Getting Real: Facing Necessary Facts in Syria and Iraq
Washington’s admitting some hard truths is a pre-requisite to defeating ISIS.
December 26, 2015
Any serious attempt to formulate a strategy for addressing the multifaceted crisis we confront in the Middle East should begin with acknowledging some unpleasant facts of life.
The first is that neither willpower nor faith alone will alter the incontrovertible realities of this daunting situation.
The United States has been the main contributor to the emergence of a singularly complex challenge that threatens our interests and the stability of the region.
Washington only compounds its culpability while simultaneously reducing the chances of finding a tolerable way out of the jam if it remains addicted to fanciful thinking.
And yet it remains wedded to a set of totally unrealistic propositions. This results in the creation of a make-believe world that bears no relation to reality.
Here are some of the biggest fictions that must be abandoned:
- Jihadist Syrian frontrunners al-Nusra/al-Qaeda can be transmogrified into mere expressions of genuine Sunni grievances.
- Nusra jihadists can be converted into the instrument for militarily crushing ISIS just because there is nobody else willing or able to a job America won’t take on.
- Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies will give priority to defeating the various Salafist groups rather than to the removal the Alawite regime in Damascus.
- ISIS’s financial lifeline can be cut without destroying the infrastructure of its oil trade and without getting Turkey to cease and desist its complicity in sustaining the oil trade.
- The Russians can be “isolated” and denied a major role in determining Syria’s future by calling Putin dirty names and reciting the number of worthless partners in Obama’s ersatz coalition.
- Phantom Syrian rebel armies devoted to tolerance and democracy – that don’t exist except in the escapist visions of Washington’s strategic non-thinkers – can be relied upon to win battlefield victories.
- Establishing a no-fly buffer zone in northern Syria would do something other than satisfy Erdogan’s ambition to keep open his supply line to al-Nusra and his lucrative commercial dealings with ISIS.
- Such a no-fly buffer zone would not contradict our purposes in Syria and would be tolerated by Russia.
- It is within the power of the United States to shape the Middle East to its own specifications while contesting a legitimate place for Iran, Russia, Yemenese Houthis and anyone else who doesn’t hew the Saudi-Israeli-Erdogan line Washington has endorsed.
The real work ahead
After clearing the decks of the shards from punctured delusions, the time has come to accept that there is a lot of hard, dirty work ahead – with no guarantee of success.
America is not smiled upon by some benevolent deity who protects it from the consequences of its arrogance and obtuseness.
Barack Obama dearly wishes for some deus ex machina to relieve him of the pain and suffering he has earned by his own failings. It won’t arrive.
On the diplomatic plane, Obama would have to muster the courage to confront the reckless royals of the new Salman dynasty in Riyadh and the aspiring Ottoman Caliph in Ankara – as well as the Prime Minister of Israel, who is ever more repressive and arrogant.
All three are working at cross-purposes to any reasonable and intelligent strategy, when not in direct contradiction to it. In addition, he will have to find it within himself to deal with Vladimir Putin.
Parameters for a serious strategy
Finally, there are certain givens in the parameters for devising and implementing a serious strategy.
1. Adios, Old Iraq
Iraq cannot be knit back together as a unitary state. At best, Kurdistan has to be accorded autonomy within a confederal structure.
Where the boundaries of such a political entity are drawn, the question of incorporating any portion of Kurdish Syria will be open to negotiation.
The overwhelmingly Sunni regions of Iraq also will have to be accorded some measure of political autonomy, along with an equitable revenue-sharing arrangement between it and the central government in Baghdad.
Those two givens may be in conflict, since the Kurdish government in Erbil and the Sunni Arabs (with Turkey’s sympathies) both have their eyes cast on Mosul.
That points to a related given: Erdogan’s dispatch of Turkish forces into the Mosul region without permission of the al-Abadi government in Baghdad foretells his ambition of establishing a presence and playing the role of arbiter for his own purposes.
2. Syria Might Need to Stick Together
A quasi-partition of Syria would be far harder for demographic reasons. The divisions are less clear-cut, insofar as many Sunnis and all the minorities would prefer a non-sectarian regime over living (if permitted) marginally in sectarian defined provinces.
It follows that no presumption should be made that partition is the only viable option for the long-term.
3. Stamping out ISIS
ISIS must be militarily defeated and its pseudo-state apparatus uprooted, but it cannot be done along current lines.
The current policy is correct in the sense that it is true no measure of stability can be achieved, as long as that fanatical movement is capable of taking concerted action against other religious or political formations.
Its very being is predicated on exclusiveness. Its core ambition is to subordinate, suppress and dominate all rivals.
Therefore, mustering the force requisite for neutralizing ISIS is an absolute precondition for a restoration of an approximation to normalcy.
But the present policy skips over – in favor of magical thinking and phantom forces – the implication that the United States cannot in principle exclude from a de facto alliance those parties (excepting the ISIS-light forces under Nusra Front) that can realistically make a substantial contribution to such a military effort.
Without that, the United States must be prepared to deploy 100,000 or so American troops and maintain them in Syria indefinitely against popular opinion in both the United States and Syria itself.
Working with non-jihadist forces that can stop ISIS means fashioning some working relationship with Russia, the Syrian Army (with or without Assad), the various Kurdish forces and – in Iraq – with the Hashed Shi’ite militias. Logically, there is no alternative.
Only after all of these hard truths are acknowledged — and the convenient delusions abandoned — can a new policy be formulated that has any meaningful chance of success.
The US is the main contributor to a quagmire that threatens the stability of the Middle East.
Washington remains wedded to unrealistic propositions when it comes to addressing ISIS.
ISIS must be militarily defeated and its pseudo-state uprooted, but not along current lines.
Working with non-jihadist forces to stop ISIS means the US fashioning a working relationship with Russia.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]