Operation Iraqi Future.

Between 2011 and 2014, unanticipated events in the Middle East created problems that are now moving toward critical phases.  In 2011 a long, complicated civil war broke out in Syria.  By and large, the Obama administration evaded involvement.  Also in 2011, the Obama administration believed that it had escaped the Iraq quagmire.  The United States and Iraq could not agree on terms for the continued American presence in that troubled country.[1]  American troops pulled-out.  Various forms of Hell marched in.  In 2014, the troops of Islamic State (ISIS) drove east out of civil war-torn Syria.  They soon over-ran the Western (largely Sunni) areas of Iraq.  Iraq’s Shi’ites toughened-up; Iran sent arms and men; and the United States supplied air-power.  In 2014, Russia seized the chance created by a political crisis in Ukraine to re-take the Crimea and to sponsor rebel groups in two districts of eastern Ukraine.  International economic sanctions on Russia followed.

In 2016, Russia forged an alliance with Iran to defend the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.  The joint intervention of the two powers now seems to have confirmed that the regime will remain in control of western Syria at least.  The 2016 Obama/Kerry agreement with Iraq[2] fended-off a war between the United States and Iran while facilitating an American-Iranian war against ISIS.  Victory over ISIS appears[3] to be at hand.

President Trump ran on a platform of opposing Iran.  Doubtless, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has done his best to rein-in the President until the CrISIS is over.  Still, the day will come when ISIS has been beaten and the Americans and Iranians can think anew about their relationship.  Iraq will find itself a pawn in that relationship.

What happens next in Iraq and Syria?  Iraqis are divided over which “friend” to support.[4]  Do they favor the United States or Iran?  Iran has real advantages: Iran is Shi’ite and the majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite; Iraq’s Iranian-armed militias have played a large role in the defeat of ISIS.  The government of Iraq is full of pro-Iranian Shi’ites.  The argument for keeping America engaged in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS springs from this same Iranian domination.  Keeping the Americans involved offers the best guarantee that Iran won’t just turn Iraq into a puppet.  Also, there will have to be some kind of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites of post-ISIS Iraq.  An American presence might limit Shi’ite oppression of their none-too-loyal Sunni countrymen.

Russia and Iran disagree on the final outcome in Syria.  Russia chose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war inside Islam, but wants to limit its involvement in the struggle.  To avoid becoming mired in the larger conflict, Russia favors a compromise in Syria that would meet the demands of some Sunnis (although not the Westernized young people beloved of Westerners).  Iran hopes to see Bashar al-Assad turn Syria (or his portion of it) into a Shi’ite bastion.[5]

Iran and Russia will stick together; America and Iran—and Russia—may fall out.  Still, room exists for pragmatic diplomacy.  People just have to seize the chance.  But what chance?

[1] Iraq’s Shi’ites wanted the Americans out so that they could go about the business of misgovernment unimpeded.  Iraq’s Sunnis wanted the Americans to stay as a check on the Shi’ites, rather than out of love for the country that had destroyed their country and their own place at the peak of that country.  The Americans were—and are—weary of war in the Middle East.  President Obama sought to meet this desire of the voters.

[2] Until the memoirs come out, when it may be renamed the Clinton-Kerry or Clinton-Obama deal with Iran.

[3] Count no man happy until he is dead.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Balancing Act Between the U.S. and Iran,” WSJ, 17 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Russia, Iran Need Each Other, Despite Differences,” WSJ, 17 February 2017.  .

[5] Over the long-run an Iranian client-state in Syria on the frontiers of Israel—a sort of super-Hezbollah—would challenge the security of Israel in a profound way.

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Small wars and demolition.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons.  Not really a problem.  FedEx doesn’t pick up in North Korea and the North Koreans don’t have a delivery system (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, ICBM).  Oh, wait, they just tested an intermediate range missile.  Well, that couldn’t reach the United States.  So, not really a problem, yet.  It could reach South Korea or Japan, however, and both are American allies.[1]  So, that’s a problem.

North Korea has been “carpet sanctioned” by the United Nations (U.N.) for its nuclear program and other things.[2]  Chinese support is North Korea’s only lifeline.  It seems to be widely agreed that Chinese pressure could bring an end to the regime.  According to President Trump, “China has control, absolute control, over North Korea.”  So, why doesn’t China topple the North Korean psychocracy?  It could be that North Korea isn’t any more trusting of China than it is of anyone else.  Perhaps lots of Chinese agents of influence and spies within the North Korean government keep ending up dead?  That could cut down the scope for action short of war.

Or, perhaps China sees North Korea as a desirable destabilizing force in the region.  China, The Peoples Republic, of has been intruding aggressively into the non-state waters of the South China Sea.  This program of reef-claiming, reef-enhancing, and reef-arming has put China at odds with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  In these alarming circumstances, North Korean aggression and the perception that China has a leash on North Korea may work to enhance China’s bargaining power.  In this context, China’s Foreigners Ministry has argued that the Americans should deal directly with North Korea.[3]

Meanwhile, the United States is at war with radical Islam.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban use safe-havens in Pakistan from which to wage war in their own country.  According to the local American military commander, the war is a “stalemate.”  A mere 8,400 American soldiers are trying to brace-up and train the Afghan army and police.  The Taliban seem able to learn how to fight a war without such trainers.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been battered into fragments.  Again, a small number of American troops are serving as trainers and advisers for Syrian and Iraqi troops, and as spotters for air strikes.  Still, several political problems remain on front-burners.  First, ISIS will not long survive as an organized military force or a political community.  What will become of the survivors as they flee the cauldron?  Will they attempt to return home, there to continue the struggle?[4]  Then, the defeat of ISIS is a long way from the defeat of radical Islam.  What new insurgency will pop up, either immediately or in the future?

Second, much of the heavy lifting in both Syria and Iraq has been done by Kurds.  Over the long-term, American support for the Kurds challenges the national integrity of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.  The Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria may be in no position—or no mood—to carry the fight to ISIS.  An Iraq riven by sectarian conflicts may find itself in the same boat.  That would leave Turkey—a NATO ally of the United States—as the chief opponent of Kurdish nationalism.  That, in turn, will create a dilemma for American diplomacy.  Will America back the Kurds[5] or the Turks?  In either case, the Russians will find an opening.

[1] “America’s Military Challenges,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 11.

[2] That doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

[3] The sloppy murder of the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in a Kuala Lumpur airport and the subsequent hasty execution of five North Korean intelligence officers may complicate matters for China.

[4] Or, alternatively, take up the rocker and thrill younger generations with their tales of daring-do?

[5] “Gratitude has a short half-life”—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

Next Steps in Syria.

After the American pull-out, Iraqi Shi’ite sectarianism undermined the army of Iraq as a fighting force.   In Summer 2014, the fundamentalist Sunni movement called the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked out of eastern Syria into Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Then Iraqi Shi’ite sectarianism came to the rescue.  Various Shi’ite militias, under the umbrella term Popular Mobilization Forces, were called upon to save the day.[1]  At first blush, the militias didn’t seem capable of stopping the advance of ISIS forces, which quickly over-ran Mosul and drew close to Baghdad itself.

However, the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war has long involved Shi’ite Iran’s support for embattled Shi’ite regimes elsewhere.  Iran has been a principal ally of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria.  When ISIS tore into Iraq, Iran responded with aid and support.  The Iraqi militias received a lot of training, weapons, and direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.  To whom are the militias more loyal, the government of Iraq or the government of Iran?  The issue is going to become pressing as the Assad regime appears to be triumphing in western Syria and the Iraqi offensive erodes the ISIS position in western Iraq.

Having sectarian militia featured too prominently in the fight against ISIS posed all sorts of problems for the government of Iraq.  So, the brunt of the attack on ISIS-held Mosul has been born by the regular army of Iraq, backed-up by paramilitary national police.  The Shi’ite militias were deployed to cut off the lines of communication between Mosul and the ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria.  In the course of their operations, the militias have seized some of the territory along the border with Syria.

Once Mosul falls, will the Iraqi militias cross the border into Syria?  Iraqi militia intervention in Syria would raise another set of problems.  The Assad regime is beset by ISIS, but also by Sunni “moderates” and by Syrian Kurds.  Could/would the Iraqis limit themselves to fighting ISIS?  The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has concentrated its attacks on the Syrian “moderates.”  Would the irruption of a foreign Shi’ite military force into Syria reignite Sunni resistance?  Shi’ite fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah have long been an important prop to the Assad regime.  More recently, Iraqi Shi’ite militia troops were airlifted in to western Syria to join the fight against the “moderate” Sunnis.

Turkey, which has reduced its opposition to the Assad regime while continuing to support rebel forces that are fighting against ISIS, is deeply alarmed by the advance of Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq because this threatens to create a Kurdish proto-state outside its borders.  That Kurdish state could support Kurds within Turkey.  The United States has long insisted that the fight against ISIS should be the real point of concentration for military efforts in Syria.

Spokesmen for the Syrian “moderate” rebels are insisting to Western journalists that Iraqi intervention in eastern Syria would be a disaster.  Iraqi intervention “will cause a sectarian ignition,” said one.  It “will ruin everything” said another, perhaps causing Sunnis to flock to ISIS as their only defense against the Shi’ites.  More significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has opposed further Iranian expansion.  Similarly, Saudi Arabia would be even more alarmed—if that’s possible–by Iranian proxies intervening in force against Sunnis on a new front.

The decision on this question may rest with other people.  Both sides in the Syrian civil war are close to or past the point of exhaustion.  Vladimir Putin, ruler of the regional power, has chosen not to worsen relations with the United States by taking up President Obama’s challenge.  He may prefer to insist on a pause before any action in eastern Syria.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Will Iraq’s Shi’ite Militias Cross Into Syria Next,” WSJ, 30 December 2016.

Obama in the Middle East.

Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War?  Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS?  These questions matter on several levels.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no?  Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?

For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election.  The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint.  Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints.  Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.

Lonely voices defend the president.[1]  To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests.[2]  Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  It’s a tricky business.  In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Neither country will bend before American will.

Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans.  For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way.  For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts.  Neither interpretation could be further from the truth.[3]  The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts.  The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government.  In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality.  In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya.  On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars.  Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.

Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century.  Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  The Middle East has oil but no industry.  The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues.  Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.

Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”  The voice of reason.

[1] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).

[2] “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.

[3] See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).

 

CrISIS 7.

The war against ISIS has been small-scale, rather than a grand effort.[1]  The total American force in Iraq has slowly risen from 275 troops sent as trainers and advisers after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Summer 2014 to about 4,000 today.  American Special Forces spotters are directing American air-strikes in support of both Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters (in both Iraq and Syria).  Others have been raiding ISIS targets and a number of ISIS leaders have been killed: notably the war minister and the finance minister.  An earlier effort at intelligence gathering (either human intelligence or signals intelligence) has led to targeted air attacks on the oil fields that provide much of the funds for ISIS and other sites.  Now, more Special Forces troops are being sent to Syria to bolster the efforts of those Sunnis who are willing to fight ISIS.  The Iraqi government forces don’t look too effective, but they are in the field and moving forward in fits and starts.

The results of this patched together strategy have been more impressive than one might think from the daily news: 26,000 ISIS fighters killed; 40 percent of the territory it once held recaptured; 3 million of the 9 million people inside the caliphate liberated; 30 percent of its revenue lost.[2]  Next on the agenda is a strike at Mosul.

That’s the good news.  What’s the bad news?  First, a large part of the explanation for the sudden expansion of ISIS in Summer 2014 lay in the political divisions, incompetence, and corruption of Iraq’s government at that time.  The US engineered the eviction of the then prime minister Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi.  However, things have not improved very much.  Corruption and division continue to plague the government.  Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric (and an old opponent of the Americans) forced al-Abadi to fire many of the government officials most deeply implicated in corruption.  In addition, the Sunni minority—whose “Awakening” greatly contributed to the defeat of the original insurgency—continue to be persecuted by the Shiite government.  All of this can impede the drive on Mosul.

Along the same lines, the Kurds have played a valuable role in the fight against ISIS, but now that success has become a problem.  The 250 additional Special Forces troops bound for Syria are intended to recruit, train, and coordinate Sunni Arabs because it is feared that the intrusion of Kurds into the area will set off ethnic conflicts that could derail the war effort.

Second, radical Islamism of the al-Qaeda-ISIS type has a widespread following in the Muslim world.  At the moment, the most troubling bastion of ISIS adherents outside the caliphate itself is in Libya.  Adherents of ISIS have been bolstered by ISIS fighters sent from Syria.  They have seized the oil port of Sirte.  They appear to be attempting the conquest of the Sirte oil region.

Third, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels have led to reports that ISIS has sent a sizable group of terrorists to conduct operations in Western Europe.

It is natural to ask if, in the waning days of the Obama administration, victory or something like it will be in sight by the time his successor is inaugurated.  That would surely add to his legacy.  However, the continuing governmental disaster in Baghdad and the refusal of the Shiites to make a just peace with the Sunnis is a problem that is not going to go away.  The same is true of violent radical Islam.  Frustrating, infuriating, and humiliating as has been the Obama administrations course in the fight against ISIS, it is only a campaign in a larger, longer-running war.  Many of the dilemmas of engagement in this fight will plague the next administration.

[1] “The war against ISIS,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] Apparently, there is a military solution to the problem of ISIS.  The same may be true of the Syrian civil war.

On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

The Count 1.

As best I understand it, before ISIS launched its Summer 2014 attack into western Iraq, it engaged in a long campaign of bombings in the heartland of Iraq. These spread terror and distrust of the government. As best I understand it, the defeat of Boko Haram on the battlefield led to a campaign of bombings in Nigeria and Cameroon. These spurred mass flight and a economic paralysis. So, bombings can be harbingers of victory or of defeat. It’s too bad that they aren’t more clear in their meanings. Still, I thought that I would watch this “variable”—as social scientist call it. See if anything becomes clear to me.

Hilla, Iraq is about 60 miles south of Baghdad on the Tigris River. It’s near the site of ancient Babylon, a vital center of Mesopotamian civilization that is unfamiliar to generations of American college students. From about 1000 AD on it was a sleepy farm town and administrative center. In the early 20th Century, an interesting episode in environmental history led to the construction of a dam to insure the proper irrigation of local farmlands.[1]

Saddam Hussein was hard on both the ancient and modern faces of Hilla. He had workmen knock down a bunch of the Babylonian ruins in order to build one of his palaces. After the war in Kuwait in 1991, a rebellion broke out around Hilla. Government troops killed several thousand people and buried them in a mass grave.

On 1 April 2003, there was a good-sized fight at Hilla between American armored forces and an infantry battalion of the Republican Guard. Then the insurgency began. One feature of that insurgency appeared in the efforts by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to foment a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Hilla is a predominantly Shi’ite city, so it came in for its share of trouble. In February 2005, a suicide bombing killed 125 people waiting for treatment outside a medical clinic; in May 2005, two suicide bombers killed 31 and wounded 108 Shia police; in September 2005, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 30; in January 2007, suicide bombers killed 73 and wounded 160; in February 2007, a pair of suicide bombers killed 45 and wounded 150; in March 2007, two car bombs killed 114 and wounded 147; in May 2010, a multiple car bomb attacks killed 45 and wounded 145. Then things calmed down as the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Surge:” took hold.

At a security check-point near Hilla, on 6 March 2016, a gasoline tanker waited for approval to move ahead in the middle of a crowd of vehicles and pedestrians.[2] When guards waved at the driver to halt, the truck lurched ahead and then exploded. At least 33 people were killed outright and 115 were wounded. (Almost 30 of the wounded subsequently died.) A witness said that the explosion 350 feet away from the blast felt like “an earthquake.” The witness is 54 years old. That means that he was born in 1962. He has lived through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); the American air campaign associated with the 1991 war over Kuwait; the American invasion (2003) and all that followed from it (2003-2007).

The key point here is that there are a lot of people outside “the West” who have heard explosions before and know what to do. “I immediately lay on the ground and saw flames all over the checkpoint.” After a while he got up to go check on friends in shops closer to the check-point. “One of them was beheaded and others were killed.” A 32 year-old school teacher who had been waiting to pass the checkpoint to get to work described it as “a very hard scene.”

What is it like to know what a suicide bombing sounds like? What about knowing that the bombings come in pairs, usually the second happening after people rush from cover to help the victims of the first bombing?

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindiya_Barrage

[2] Omar al-Jawoshy, “Truck Bomb Kills at Least 33 At Checkpoint in Central Iraq,” NYT, 7 March 2016.