Ending the Syrian Civil War.

Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?[1]

Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.

Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.

The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.

What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.

What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.

[1] “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.

Ayatollah Cola.

It is a subject of some controversy exactly what President Obama hoped to get from the July 2015 agreement with Iran. Did he merely hope to avoid or postpone launching another great war in the Middle East? If so, he appears to have succeeded (for now) and a war-weary country owes him a debt of gratitude.[1] Did he hope that an agreement and an end to economic sanctions would open Iran to outside influences, prompting younger Iranians to press for political liberalization?[2] If so, he appears to be in for disappointment, at least over the short-term.

One of the big dogs in this fight is the Revolutionary Guards. Without wishing to engage in inflammatory rhetoric, the Revolutionary Guards (RG) might be analogized to the SS. They are an elite fighting force; they are the guardians of the ideological purity of the country; and they have made a good thing out of their revolutionary purity. The RG have built up a business empire that includes telecommunications, banking, construction, and the luxury goods imports that are not available to ordinary Iranians. Trade and political liberalization would be death to the RG.[3]

In a nutshell, Iran bowed before the pressure exerted on it by an American-led coalition over many years.[4] Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reluctantly approved the deal. The agreement doesn’t feel like much of a victory to Americans, but it feels like a defeat to some Iranians. The opponents of the deal included the Revolutionary Guards.

Having suffered one defeat, these conservative forces have sought to reassert their fundamental anti-Western positions in other areas. They understand the game that President Obama has been playing. They take it far more seriously than do the president’s Republican and Israeli (but I repeat myself) critics. Partly, the government has used allegations of Western espionage to imprison the Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian and to arrest five Iranian journalists.[5] Partly, the Supreme Leader has banned negotiations with the Americans on any other issues. Partly, in partnership with the Russians, Iran has increased its support for the embattled Assad regime in Syria.

For the moment, having won something big, the moderates are in no position to mount an effective resistance. President Hassan Rouhani, who is presented to the West as a pragmatic moderate, has been keeping his head down.

The deal isn’t a “done” deal. It could still slide off the road. The International Atomic Authority Agency (IAEA) was supposed to report on previous efforts to build a nuclear weapon in December 2015. The Iranians have refused to co-operate and the inquiry is stalled. Iran is scheduled to cut its stockpile of uranium from 8,300 kilograms to 300 kilograms, and to disconnect most of its enrichment centrifuges by January 2016. If the Iranians refuse to ship their uranium stockpile abroad for safe (for everyone else) keeping, the whole deal could unravel. Meanwhile, elections for the Iranian parliament are scheduled for February 2016 and elections for the American House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency are scheduled for November 2016. In short, things aren’t over yet. This is likely to be a long struggle.

[1] Doesn’t mean the bastards will pay, just that they owe. Maybe he could hire a collection agency? Call everybody up at the dinner hour, lay a guilt trip on them or threaten to repossess their cars in the middle of the night.

[2] There’s a certain comic element here. If you have the misfortune to run across those postings on Facebook by some immoderate conservatives, you’ll often see President Obama denounced as an America-hating (not to mention crypto-Muslim) traitor. Meanwhile, the president has tried to establish increased cultural and economic contact between the United States and Iran and Cuba. His guiding idea appears to be that people in messed-up societies who encounter America will go “Yeah! I want some of that!” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8N2k-gv6xNE or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZy3qzzc9ag

[3] See: Michael Thad Allen, The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[4] “The struggle inside Iran,” The Week, 11 December 2015, p. 11.

[5] If this was happening in the United States, people would call it “McCarthyism.” Quite rightly.

Dilemmas, dilemmas.

America’s involvement in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq has forced Americans to confront all sorts of painful issues. It appears that they have had a hard time reaching a steady conclusion.

America may be the “most powerful nation in the world,” but most Americans don’t want to be part of projecting that power. Ten years ago, two years after the invasion of Iraq, 70 percent of Americans opposed reviving the military draft; 66 percent would attempt to dissuade a daughter from enlisting; 55 percent would attempt to persuade a son not to enlist. On the other hand, 27 percent favored reviving the draft; and 32 percent would encourage a son to enlist.[1]

The means used to wage the war on terror have disturbed Americans. In January 2010, 63 percent of American voters believed that government efforts to combat terrorism were too concerned with protecting the civil rights at the expense of national security.[2] (But the NSA already knew that.)   In early July 2013, 42 percent of Americans had a positive view of Edward Snowden. By mid-July, however, his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent, while 43 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him.[3]

At the end of 2014, 56 percent of Americans believed that torture used by the CIA on captured Al Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists had provided valuable information that helped prevent terrorist attacks. Curiously, only 51 percent of Americans believed that the methods used had been justified. That is, about 5 percent of Americans believed that torture had produced valuable intelligence and still thought it unjustified. Partisan division on this issue matched that on many other issues: 76 percent of Republicans believed the methods were justified compared to 37 percent of Democrats.[4]

In July 2014, just after the dramatic advances made by ISIS in Iraq, 51 percent of Americans laid the crisis at the feet of former President George W. Bush, while 55 percent said that President Barack Obama was doing a poor job of handling the crisis.[5] Even so, a clear majority then opposed intervention, while 39 percent supported it.

In Spring 2015, ISIS outlawed the wearing of “Nike” brand clothing or footwear by its soldiers.[6] In retaliation, the United States began bombing. (The rich man’s IED.) By August 2015, 5,500 American air-strikes against ISIS had killed an estimated 15,000 jihadists. (That’s fewer than three jihadists/air strike. Not exactly cost-efficient, since most of the strikes are launched off carriers in the Arabian Sea.) Moreover, new recruits have filled up the places of many of the dead. Intelligence estimates suggested that ISIS still fielding a force of 20,000 to 30,000 troops.[7] American air-strikes also sought to disrupt, even destroy, the ability of ISIS to pump, transport, and sell oil from wells in Iraq and Syria. Again, the results disappoint. ISIS still earns $50 million a month from covert oil sales.[8]

By mid-August 2015, Americans were having a hard time sorting out the proposed agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. They divided into roughly equal groups between supporters (35 percent), opponents (33 percent), and “don’t know” (32 percent). The divisions within the parties are interesting. While a big block of Democrats (58 percent) support the agreement and a big block of Republicans (60 percent) oppose it, a small share of Democrats (8 percent) oppose it and a small share of Republicans (15 percent) support it. That leaves 34 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans “not sure.”[9]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 19. My best friend from high-school has a son who is an Army Ranger. He has deployed seven times. “Some gave all, most gave none.”

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 January 2010, p. 21.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 July 2013, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 July 2014, p. 15. About half as many (27 percent) blamed President Obama for the crisis.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 16.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 17.

The Iran deal after the shouting.

Once upon a time, Iran signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[1] Under the treaty the development of nuclear power was acceptable, but the pursuit of nuclear weapons was not acceptable.[2] After n1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran pursued a secret program to develop nuclear weapons—not just nuclear power—until 2003. Then the hunt eased up, without entirely stopping. By 2006, Western nations had grown suspicious of Iranian actions, so they slapped on a series of increasingly painful economic sanctions. The vise kept tightening until the Iranians agreed to negotiate with a coalition of powers: the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, the European Community, Russia, and China.

The Iran deal that was recently technically-not-disapproved by Congress does certain things. It does not seek a permanent end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It does try to extend Iran’s “break out” time to a nuclear weapon from the current estimated three months to one year.

What’s the up-side? The agreement imposes controls on Iran for ten to fifteen years. Some of this involves Iran backing away from its current level of development by surrendering 97 percent of the enriched uranium it already possesses, dismantling two-thirds of its existing enrichment centrifuges, and reconstructing its existing heavy water reactor. Some of this involves “intrusive”[3] inspections of Iranian sites all along the supply-chain from mines and centrifuge factories to enrichment facilities.

What’s the down-side? Iran fended-off really intrusive inspections that would have allowed inspectors to look wherever they want. Only certain sites are open to free inspection. Other sites where Iran might seek to reconstitute its program out from under Western eyes can be visited only with Iranian permission. Refusal sets in train an appeals process; rejection of the Iranian position—in theory—triggers a “snap back” of the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Then, the agreement suspends the sanctions regime. Iran stands to earn up to $150 billion a year.

So, this deal will delay the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years. What happens then? Both the Americans and the Iranians are wagering that people in the future will see their best interests clearly. The Obama administration appears to hope that Iranians in the future will see things differently than do members of the revolutionary generation that overthrew the Shah. Iranians appear to be thinking that the survival of the current regime depends on ending sanctions and that the future will take care of itself.

Will Iran try to cheat? Probably, but they are going to have spies all over them thicker than ticks on a hound.

What happens in 2025-2030? The Iranians may rush to “break out.” Or they may not care about nukes anymore. It’s hard to say.

How much confidence should people have in this agreement? Some. However, the opinion polls appear to show that Americans don’t want a big war right now. Give it ten years, and….   Then, neither Russia nor China has an interest in denying nukes to Iran.

So, take the deal, put the clutch down on war for ten to fifteen years, but don’t get confused about the possibility of hitting Iran if things don’t work out.

[1] “The Iran deal,” The Week, 9 October 2015, p. 11.

[2] Yes, there is gross hypocrisy in countries with nukes telling countries without nukes that they can’ t have nukes. Welcome to life.

[3] UN inspectors, video-cameras, and sensors.

The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabism#Afghanistan_jihad

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.

Menagerie a trois.

Many Saudis blame Iran for fomenting the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, fighting in which Sunnis have been the biggest losers.[1] Government spokesmen equate the Houthis in Yemen with Hezbollah in Lebanon. A spokesman for the Saudi military stated Saudi Arabia’s view of Iranian strategy: “Wherever the Iranians are present, they create militias against these countries. In Lebanon, they have created Hezbollah, which is blocking the political process and has conducted wars against Israelis, destroying Lebanon as a result. And in Yemen, they have created the Houthis.” (Obviously, this is a simplistic analysis that ignores many other factors. However, not many people doing applied politics have the spare time to read the American Political Science Review.) Facilitating this equivalence is the Houthis’ firing of rockets into Saudi Arabia, which Saudi officials compare to Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel. That is, the Saudis see the rocket as the Iranian weapon-of-choice. Since Iran is in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is easy to see why this alarms the Saudis.

Alarmed over the looming escape from sanctions by the Iranians, the Saudis are beginning to draw distinctions. “Israel is an enemy because of its origin, but it isn’t an enemy because of its actions—while Iran is an enemy because of its actions, not because of its origin,” said a former Saudi diplomat. In theory, the Palestinian issue still obstructs Saudi-Israeli co-operation. In practice, anything that appears to be an existential threat to both countries will lead to lesser issues being swiftly resolved or adjourned.[2]

There are hints of other ramifications as well. Saudi Major General Anwar Eshqi (retired), now the director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, told the WSJ that Saudi Arabia wants Israel to be integrated into the Middle East. “[W]e can use their technology while they can use our money.” When the United States cut off aid to Egypt after the coup against Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Saudi Arabia immediately stepped in to more than make up for the lost aid. Since then, Egypt has gone ahead pretty much as it prefers without paying much attention to Washington. What if the same thing happens with Israel? Well, the Israelis are not likely to make an open break with the United States because it is the chief source of advanced arms and cover in the UN’s Security Council. Still, the Bush Administration’s attack on Iraq and the Obama Administration’s embrace of the “Arab Spring” have had long-term consequences that undermine American influence in the Middle East.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudi Arabia and Israel Find Common Ground on Iran,” WSJ, 19 June 2015.

[2] See: What would Bismarck drive? 3,” May 2015.

What would Bismarck drive? 3.

ISIS looks like a coalition of old Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia survivors, Iraqi Ba’athists, and conservative Syrian Sunni rebels against the Assad government. If ISIS wins in western Iraq and eastern Syria and establishes a caliphate, what will happen to that coalition? Will the coalition hold together in happier times once external dangers are reduced? Or will “hunting season” open as the members pursue disparate goals?[1]

If you look at this over the long-run, working to strengthen good governance and economic development around the world is a good idea. The Islamist movements and the refugees seeking to break into Europe (and the US for that matter) are fleeing stagnant economies, misgovernment, and often violence.[2] “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Alas, I’m not sure that we know how to do this—aside from empires.

The Iraq War was a disaster.[3] As a result, Americans don’t want another real war at the moment. It would take a real war to slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by any significant amount of time. It would take conquest and occupation to stop it entirely.[4] So, the odds are that President Obama’s pursuit of an agreement with Iran to delay that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by some indefinite, but shorter, period is about the best that we can hope for.

However, confessing that we don’t want to do anything serious about Iran estranges us from Israel and Saudi Arabia. A nuclear Iran appears to both Israel and Saudi Arabia as a grave security threat. One of these days, the two countries may decide that Allah/Yahwey helps those who help themselves.[5] Perhaps the key decisions will be made in Jerusalem. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a community of interest in doing something about Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis probably could not manage a pre-emptive attack on their own. The Saudis probably could not manage to fend-off an angry American reaction on their own. In both cases, a tacit alliance with Israel would be very valuable. On the other hand, Israel and Iran have a community of interest in doing something about ISIS, while Saudi Arabia has not made much of an effort against ISIS because it is beating up on Iranian clients in Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to imagine Israel working a deal with Iran over ISIS if it meant tolerating Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is easier to imagine Saudi Arabia turning on ISIS as part of a deal with Israel. The thing all the decision-makers—in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington—are bearing in mind is that any attack on Iran’s nuclear program will start a bigger war in the Middle East, rather than end the current ones. So, perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Perhaps there will be a grand bargain instead of Armageddon. An American presidential campaign in which a host of Republican hopefuls appear to have been recruited from clown college and the anointed Democratic candidate once voted for the Iraq War just to appear tough enough to be president doesn’t inspire confidence.

[1] See: Gordon Craig, Problems of coalition warfare: The military alliance against Napoleon, 1813-1814 (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1966); Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6: Triumph and Tragedy. .

[2] It appears that the long drop in homicide rates in most American cities has been problematic for local television news stations. Perhaps they should just keep news crews in some place like South Sudan.

[3] In a few years, someone is going to add a chapter to one of those What If? books that explores “counter-factual history.”   My own version runs something like the following. Saddam Hussein was 66 when he was overthrown by the coalition of “the all-too-willing”; he had a bad back, but was afraid to have surgery because it would involve general anesthetic and something might happen; his sons were violent morons who were unlikely to be able to either share or hold power after the eventual death of their father; Iraq had attacked Iran in 1980 and the Iranians were—and are—eager for pay-back; the Shi’ite majority and the Kurds were eager to chart their own course, if only the Sunni minority would get their boot off the necks of the vast majority of Iraqis; and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the ancestor of ISIS) was operating in Syria from about 2002. So, even without the invasion, things might have shaken-out pretty much as they did. Only, we wouldn’t have our finger-prints all over the rubble. See: Richard K. Betts and Samuel P. Huntington, “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Rulers Lead to Political Instability?”, International Security, Vol. 10, #3 (Winter 1985-1986), pp. 112-146.

[4] Perhaps we could partition the place with Russia? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Soviet_invasion_of_Iran

[5] One of the ways to think about Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemen civil war is as an opportunity to give their soldiers and flyers some combat experience before, you know…..

What would Bismarck drive? 1.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Jordan? First, Jordan isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and a BYK.[1] They will fight. Second, if ISIS heads too far west, then ISrael will get into it. That won’t be calibrated airstrikes and under-motivated conscripts either.[2] Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Why hasn’t ISIS attacked Turkey? First, Turkey isn’t a failed state as are Syria and Iraq. It has an army and an air force and an SPI.[3] They will fight. Second, the Turks are Sunni Muslims, and Turkey is the conduit for foreign fighters. Third, ISIS is still busy in Syria and Iraq.

Can the government of Iraq reconcile the Shi’a majority with the Sunni minority? No. The Shi’ites had their chance when the Americans left. They threw it away by persecuting the Sunnis. Now, in a moment of great danger, the Shi’ites want to make nice with the Sunnis. You can see how the Sunnis would be suspicious. What happens when the crisis passes? Back to the previous behavior? Furthermore, it isn’t clear to me that the government put in place after the United States overthrew the Maliki government last Fall are doing more than putting up window-dressing to pacify the Americans.[4] So, I suspect that the country will have to be partitioned.

Can ISIS conquer Iraq? No. Two thirds of the population are Shi’ites; twenty percent are Sunnis; and the rest are Kurds. The Kurds will fight and the United States will support them. Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would not have anywhere to run. Their backs would be against the wall. The civil war in Iraq during the American occupation showed that the Shi’ites are capable of great violence. They would fight hard—even savagely—against ISIS. Iran will commit troops to prevent the fall of the Shi’ite parts of Iraq to ISIS. The Sunnis areas? Well, that’s another story. Perhaps Iran would be content to have Kurdish and Shi’ite Arab buffer states between itself and an ISIS caliphate. How would the United States regard this outcome? “Another fine mess.”[5]

Can ISIS conquer Syria? Well, that’s yet another story. Years of very destructive civil war have ravaged the country. This has eroded the strength of the Assad government in ways that are not yet true of the government of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, the president of neighboring Turkey, wants the Assad government gone. Saudi Arabia wants the Assad government gone. The Russkies and the Iranians want Assad to stay. My suspicion is that nobody will get all of what they want. Like Iraq, the country will have to be partitioned. I believe that most of the Alawite and Christian populations live in the west of the country. Like the Shi’ites in Iraq, they will have their backs to the wall (in this case, the Mediterranean) as ISIS advances. They will fight hard to hold it, while being ready to yield the rest of the country to ISIS. A revived Medieval Principality of Antioch could emerge to abut Lebanon. (Or perhaps the two will merge.) Between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in “Antioch,” Iran would have a couple of client states on the Mediterranean. On the other hand, such a retreat by Assad would bring ISIS that much closer to Israel.

[1] Brave Young King.

[2] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki#/media/File:Atomic_bombing_of_Japan.jpg

[3] Semi-Psychotic Islamist, as President.

[4] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngo_Dinh_Diem

[5] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3qcj2MzPYc

Flip-flops on the ground in Iraq.

Iraq’s war with Iran (1980-1988) proved longer and costlier than Saddam Hussein had ever imagined.[1] At the end of the war Saddam Hussein found himself ruling a country that had exhausted its once huge oil reserves, that had become loaded with debt, and that badly needing to reconstruct. Iraq’s debt belonged to the Sunni Arab Gulf states. To finance the war he had presented himself to the other Gulf states as their shield against radical Shi’a Iran and has asked for money. Apparently Kuwait, the Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia had seen it in the same light, because they loaned Iraq $40 billion.

The post-war negotiations with Iraq’s creditors were mismanaged on both sides. Iraq asked for too much: forgiveness of the $40 billion debt, plus $30 billion in new money to pay for reconstruction. Since the Iranian danger had been blunted over the course of the Eighties, Iraq’s creditors were not much inclined to give the country easy terms or, for that matter, anything at all. Both Saddam Hussein’s request for loan cancellation and for an additional $30 billion loan (which was just as unlikely to be repaid as the original $40 billion in loans) fell on deaf ears. If Iraq could not get loan cancellation and additional loans, then it would have to pay its own way through oil sales. The falling price for oil put a severe crimp in what Iraq could earn.   In these negotiations the Emir of Kuwait took a particularly strong stand for the sanctity of international economic agreements by insisting upon repayment of the existing debt at the same moment that he was violating his oil quota.

In July 1990 Saddam Hussein sent Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to put his case to the Arab League. The Iraqis made the same argument to the Arab League that the French and British once had made to the Americans after the First World War: We spent blood in the common cause while you gave only money, so you should cancel the money debt in exchange for us cancelling the “blood debt.” The Americans had not bought that line in 1919 and the Gulf states didn’t buy it in 1989.

On 17 July 1990 Saddam Hussein gave a belligerent speech that seemed to threaten action. That same day he sent the Kuwaiti government a letter in which he demanded a halt to the slide in oil prices, cancellation of Iraq’s debt to Kuwait, and an Arab package of aid to Iraq. Failing this, said Saddam Hussein, “we will have no choice but to resort to effective action to get things right and ensure the restitution of our rights.”[2]

To give meaning to this communication, Saddam Hussein ordered 30,000 troops massed close to the Iraq-Kuwait border. This threat, which Kuwait shared with Saudi Arabia and—undoubtedly–with the Americans, led the Saudi government to attempt to mediate. On 25 July 1990 Saddam Hussein had an interview with the American ambassador, April Glaspie, in which he gave her an ambiguous threat and she gave him an ambiguous warning. A week later, on 2 August 1990, the Iraqi army rolled into Kuwait.

The role of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf State clients in the coming of the First Iraq War is not much discussed these days in the American media. This role included financing Iraq in its long, predatory war against revolutionary Iran. It included pursuing a foolishly selfish policy on Iraq’s war-debts. It should surprise no one that, if it will take “boots on the ground” to defeat the Sunni fanatics of ISIS in their war against the pro-Iranian governments in Baghdad and Damascus, there will not be Saudi feet in them. Nor, probably, American feet. That just leaves the Iranians. Or the partition of Iraq.

[1] John Keegan, The Iraq War (2005).

[2] Quoted in Keegan, The Iraq War, p. 75.