Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, flew to Iraq this week with dozens of his officers to advise the country’s beleaguered leadership about how to blunt the advance of militant forces on Baghdad, American officials said Friday.
In meeting with General Suleimani, the Iraqis are hosting the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in Iraq when Iraqi Shiite militias trained by Iran fought American troops. The general is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad.
The contact suggests that the Iraqis see the possibility of significant aid from Iran as a means of pressuring the United States to come to Iraq’s defense with aid of its own. And it highlights the complex web of alliances brought to the fore in the current crisis; both the United States and Iran, traditional antagonists, see it in their interest to come to the aid of an embattled partner to repel the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS…
“Everybody has an interest in checking ISIS,” said Amos Yadlin, a retired general and former head of Israeli military intelligence who is now executive director of Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies.
“If we see that the United States takes action against terrorist groups in Iraq, then one can think about it,” Rouhani said at a press conference marking a year since he was elected president.
Both Iranian and American leaders have separately pledged support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in fighting advancing fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“We have said that all countries must unite in combating terrorism. But right now regarding Iraq we have not seen the Americans taking a decision yet,” Rouhani said, mentioning that problems in neighbouring Syria have been made worse by Western support for rebels there.
The extremist group that is threatening the existence of the Iraqi state was built and grown for years with the help of elite donors from American supposed allies in the Persian Gulf region. There, the threat of Iran, Assad, and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war trumps the U.S. goal of stability and moderation in the region…
[I]n the years they were getting started, a key component of ISIS’s support came from wealthy individuals in the Arab Gulf States of Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Sometimes the support came with the tacit nod of approval from those regimes; often, it took advantage of poor money laundering protections in those states, according to officials, experts, and leaders of the Syrian opposition, which is fighting ISIS as well as the regime…
When confronted with the problem, Gulf leaders often justify allowing their Salafi constituents to fund Syrian extremist groups by pointing back to what they see as a failed U.S. policy in Syria and a loss of credibility after President Obama reneged on his pledge to strike Assad if the regime used chemical weapons.
The civil war in Syria would inevitably threaten the stability of Iraq, and potentially turn into a cataclysmic regional conflict. Hence, opponents of intervention in Syria should have realized that the only alternative to intervening in Syria was to send U.S. forces back into Iraq, in order to seal off the Iraq–Syria border and buttress the Iraqi security forces.
But instead of coopting the Syrian resistance, or — the next best thing — sealing the border between Syria and Iraq, we did nothing. By the start of 2013 we had abandoned both the Sunni resistance in Syria and the Sunni heartland in Iraq to Islamist networks, particularly ISIS. The Syrian civil war’s slide across the border into Iraq rapidly became a reality. Violence increased throughout the year until Maliki came begging for American help in November 2013. But Obama hadn’t done anything to stop the region from sliding back into chaos and there was no point in starting now. Maliki left empty-handed, with little choice but to throw himself at the mercy of the Iranians — and hope for survival in a revival of the Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war.
When Obama got to power, a tenuous peace held in the Middle East, and the U.S. stood at the height of its influence and prestige in the region. Of course, the Middle East is a devilishly tricky place; upheaval is always around the corner; and the U.S. can’t single-handedly control any region. But it should be obvious to anyone who takes an honest look at the events of the last five years that the Obama administration’s whole approach to foreign policy was bound to make the Middle East a much more dangerous place.
Obama’s skepticism of American power apparently blinded him to how vital that power was to the maintenance of peace and stability.
It is hard to know for sure, but odds are Iraq would have continued making progress if at least 10,000 American military advisers were still present. They would not have had to take part in combat, but they would have allowed American diplomats and generals to exert pressure on Maliki to curb his sectarian tendencies, and they would have assisted the Iraqi forces to better find, fix, and finish the insurgents without causing lots of collateral damage.
So why aren’t U.S. troops still there? Obama’s supporters blame Maliki and other Iraqi politicians for not agreeing to give U.S. troops legal immunity from prosecution. They also blame George W. Bush for negotiating a previous Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 that expired at the end of 2011, even though there was a widespread expectation in both Iraq and the United States that a renewal would occur when the time came. But the truth is, as New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine general Bernard Trainor make clear in their definitive book, The Endgame, Obama did not try very hard to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement. He waited to start the negotiations until the middle of 2011 even though the last round of talks in 2008 took a year; he leaked word that, even if an agreement were reached, the United States would send only a tiny force of fewer than 5,000 soldiers that was hardly worth the trouble; he insisted that the Iraqi parliament would have to approve the accord even though Iraqi leaders told their American counterparts this was unlikely and unnecessary; he refused to get directly involved in the negotiations; and then he pulled the plug on the talks when they hit their first major obstacle. Obama’s heart just wasn’t in it. He had won the presidency largely because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and he saw no good reason to prolong America’s troop presence.
Many of us on the right supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein. He was a terror supporter. In those post-9/11 days, there was reason to believe our government was serious about dealing with terror-supporting regimes as if they were terrorists. If Saddam was the next domino to fall after the Taliban, all to the good — it didn’t seem like he’d be the last.
But then the Bush doctrine morphed from a crackdown on the jihad into a reimagining of the Middle East. When democracy predictably didn’t take, the dreamers decided to define democracy down rather than admit failure. “Democracy” somehow became fully compatible with repressive sharia, and we fantasized that anti-Western Islamic supremacists were democratic allies and that Iran would play a constructive regional role.
It was absurd. Yet it was the unquestioned premise for concluding, in 2008, that a sharia state gravitating ever further into Iran’s orbit — an Iraqi state that was dependent on the loyalty of Shiite militias and was already in a simmering conflict with its restive Sunni minority — could be trusted in the imminent draw-down, then complete absence, of American troops to preserve the security gains hard won by American bravery and know-how…
That kind of insanity does not happen overnight. It happens after more than 20 years of willful blindness to the ideology of our enemies, and more than 20 years without a strategic vision of the global jihadist challenge.
In 2006, it was Ralph Peters, the retired lieutenant colonel turned columnist, who sketched a map that subdivided Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and envisioned Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics emerging from a no-longer-united Iraq. Two years later, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg imagined similar partings-of-the-ways, with new microstates — an Alawite Republic, an Islamic Emirate of Gaza — taking shape and Afghanistan splitting up as well. Last year, it was Robin Wright’s turn in this newspaper, in a map that (keeping up with events) subdivided Libya as well…
De facto, with the shocking advance of militants toward Baghdad, there are now three states in what we call Iraq: one Kurdish, one Shiite and one Sunni — with the last straddling the Iraq-Syria border and “governed” by jihadists.
This means that Iraq is now part of an arc, extending from Hezbollah’s fiefdom in Lebanon through war-torn Syria, in which official national borders are notional at best. And while full dissolution is not yet upon us, the facts on the ground in Iraq look more and more like Peters’s map than the country that so many Americans died to stabilize and secure.
This week paints Biden’s judgment in a far different light.
Recent events in Iraq call attention to his prediction nearly a decade ago that the war-torn nation was heading towards a break-up along sectarian lines — and to a prescription he offered to try to manage that reality by granting Sunnis, Shia and Kurds greater autonomy over various parts of the country…
“It’s the only solution,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The ship hasn’t sailed. It’s still a basis for doing something…I don’t know if it will work. But in terms of what could work, it’s the only thing.”…
”Biden was wrong because the only way Iraq can be partitioned is the way they are doing it now,” veteran national security journalist Tom Ricks wrote on Twitter Friday. “I think we will wind up with a partitioned Iraq — a Shiite south, a Sunni northwest, and a Kurdish northeast,” he added.
The major reason using force to defend Iraq’s government is a bad idea is that it always was. Advocates of going into Iraq, like advocates of staying in Iraq in past years, tend to employ sunk costs logic, where the pursuit of a good idea before somehow makes it sensible now. Invocations of dead and wounded Americans’ sacrifice give such thinking added resonance but do not make it sensible…
The idea that we need to fight ISIS because of its potential to use terrorism against the United States suffers similar flaws. During the Iraq War, hawks constantly warned that leaving Iraq would allow terrorist havens to form there. Their mental model was 1990s Afghanistan. They ignored the fact that al Qaeda (the original group that attacked Americans) came from particular conflicts, rather than being some kind of plant that grew in failed states. And even in Afghanistan, the problem was more that the government – the Taliban – allied with al Qaeda, rather than the absence of government. And hawks forgot that U.S. gains in drones and surveillance technology since the 1990s had destroyed havens—now those were easy targets.
Today, we are repeatedly told that ISIS is more brutal than al Qaeda and thus a bigger danger to Americans. But that logic conflates a brutal insurgency with a group focused on attacking Americans. ISIS is a nasty group fond of terrorist violence, radical Islam, and Islamic caliphate, but not an obvious threat to Americans. Conflating morally noxious Islamists with groups bent on killing Americans is one of the errors keeping us at endless war.
Whatever the U.S. might do, the president said, will make no difference in the absence of “a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability, and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities.”
The elephant in the room, unmentioned by Obama, is what happens if Iraq’s leaders — or the rebels — turn out to be uninterested in compromise. In particular, the president never said anything approaching this: “We will under no circumstances permit the terrorists to take control of Iraq.”
Barack Obama is a man who knows how to use words. It’s possible, then, that this omission was intended to prepare us for the worst.