A variety of pundits and politicians have called the advance of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) towards Baghdad “the worst case scenario” for Iraq. But they are wrong. Their error (and panic) is leading to calls for American military intervention which will make the strategic situation in the Middle East even more dangerous for U.S. and allied interests.
Here is the real “worst case scenario:” a new Iranian Empire that runs from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf, with Shiite satraps ruling Iraq and Syria on behalf of the mullah dictatorship in Tehran. The region has been under the shadow of such a development since the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, though the foundations for the expansion of Iranian influence had been laid years earlier.
Iran, with 77 million people, oil wealth and a nuclear weapons program, is a far more potent threat than al-Qaeda or any of its affiliates or progeny. The fear is that insurgents may gain control of a national government and thus access the superior resources that nations can mobilize compared to private groups. The Tehran regime already possesses such a resource base which U.S. sanctions have sought to reduce. Tehran backs terrorists and insurgents, most notably Hezbollah which is the strongest faction in Lebanon and which poses a threat to Israel. Tehran has also been stirring up revolution among the Shiite majority in Sunni ruled Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Al-Qaeda, of course, attacked us on September 11, 2001 and killed some 3,000 people. We have been hunting down its leaders and fighting its Taliban allies in Afghanistan ever since. Naturally, seeing ISIS troops rolling down the road in Iraq waving black flags, and committing brutal acts of mass murder (including beheadings) stirs an emotional response. Emotion, however, is a very poor basis for making strategic decisions. Strange things happen in the real world and one of the strangest is that Sunni militants like al-Qaeda and ISIS are fighting on our side in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, they are making up for the mistakes made by American leaders who took their eye off the ball and let the region fall into chaos.
One of the few people to recognize this change was retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a Fox News’ analyst and columnist for the NY Post. Last November, Peters wrote,
Although the old-school leaders of al Qaeda still rage against the US and jihadists welcome any chance to harm us, look at who the terrorists actually kill. We’re not the main target of Sunni extremists these days. Iran, along with its allies, tops the list.
Of course, we cannot let down our guard and should hunt down Islamist terrorists where we can, but the focus of the field soldiers serving al Qaeda’s most-active franchise in Syria and Iraq is on Iran’s ambitions and Shia Muslims, not on us.
It was also in November that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Barack Obama to ask for more U.S. military support. President Obama did not make any specific commitment to Maliki; nor did he grant Maliki’s request for airstrikes against ISIS assembly areas a month ago. Obama did not want to become involved again in Iraq after fulfilling his promise to left-wing “anti-war” supporters to bring all our troops home in his first term. He did not push Maliki on keeping a residual force in Iraq, and was happy when the Iraq leader refused to sign an agreement that would have permitted some American security contingent to remain in country.
On his CNN program last Sunday, Fareed Zakaria recounted, “what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days the American deal was being discussed.’It will not happen,’ he said, ‘Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its number one demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.'” Maliki is a Shiite who spent his years of exile from Saddam’s Iraq living in Syria and Iran. He owes his election to support from Iranian funded (and armed) militia groups which had attacked American soldiers. Since U.S. troops withdrew, he has taken action against the Sunni and Kurd communities. This is why the ISIS fighters were welcomed as liberators as they marched through the Sunni part of Iraq. Maliki provoked the civil war by behaving as a Shiite tyrant in the style of his mentors in Iran.
The Bush administration should not have let Maliki come to power. Regime change does not just mean removing a ruler with whom we could not work; a new ruler must be installed with whom we can work. American troops fought a stellar campaign to remove Saddam Hussein, but while they were still there in force, our political leaders allowed Maliki to take office in 2006, knowing of his ties to Iran. The chance to create a national unity government dedicated to Iraqi independence was lost at that moment– and then lost again in 2010 when Obama made the same mistake as Bush and let Maliki win a second term.
The U.S. had won the respect and trust of the Sunni community by promising that their rights would be protected in a democratic Iraq. But that promise could not be enforced once American troops withdrew. Into the power vacuum returned the militants to help defend the Sunnis from Shiite oppression. It should be noted that when it is reported that local Sunni militia are marching with the ISIS there are two reasons, not just that they have a common enemy. The local tribes want to control their own fate; they do not want “foreign” ISIS leaders taking over their homeland. The Kurds have acted even more directly, taking control of Kirkuk to free it from Maliki and protect it from ISIS.
The U.S. strategic position in the Middle East is aligned with the Sunnis. Washington’s alliance system is anchored on Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and includes the smaller states of Jordan, Kuwait and the Gulf emirates. President Obama has never seemed to understand this. In his infamous 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama charged that the U.S. position in the Middle East needed to be rebuilt when in fact President George W. Bush had left him a solid alignment with the region’s Sunni governments, an alignment which even included Israel in the common front against Iran.
President Obama has bungled every aspect of Middle East policy, but two issues are most relevant to the current crisis. Failure to provide heavy weapons and other support to Sunni rebels early in the Syrian civil war let slip the opportunity to hit Iran hard by depriving it of a major ally. Assad might have been overthrown fairly quickly, but time has worked against American interests. Militants again filled the vacuum; those who are willing to fight gain prestige and influence. Yet, even fanatics cannot stand against a determined regular army. Assad’s forces were reinforced by Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. The tide turned towards the Syrian regime last summer. The use of chemical weapons gave the U.S. the justification to launch strikes than might have turned the tide back towards the rebels, but then Congressional Republicans revealed they were as strategically ignorant as the Democratic Left and refused to give the president authority to act.
The Obama administration then concluded an interim nuclear deal with Iran which allows uranium enrichment to continue and keeps certain nuclear sites free of inspections. Sanctions relief was given to Tehran just as it needed breathing space to conduct greater military efforts in Syria (and now Iraq). The credibility of strikes against Iran for bad behavior was further weakened. Israel and Saudi Arabia both protested the agreement.
Which brings us to the alarming discussion in some circles about how we might launch strikes against the Sunni insurgents (who are backed by our Arab allies) to save Maliki in cooperation with Iran! On Friday, a State Department spokesman mentioned it. On Monday, Secretary John Kerry noted “great difficulties with the existing government” of Iraq but then said the use of drones against the ISIS was an option. Though the administration, led by the Pentagon, later retreated from any “military cooperation” with Tehran, the idea of attacking the Sunni forces is still on the table. This would be a monumental strategic mistake that could doom the entire region.
The ISIS lacks the numbers and firepower to capture Baghdad. They have pushed the Shiite government out of the Sunni areas but dare not try to occupy the Shia lands. They can disrupt Iranian movement through Iraq to Syria, which is to the good. The result may bring the merging civil wars to a stalemate, opening the door to negotiations or at least containing Tehran’s ambitions. This is the best case scenario, and we should not lift a trigger finger to mess it up. The ISIS is doing more to advance our interests in the region than threaten them.