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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Syrian End-Game.

Adolf Hitler’s aggression created an alliance of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union that brought down the Third Reich in flames.  However, that “Grand Alliance” consisted of countries with very different aims united only by the German danger.  As soon as victory came in sight, the allies began to fall out with one another.  Their competition produced the Cold War.

Now the same thing is happening as the ISIS caliphate begins to crumble.[1]  The current wars in the Middle East (the ISIS war, the Syrian civil war) have become proxy wars.  Turkey has become the chief supporter of the various Sunni Arab rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army; the Russkies and the Iranians are the supporters of the Assad regime; and the Americans are the chief supporters of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria.   Now, these disparate allies-of-convenience are beginning to pursue their interests.  Their proxies are likely to pay the price.

The central dynamic in the next phase is likely to be Kurdish nationalism.  The Turks hate the Kurds, and the Kurds hate the Turks.  Turkey is a NATO member (if not exactly an ally), but the Americans have supplied the Kurds with a lot of support.  So, at some point, the Americans are going to have to make a choice or broker a deal.  Now the Kurds have begun to doubt American support.  The Syrian Kurds, at least, have had some contact with the Russians.

Turkish support for the Sunni Arab rebels actually puts them on the side of the major losers in this struggle.  Both the American-backed Kurds and the Russian-backed Assad regime have greater assets on the battle field.  Contacts have opened between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds.  The short-term goal of such talks might be co-operation against ISIS, but the long-term goal might be a meeting of minds about Turkey.  Naturally, Turkish president Erdogan would rather cut a deal with the Assad regime he has been trying to overthrow in order to forestall an Assad-Kurd alliance.  Assad’s chief aim seems to be to get control of the key western parts of Syria, where the Sunni rebels are his chief opponents.[2]  The Sunni rebels—commonly called the “moderates” by President Obama—are going to pay a heavy price if this happens.

For its part, Russia is allied with Iran to support the Assad regime.  Now the Iranian-controlled militias fighting in Syria have ignored Russian-sponsored local truces.  Both the Russians and the Assad regime are going to have to choose whether to cut ties with Iran.

Their immediate problem is that they want to know what the Americans are going to do.  In so far as Syria is concerned, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, sees things almost entirely in military terms.[3]  They want ISIS destroyed.  This has produced a pause in American participation in Syrian peace talks now underway in Geneva.  At the same time, the American face a dilemma: the Trump administration wants to improve relations with Russia, the Russians are allied—for the moment—with Iran, and the Trump administration is hostile to Iran (as are several of America’s regional allies).[4]  The U.S. and Russia recently joined to block an attack by Turkish Sunni clients toward the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa because it would have cut across a movement by Kurds and Assad forces.  Does this have any longer-term meaning?

So, who will get eastern Syria once ISIS is destroyed?  The Kurds?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Battle for Raqqa Set to Shape Mideast,” WSJ, 10 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “ U.S. Disengagement Creates Hurdles for Syria Peace Talks,” WSJ, 3 March 2017.

[2] That is, Syria may be headed toward “de facto” partition.

[3] An American tradition.  Look at Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe. (1967).

[4] To make matters worse, the out-of-power Democrats want to preserve the deal with Iran brokered by John Kerry while also attacking Russia as a way of impugning President Trump.

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.

The Next Step in Syria.

The two current centers of resistance by the Islamic State’s caliphate are in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.[1]  Both cities have been heavily fortified by ISIS.  Coalitions of opposition forces are advancing on both cities.  Iraqi Kurds are important for the siege of Mosul and Syrian Kurds are important for the siege of Raqqa.

Of the two coalitions, the Syrian one is the more problematic.  Raqqa holds particular importance as the capital city of the caliphate.  President Obama has committed substantial military resources to the struggle: American planes are bombing; 400 Special Forces troops have been sent to Syria to serve as spotters for air strikes and to train local fighters; and Apache helicopter gunships have been used against Mosul’s defenses.  However, in both countries, the brunt of the fighting has and will fall on local forces.

As an American military problem, this is simple enough.  The Americans hope that the final attack on Raqqa can begin in February 2017.  The core of the anti-ISIS force laying siege to Raqqa is Syrian Kurds.  Around this core have been arrayed (or cajoled) loose groups of Syrian Arabs.  The Syrian Arabs have much less experience with war than do the Kurds.  This means that the Kurds will have to do most of the heavy lifting in the assault on Raqqa.  The Defense Department believes that the Syrian Kurds need to be supplied with better weapons for an urban assault than those that have served them on open battlefields.  These weapons would include rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and armored vehicles.  Furthermore, the Defense Department has recommended that Apache gunships be used against Raqqa.

As an American diplomatic problem, this is less simple.  Neighboring Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd political group (the Y.P.G.) as terrorists.  If the Syrian Kurds succeed in carving out an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria they will have expanded the proto-state that is being created in neighboring Iraq.  From this proto-state, at some point, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds can begin to work to liberate the Turkish Kurds.  Arming up the Syrian Kurds poses a future danger to Turkey.  Turkey is a member of NATO and the United States is bound by treaty to defend it against outside attack.

The Turkish government has begun delaying approval of American air attacks launched from Incirlik air base and hampering the flow of supplies into the base.  American diplomats suspect that Erdogan might respond to an increased armament for the Syrian Kurds by attacking Kurdish enclaved along the Syrian-Turkish border.  This might compel the Kurds to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa.  Worse still, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has begun to lean toward Russia.  Already prone to blame the United States for many untoward events within Turkey and the region, Erdogan might contemplate disrupting the NATO alliance in the same fashion as did France’s Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.  A pessimist might see one possible outcome of arming the Kurds to be the weakening of NATO’s southeastern flank at a time when Vladimir Putin is on the watch for opportunities to extend Russian influence.

Grasping at straws, the Americans have contemplated promising the Turks that close monitoring of any weapons will prevent their use against Turkey.  This is hardly credible given the failures to control weapons supplied to Syrian “moderate” forces.  This leaves President Obama with no easy choices.  Perhaps he’ll leave the decision to President Trump.  The new president would be torn between the devil of improving relations with Russia and the deep blue sea of destroying ISIS.

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Syrian Options: Arm Kurds or Let Trump Decide,” NYT, 18 January 2017.

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.

Erdogan in 2017.

Donald Trump is not a fascist, but there is good reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is a fascist.  He became prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002; then became president; then campaigned for much stronger powers for the president; then, in June 2015, saw the AKP blocked from winning an outright majority for the first time; then played the anti-Kurdish/antiterrorism card to regain a majority for the AKP in November 2015 elections; then ruthlessly exploited a failed in July 2016 to purge Turkey’s civil and military institutions of purported supporters of the coup; and then proposed a referendum on greater powers and time in office for the president.

One of Erdogan’s closest advisers told the Wall Street Journal that “In these lands [i.e. the Middle East], if you need to survive, you need a very strong system.”  The proposed constitutional changes include getting rid of the prime minister and transferring powers from parliament to the president.  If the voters in the referendum–tentatively scheduled for June 2016–approve his plan, Erdogan could remain president until 2029—or until the cows come home.[1]

The AKP has 316 seats in the legislature.  It needs 14 more have number required to win parliamentary approval for the referendum.  Where will Erdogan find the votes he needs?  One theory is that the conservative MHP party will support the legislation in hopes of gaining a voice in the new government.  However, between May and November 2015, Erdogan refused to form a coalition government when his party lacked a majority.  Why would the MHP view the offer of a vice-presidency in the new government for its leader as anything other than a short-lived transaction to get the referendum approved?  The MHP would soon find itself discarded.  Erdogan seems more likely to use national security issues to stampede support.

In the mellow, holiday-induced state of mind, it might be possible to view the prospects for the Middle East in 2017 with a certain optimism.  The horrible Syrian civil war appears to be grinding to an end with an Assad victory in western Syria.  In Iraq, the Shi’ite majority, with the backing of Iran and a lot of American airpower, are battering at the eastern borders of the ISIS caliphate.  The caliphate seems likely to collapse entirely in the coming year.[2]  The Iranian nuclear agreement has muted the drum-beat for a new war for the time being.

However, Erdogan’s justification for strengthening the powers of the president rests on a belief that things are going to get worse, not better in the Middle East.  First, there is the Kurdish problem.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq created an autonomous proto-state in northern Iraq.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have played an important part in the containment of ISIS.  Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its national existence.  The Shi’ite majority in Iraq takes a similar view.  The Kurds are likely to rise to the top of their opponents’ To Do list once the fate of the Assad regime is settled and ISIS is defeated.  Attacks on the Kurds will pose problems for American diplomacy.

Second, there is the problem of Turkey’s future orientation.  Will Turkey remain in NATO and continue to press for membership in the European Union (EU)?  In 2016, Erdogan unleashed a flood of refugees and economic migrants on the EU in a bid to extort financial aid and revived negotiation on Turkish entry into the EU.  On the other hand, recently Turkey has patched up its several quarrels with Russia.  What real inducements can Vladimir Putin offer Turkey to shift its alliance?  Aside from the psychological affinity of two authoritarian leaders?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Violence Bolsters Erdogan’s Power Play,” WSJ, 23 December 2016.

[2] Surviving fighters are likely to flee abroad.  Many of these refugees will become a counter-terrorist policing problem in Europe and elsewhere in Arab countries.  ISIS itself will cease being a military problem.

Sequence.

Can Bashar al-Assad win the Syrian Civil War?  The answer depends on definitions.  What does “win” mean?  What does “Syria” mean?

Aleppo and Palmyra are two ancient cities in Syria.[1]  One of them is today a major population center and the other is a mere tourist trap.  If Syria were at peace, the distinction wouldn’t matter.  Both would be income-streams.  However, Syria is at war and the distinction does matter.   The Syrian government of dictator Bashar  al-Assad has concentrated its military forces and received important foreign assistance —Russian air-power and Iranian fighters—to capture the rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the population center.  In the meantime, he has yielded territory to ISIS forces around Palmyra, the tourist trap.  Probably to be able to claim that the regime was fighting ISIS, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra in March 2016.  However, they didn’t put in the resources to hold it.  In mid-December 2016, while the Syrians and their allies concentrated on the capture of Eastern Aleppo, ISIS forces managed to retake the city.

How should we interpret this mixed outcome?  The main point to take away is that Aleppo matters to the Assad regime, but Palmyra—and most other ISIS-held territory–doesn’t matter to the Assad regime.  The regime has been most threatened by the rebellion in the much more heavily-populated western parts of the country.  Rebels there have received support from Sunni Arab countries.  In contrast, ISIS holds vast swathes of the less densely populated—and less important –eastern parts of the country.   Moreover, ever since its invasion of western Iraq, ISIS has been targeted by the Americans, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.  The Syrian Army has been at war for a very long time.  Both its current manpower and its ability to recruit new soldiers are close to exhaustion.  Russian aircraft and Iranian troops abruptly have dragged the regime out of a dire situation.  Why would the hard-pressed Assad regime devote scarce resources to the lesser enemy when other countries are willing to do the work?

Now Eastern Aleppo has fallen to the regime.  What further action will the regime take after this costly victory?  Wishful thinking abounds.  One conspiracy theory holds that the Assad regime sand-bagged the defense of Palmyra so that ISIS jihadis would appear in the news to distract the ADHD-prone Western media from the brutal final assault on Aleppo.  One Egyptian diplomat speculated that “unless the regime opens up negotiations with the opposition in finding a proper reconciliation, the guerrilla warfare will spread all over the place.”  The U.S. government urged the Syrians and Russians to divert their energies from pursuing final victory over the rebels in Aleppo to resisting ISIS in an inconsequential place.

More practically, the Assad regime may concentrate on consolidating its victory in western Syria.  It seems wise to anticipate a further flood of refugees into Turkey and—soon thereafter—into Greece.  Then, the regime, and the Russians and Iranians, will contemplate what further action to take.  Will they really want to embark on a costly new offensive to retake desert wastelands?  Will they want to imperial their existing substantial gains in order to fight ISIS?  Will they leave ISIS to the Americans and their allies?  Will they decide to wipe out the remnants of resistance in western Syria, then turn to dealing with the Syrian Kurds?  Given the alliance between the Russians and the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq, all parties may be willing to sit and wait for a time before deciding the fate of ISIS.

So, “Syria” may mean western Syria and “win” may mean a localized victory followed by a period of watchful waiting.  Then, a new round in the unraveling of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  First one thing, then another thing.  Sequence.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Cede to Islamic State,” WSJ, 16 December 2016.