop them”.
“It is vitally important that we realize what is at stake here and act. We are going to have to engage with it or the consequences will come back on us as we see in Syria today.
“The best policy for us to realize that whatever form of intervention we choose is going to be difficult but it’s better than the alternative. You do not need to engage as we did in Afghanistan or Iraq, but we do have interests in this.”
Obama should take a strong position on the situation and show some leadership without worrying about purely political consequences.