What would Bismarck drive? 2.

Israel (and therefore the United States) is going to have to decide some things pretty soon.[1] First, would Israel rather have a whole Syria under Assad (weakened for a long time by its terrible civil war) or would it rather have a Syria partitioned between a mini-state headed by Assad and the rest of Syria run by ISIS? Second, is there anything that Israel can do to shape the outcome? I don’t know. Israeli intervention might bring down on the head of Israel all sorts of hostility from the Arabs, just because. The governments of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt probably wouldn’t object to Israel beating up on ISIS. How would Saudi Arabia view such action? Then, there is the tension in many Arab countries between “the Street” and “the Palace.” How would ordinary people respond to Israeli attacks, regardless of how sensible those attacks might seem to the rulers?

What will happen inside the Cauldron? ISIS can (but may not) tear apart the carcasses of Iraq and Syria. Then its advance slams up against both strong states (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel) and hard cores of enemy peoples with their back to the wall (Kurds, Shi’ite Iraqis, Alawite and Christian Syrians). At this point, the going will get a lot tougher. Will ISIS pause to regroup or will it attempt to maintain the momentum? I don’t know. They’re a bunch of fanatics. They might try to topple a bunch of other governments. On the other hand, the original armed expansion of Islam came in stages. Maybe that analogy will authorize ISIS to pause to consolidate its base in preparation for a renewed advance. If ISIS does pause to consolidate its base, it isn’t going to have a lot with which to work. The caliphate will consist of landlocked desert without much oil. Most of the world will be hostile toward the caliphate. Still, in their own particular way, they’re “Goo-Goos.”[2] Perhaps they’ll find a way.

If ISIS can’t swamp the surrounding strong governments, does that mean it can’t do any harm? That’s hard to tell. Governments find it useful as a heuristic device to link every new outburst to some earlier example. Start listening to the newspeople on the Devil Box, count how often they refer to an “Al Qaeda-affiliated” or “ISIS affiliated” something or other. On the other hand, radical Islam has a wide appeal in certain geographic and psychological realms. (See: The Islamic Brigades I, II.) So it is hard for me to tell what ISIS or Al Qaeda really controls. What does seem clear is that Islamist uprisings will continue to occur and that “foreign fighters” will continue to flow toward where the fighting is taking place. Libya, northern Nigeria, and Mali already have their share of troubles. Cameroun, Niger, and Chad are feeling the effects. Tunisia is a small place with limited ability to defend itself. Algeria survived one bloody civil war between secularists and Islamists: it could flare up again. (If that happens, the fleets of refugees crammed on fishing boats will be headed for Marseilles instead of Sicily. See: The owl and the pussycat I, II.) Whatever the formal links between ISIS and the Islamist movements in these countries, ISIS will do whatever it can to support them. Pretty much on the principle of setting fire to a neighbor’s barn so that they themselves can sleep better at night.

[1] One of those things is NOT the creation of a Palestinian state. There isn’t going to be one. The current version of Fatah is a spent force. There is no way that Israel will agree to put a Hamas-controlled government endowed with all the trappings of national sovereignty in charge of the West Bank. No Arab government has ever shown a real concern for the fate of the Palestinians. If Egypt and Jordan, for example, had wanted a Palestinian state, they could have created one on the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled thos territories between 1948 and 1967.

[2] “Goo-Goos”: derisive late 19th Century American reference to “Good Government” reformers who preceded the Populists.

A Dog In This Fight?

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals some of the complexities of American policies in the Middle East.[1] In August 2011 President Obama stated that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to leave power. Assad thought different. He fought on, helped by Russia and Iran. The view of one Middle Eastern researcher[2] is summarized in the article. “Having declared that the Assad regime had to go, [the White House] found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al-Qaeda.”

In 2012 many senior defense, diplomatic, and intelligence officials urged President Obama to provide arms and training to “moderate” groups within the anti-Assad rebellion. However, voices of caution warned that any American arms provided to the “moderates” could well end up in the hands of “extremists.”   This wasn’t a foolish concern. The “moderates” regarded the “extremists” as valuable allies in the fight against Assad. The “extremists” could have acquired—either taking them from unresisting “moderates” or actually being given to them–American weapons provided to the “moderates.”

The American government began keeping an eye on the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) when it established a strong position in Syria in 2012. They were aware that thousands of foreign fighters traveled to join ISIL through Turkey. They were aware that ISIL intended to use a base in Syria to rejoin the fight in Iraq. They were aware that Iraqi forces weren’t up to the job of defeating ISIL. In August 2013, some American diplomats in the Baghdad embassy urged that US drone strikes be launched against ISIL bases in eastern Syria.

In February 2014, a State Department official told a Congressional committee that ISIL’s operations “are calculated, coordinated, and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of government control in western Iraq and Syria.” The official explained that the “Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance.”

However, American assistance was not forthcoming. Why not? For one thing, the Americans wanted something from the al-Maliki government in return for their help. They wanted him to close the air-corridor across Iran by means of which the government of Iran was sending arms to the Assad regime. Prime Minister al-Maliki refused. In the view of the State Department, “it is … legitimate to question Iraq’s independence given Iran’s ongoing use of Iraqi airspace to resupply the Assad regime.” Four months later, ISIL forces seized the Iraqi city of Mosul. Soon they advanced toward Baghdad. Both Iran and the United States sent aid.

Lessons learned:

First, President Obama declared that Assad had to go before he explored the nuts-and-bolts of how that would come about. See: “the Cambridge Police were stupid.”

Second, Americans regard Iraq as “independent” when it follows American instructions instead of following a foreign policy of its own. See: Germany and the Ukraine crisis.

Third, Syrian Alawites-Iraqi Shi’ites-Iranian Shi’ites are lining up against Syrian Sunnis-Iraqi Sunnis-“extremist” foreign fighters. Does the United States actually have a dog in this fight?

[1] Jonathan S. Landay, “U.S. knew of jihadis’ goals,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 July 2014: A16.


[2] Phillip Smyth. See: http://docs.house.gov/meetings/fa/fa18/20131120/101513/hhrg-113-fa18-wstate-smythp-20131120.pdf

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Some of the countries in the Middle East are make-believe countries. That is, after the First World War the British and the French carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were created on map tables in Europe before they had any reality for the people who lived there. Religious and other divisions within these areas were of little interest to the French and British decision-makers of the time. Those administrative territories then became sovereign states, mostly after the Second World War. So, Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims were grouped together in Iraq and—to a lesser extent—in Syria. Tensions smoldered: a Sunni minority dominated the Shi’a majority in Iraq; Christians, Muslims, and Druze struggled in Lebanon; and Palestine became the target for immigration by Eastern European Jews without the consent of the Arabs. That did not mean that these countries were doomed to fail. Good judgment, a spirit of cooperation, and self-restraint could go a long way to building bridges. All of those things have been in short supply in post-American Iraq.

The Iraqi insurgency had been defeated when the Sunnis switched sides to oppose the Islamist fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nouri al-Maliki–a member of the Shi’a Muslim majority sect–became Prime Minister in 2006. During his campaign for re-election in 2010 he promised to form a “unity” government that included representatives of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Then the United States withdrew the last of its forces in 2011.

Maliki (and the Shi’a he represented) promptly changed course. Maliki’s program was to concentrate power in the hands of Shi’ites, while spurning both Sunnis and Kurds. First, he opened the way for a spectacular increase in the high level of corruption. Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue had been diverted to private hands. The diverted revenues benefitted only Maliki’s followers. Soon, Maliki turned on the Sunnis more directly. They were purged from the government and tens of thousands were imprisoned. Maliki’s power grab alienated the Sunnis from the government. It sent some of them back into co-operation with Islamist groups.

The key Islamist group is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is simultaneously fighting in Iraq and in the Syrian Civil War. The major cities have been targeted for bombings. This coincided with the run-up to elections in April 2014. In April 2014, 750 people died, either in bombings of public places or in street-fighting between the security forces and insurgents. By May 2014, ISIL and the Sunni opponents of Maliki had won control of Anbar province west of Baghdad. By June 2014 the decision by Maliki and the Shi’ites to grab all the toys for themselves proved to have been a catastrophically bad decision. In June ISIS forces suddenly over-ran Mosul and Tikrit, while four divisions of the Iraqi Army just folded up in front of the attack. (“Iraq, three years later,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 11.)

Iraq’s Army offers a particularly telling example. Under Maliki, religious affiliation replaced competence as a criteria for many senior officers; purely Shi’ite divisions concentrated near Baghdad, while mixed divisions were sent to the provinces; troop training, equipment maintenance, and logistical support all suffered as the military budget was diverted just like the oil revenue. (Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “The Iraqi Army was Crumbling Long Before Its Collapse, U.S. Officials Say,” NYT, 13 June 2014.)

ISIL probably can’t conquer Iraq or even hold its present gains. But when their tide ebbs, what will Iraqis do with their country?