Want To Stop ISIS? Look No Further, But Really Look
The Middle East never seemed further from peace than it does today.
The most recent blow, the incredible collapse of government forces in Iraq to a Sunni insurgency, is the manifestation and convergence of several underlying problems. These problems are the result of a failure of United States leadership over the last decade, most pointedly in the last few years. However, this does not mean that the United States must use a military option to resolve the situation.
Iraq’s modern borders – so long as they keep – hold groups of people together who were never particularly friendly toward one another. Power sharing between the various ethnic and religious groups has always been a challenge. The dictatorial power of Saddam Hussein could not contain the centrifugal political and social forces in his country without him slaughtering his opponents. The American invasion succeeded in so far as it blew the lid off these tensions, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths amid sectarian bloodshed.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured us that US troops were no longer needed in a significant capacity. With the billions worth of American military equipment he had, this seemed reasonable, and violence levels seemed relatively low enough for US troops to leave. All the while, he was building a state that heavily favored his own Shia denomination. Iraq’s Sunnis, having lost their favored status in the Saddam-era and subject to further systematic alienation and oppression under Maliki, had significant grounds for revolt. Anbar province saw many peaceful protests against the Maliki government in 2012 and 2013. Maliki responded to this much as his neighbor Bashar Assad did. Protesters were often shot in the streets. Much of this did not receive wide media attention due to the concurrent horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
Also concurrent to these events was the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). This fanatical extremist group, composed mostly of foreigners from Chechnya, Europe, and North Africa (though Iraqis and Syrians are also involved) are reviled even by al-Qaeda. They gained a foothold in areas of northern Syria that rebels had already liberated from Assad’s forces, where they imposed strict Sharia law. The group displays open racism, particularly against Kurds. Opponents, aid workers, journalists, activists, minority religious leaders (you name it) are tortured, beheaded, crucified or worse. The general population is subject to abduction, robbery, amputation of hands, and public lashing if they defy ISIS’s version of Islamic law.
This is also the fault of the United States. In this case however, it is the result of inaction, rather than action. The moderate Syrian opposition was already fighting a mismatched war against a well-armed and brutal government. Assad’s crimes include but are nowhere near limited to the following: skipping easily over Obama’s sorry excuse for a red line and using chemical weapons on his own people, using indiscriminate barrel bombs on residential areas thousands of times over, abduction, torture, rape and ethnic cleansing. The Syrian opposition in their various subgroups fought on and amazingly still fight, but we have ignored every plea for assistance. Today, not only do they face the Assad regime, but the radical ISIS has them pinned from the back, now (ironically) awash in American military supplies looted from Maliki forces in Iraq.
Obama’s foreign policy is shaping up to be just as ignorant as his predecessor’s, but in an overly cautious rather than brazen sort of way. Though it really is past time someone competent took his place, I would offer the following suggestions to shape American foreign policy toward Iraq and Syria:
1. Let Iraq Sort Itself
Though ISIS has swept through most of Anbar and Nineveh (and is closing in on Baghdad), they are mostly acting as the vanguard of a popular Sunni insurgency. These tribes and ex-Baathists, responding to oppression by the Maliki government, have some just grievances. They will regret cooperation with ISIS once they begin imposing their Islamic extremist vision as they have in Syria, but let them find out for themselves.
The wisest voice in the entire Iraq situation is that of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its Peshmerga forces. In the chaos, they have seized control of disputed areas like the city of Kirkuk. They had always borne the brunt of Saddam’s oppression, but have arguably become the most politically savvy as a result. They have advised Maliki to allow the Sunni areas of Iraq to have political autonomy, just as the Kurds do. This could result in the non-ISIS elements of the insurgency relenting, satisfied in their ability to govern themselves, and then turning on ISIS. ISIS cannot survive long if the populace it rules over has the will and means to fight back and pursue a different vision.
This may end with Iraq’s de facto partition. Though it was insane for candidate Joe Biden to suggest such a thing in 2008, it seems more acceptable coming from figures in Iraq. For America to have orchestrated a partition of Iraq then would be as inappropriate as Russia’s meddling in east Ukraine today. But a national breakup based on mutual consent stirs no talk of imperialism. Maliki and his backers are the lynchpins in this case. If Iran gets more involved, they will only find the quagmire through which Americans have already waded. It is best they see the wisdom of consolidating Shia areas and negotiating with the non-ISIS Sunni insurgents.
2. Help Syria Already!
I hate to rehash my call for intervention in Syria so many times over, which I have been for the last two years, and I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ but it is just so painfully obvious a solution that every day it is not executed is like spitting on the grave of those tens of thousands who have died, and those who are yet to die. If Bill Clinton regrets inaction in Rwanda or delay in Bosnia, I hope Obama never sleeps again.
Indisputably, striking Assad (particularly his air force) would have allowed Syrian rebels to save thousands of civilian lives and nip ISIS in the bud. For lack of that, providing more than piecemeal weapon supplies to the Syrian rebels would have done the same. Instead, ISIS and Assad thrive off each other. ISIS makes millions selling oil to the Assad regime, and Assad blesses ISIS for keeping the rebels off balance.
So what is the problem? Yes, perhaps airstrikes won’t make it through Congress or the UN Security Council. And nobody sane ever asked for troops. But let us discuss weapons supplies for a moment. What is the CIA worth if they haven’t been able to ‘vet’ who is a reliable recipient of certain weapons in Syria after three years? There has been a recent spike in American anti-tank missiles in use among Syrian rebels, and no doubt they are not unhelpful. But they are useless against Assad’s MiGs and helicopters, and would be wasted on the countless pickup trucks and humvees of ISIS. The situation is hellish now, but not unsalvageable. The Syrian rebels require greater lethal assistance – yes, including MANPADS – so that they are not spread so thin. For that matter, the YPG in Syria has been duking it out with ISIS nearly unassisted for a whole year. Why not help them too? The YPG is a secular Kurdish militia that features gender-equal participation unrivaled anywhere in the Middle East except perhaps in Israel. They are essentially the Syrian version of the Peshmerga in Iraq, which some are already calling on to receive US support. The Kurds of Syria will be a crucial part of any agreement on the status of Syria if the war ever ends, and stand as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in any case.
If ISIS loses in Syria, they will shortly disintegrate in Iraq. They are only ten thousand, but the longer they are allowed to operate freely, the more recruits they will gather. Yes, overthinking the situation as Obama has done is just as damaging as the guns-blazing-akimbo approach of the Bush years.
The thinking on Iraq and Syria has always been backwards. Intervention is appropriate in one case where it is not in the other. The United States needs to make the right choice between the two. Though the US was instrumental in putting Iraq in its current predicament, there is nothing more to be done there. That the US irreversibly wrecked Iraq needs to be recognized. Action in Syria would be different from all that. From the earliest days of the Syrian Civil War, the mantra echoes on, and rings as true as ever:
“Syria is not Iraq. Syria is not Iraq.”
And Iraq is not Syria. But I’ve little hope anyone can hear.