Iraq: The Enemy of My Enemy is Not My Friend
The proverb that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not an Arab proverb, it is a Sanskrit proverb that predates the Prophet Muhammad by roughly 1,000 years. It is also a proverb with a dismal history in practice. In case after case, the “enemy of my enemy” has actually proven to have been an enemy at the time or turned into one in the future. The Mongols did not save Europe from the Turks, and the Soviet Union was scarcely an ally after the end of World War II.
ISIS/ISIL and the “Islamic State” are Vital Threats to Our National Security, But…
The United States needs to remember this as it considers military action in Iraq and reshaping its military role in Syria. It needs to remember this as it reshapes its security partnerships with proven friends like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. There is no question that the rise of ISIS/ISIL and the creation of an “Islamic State” that overlaps Eastern Syria and much of Western Iraq poses a major security threat in the Middle East.
It threatens to divide Syria indefinitely into the future, put Iraqi Sunnis under a Jihadist regime, become a massive breeding ground for extremist and terrorism, worsen tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, act as a Jihadist challenge to every modern Muslim regime around it, and potentially threaten the flow of energy exports to the global economy. ISIS/ISIL is an enemy of the United States and a security threat to our regional allies and our vital strategic interests.
We Face at Least Three Enemies and Not One
We do, however, need to be extremely careful about how we intervene. ISIS/ISIL and the “Islamic State” did not arise because of some spontaneous popular support for Islamic extremism, or because of outside support for Sunni fighters. It is the product of a failed Assad regime, and his choice of violent repression over reform. It is the product of Maliki’s steady build-up of a new authoritarian regime within the cloak of democracy in Iraq, and his steady increase and violent repression of Sunnis since the 2010 election.
We also face challenges from both Iran and now from Russia. Whatever may emerge out of the P5+1 negotiations and what seems to be a more “moderate” Rouhani presidency in Iran, the Iranian presence in Iraq is dominated by hardline officers and ex-officers in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that have strong ties to Maliki and those around him.
The wrong kind of US support for Iraq is any support to Maliki that would further alienate Iraq’s Sunnis and give Maliki major new leverage over the Kurds. Any such developments would both further empower a corrupt, autocratic thug and give Iran major new influence in Iraq. Any such support will only make the United States a partner in the Shi’ite side of the civil war that Maliki has done much to provoke over the last three years.
At best, the United States will only be a temporary presence with limited access to the country and the field. Iran is on the ground, and will stay on the ground. While Iranian moderates may have a different view of the risks involved, it seems all too likely that the IRGC and Khamenei will feel Iran can afford to exploit a future in which both Assad and Maliki are dependent on Iran for support, and ISIS/ISIL poses more of a threat to moderate Sunni states and regimes than Iran.
We do not face one enemy. We face at least three: Assad, Maliki, and the mix of ISIS/ISIL and other hostile Sunni elements in Syria and Iraq. We also face a significant adversary in Iran, and the risk the growing tensions between the United States and Russia will lead Moscow to play a spoiler function in pushing its new view of the Color Revolution and effort to expand its role outside Europe by supporting Iran and Maliki.
If there is any proverb to be employed under these conditions, it is that “our friends must remain our friends.” Our focus needs to be on Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and key Arab Gulf military powers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait – as well as security partners with vital facilities like Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt and Oman.
The Challenge of Syria
Whatever we do, we cannot focus on Iraq to the exclusion of Syria, and we need to be honest about our prospects and options. We have now missed the time window for creating and supporting a strong moderate rebel movement by more than two years. No amount of shuffling or reorganizing of the largely powerless exile political movement or the weak moderate rebel military forces can change that.
We also cannot afford to target ISIS/ISIL in Iraq, and enable the Iraqi government to recover Sunni areas in Iraq by force, and leave a hostile Sunni population in Iraq and create violently anti-U.S. Sunni Jihadist force with a sanctuary in eastern Syria. The role of North Vietnam and Pakistan as sanctuaries in two different wars should serve a lesson, and so should the broad rise of Jihadist extremism in the entire MENA region, Pakistan, and Central Asia since 2001.
This makes choosing and actually implementing a strategy for U.S. intervention in Syria a key prelude to choosing and implementing a policy in Iraq. There are no good options at this point, but there are options:
- Stop trying to conduct U.S.-led operations in Syria, and let Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE take the lead. Back Sunni states that clearly see ISIS/ISIL and other Jihadist movements in Syria as much of a threat as Assad. Give them backing in releasing more advanced arms and supporting the less extreme Sunni movements, and make it clear that the United States is not choosing the Shi’ite side in Iraq to the exclusion of Sunnis or somehow tilting towards the Shi’ite side.
- Tailor any support of an air campaign in Iraq – and support of the Iraqi security forces – to one that does not alienate and exclude Iraqi Sunnis. Target ISIS/ISIL and other hostile Sunni forces to limit their ability to retreat back in to Syria, and consider using UCAV and U.S. precision air power to strike at key ISIS/ISIL leaders and cadres in Syria – doing so in a form that is extremely careful to avoids collateral damage, carries out a war of attrition, and keeps up constant pressure on the threat without broadening the strikes in ways that help Assad.
- Shift the strategic focus of the U.S. role in Syria to make it clear that Assad and his outside supporters face an indefinite war of attrition with no clear prospects of total victory. Make it clear to Assad that negotiations are the only way out even if this takes years.
- Coordinate humanitarian relief and aid to refugees at levels that minimize the human cost of the fighting and help stabilize Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
The Challenge of Iraq: If Maliki Stays and/or Nothing Approaching an Effective National Government Can be Created
The United States has already said that it should not choose a leader for Iraq. Fair enough. Iraq’s political climate is so divided that only Iraqis can make that choice. The United States can, however, choose the leader it will not support, and dealing with a power hungry and incompetent, sectarian and authoritarian thug like Maliki has proven to be a steadily growing disaster ever since 2006.
We have spent far too long avoiding the truths about Maliki, those around him, and his ties to Iran. Two prior studies by the Burke Chair highlight the extent to which he has become a threat to U.S. interests,
The Administration has distanced itself from Maliki, but reluctantly because of its past efforts to spin the outcome of the war in favorable terms, and in ways that still sharply understate the problems he has created and still creates. It is time that Congress held open hearings about his role in provoking a civil war, and the Select Committees on Intelligence reviewed his history at a far more sensitive level.
The fact remains, however, that it may now be too late to force Maliki out, create a meaningful national government in Baghdad, and to convince the moderate Sunnis in Iraq that they can trust the result. It is also a grim fact that the steady rise in sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq has tended to polarize its leaders into extremes both along sectarian and ethnic lines, and within their own ethnic and sectarian bloc.
Under these conditions, the U.S. should choose and actually implement a strategy that takes full account of these realities:
- U.S. military assistance should be clearly conditional. It should be provided under conditions where the United States actively and openly holds a dialogue with Sunni, Kurdish, and opposition Shi’ite figures. It should be clear that the United States does not trust Maliki, wants him gone, and will not take sides against Sunnis or strengthen Maliki in ways that might threaten the Kurds. If Maliki will not accept this, the United States should make it clear that he must go or there is no aid.
- The United States should repeat its treatment of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and intelligence effort during the war. It should publically identify elements of the ISF that Maliki uses to suppress and abuse Sunnis and build his own power, and make aid conditional on their being excluded.
- U.S. advisors should only work with mixed and “national” elements of the security forces, and within the structure of the professional officers and commanders that serve Iraq’s interests rather than Maliki’s or Shi’ites. The United States should only provide support of a kind that will support the creation of an effective force than serves Iraq’s national, rather than sectarian interests.
- The United States should either publically report on – or leak – any action by the Maliki government that is corrupt, favors Shi’ites and pro-Maliki elements of the ISF over the need to defeat ISIS/ISIL and bring Sunnis and Kurds back into the government and ISF, and links Maliki to Iran.
- The United States should place strict restraints on the use of new arms deliveries to prevent them from being used against Sunni or Kurdish populations in ways that solely serve Maliki’s interests and exacerbate the civil war.
- The United States should restrict any use of U.S. airpower and intelligence data to targets that are clearly linked to ISIS/ISIL or other extremist movements. It should shapes its Strategic Communications to make it clear to all Iraqis and all those in the region that Iranian and Russian arms, advisors, and “volunteers” are being used in ways that do not serve the interests of all Iraqis.
- The United States should separately reach out to Sunni tribal and other leaders to encourage them to resist ISIS/ISIL and back the Kurds in creating an expanded security zone and energy exports through Turkey as a counterweight to Maliki, Islamic extremists, and Iran.
- • The United States should reach out to other Shi’ite leaders to seek support for a united and truly national government. It should also both highlight abuses of Sunnis by Shi’ite militias and consider offering covert or overt support and training to militias that are tied to Shi’ite leaders who seek to rebuild Iraq on a national level like Sistani.
The Challenge of Iraq: If Maliki Goes and an Effective National Government Can be Created
The better option by far is for Malik to go, to get a truly national mix of Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders and give them stronger U.S. backing in every dimension. In practice, this means providing more U.S. aid support, a stronger military advisory effort, and working with Iraq to try to rush U.S. FMS deliveries. It also means a major outreach program to the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey to establish close relations with the new Iraqi government.
This effort should involve the following actions:
- U.S. military assistance should support the new government under conditions where the United States actively and openly holds a dialogue with Sunni, Kurdish, and opposition Shi’ite figures. It should be clear that the United States is seeking to help the government meet the needs of all Arab Shi’ites, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds, and that the United States will provide both strong security support and aid in helping Iraqi deal with its problems in governance and economic reform.
- The United States should support the rebuilding of all the elements of the Iraqi Security Forces along professional and national lines. It should, however, be careful not to repeat the mistake of trying to do this “our way,” rather than the Iraqi way.
- It should not try to exclude other countries from playing a role when this is constructive, but it should openly identify any Iranian and other outside efforts that serve sectarian interests or those of the outside power. The United States needs a clear Strategic Communications plan focused on helping a national Iraqi government succeed as well as defeating the ISIS/ISIL threat.
- The United States should seek to repeat the effort it made in restructuring the national police. It should work with the Iraqi government to publically identify and change the elements of the ISF that Maliki used to suppress and abuse Sunnis and to build his own power, and change their structure, composition, and commanders. It should persuade a new government that promotions and command positions must be approved by the entire government, to cease temporary command positions and other ways of linking command to the Prime Minister, and to create a national force based on merit.
- The U.S. advisory mission should be large enough to help Iraqi forces in the field, and Special Forces and other expert elements should be deployed to help with targeting and intelligence at a tactical level.
- The United States should expedite new arms deliveries, seeking Congressional approval of fast tracking and allocation of assets in U.S. forces where necessary.
- The United States should help Iraqi forces use of U.S. airpower and intelligence data to target the ISIS/ISIL threat on a broad level.
- The United States should still shape its Strategic Communications to make it clear to all Iraqis and all those in the region when Iranian or Russian arms, advisors, and “volunteers” are being used in ways that do not serve the interests of all Iraqis.
- The United States should do everything possible to help the new government reach out to Sunni tribal and other leaders to encourage them to resist ISIS/ISIL and actively work to persuade the Kurds to reach a solution with the new government that will tie the size and nature of their security zone and energy exports through Turkey to the rebuilding of Iraq as a unified state – encouraging an Iraq examination of options for federalism in the process.
- The United States should reach out to other Shi’ite leaders to seek support for a united and truly national government. It should also both highlight abuses of Sunnis by Shi’ite militias and consider offering covert or overt support and training to militias that are tied to Shi’ite leaders who seek to rebuild Iraq on a national level like Sistani.
- The United States should work with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE to try to develop an integrated approach to dealing with counterterrorism, the Islamist extremist threat in Syria, and the Assad regime. It should not only encourage strong security ties, but consideration of plans to fully integrate both Jordan and Iraq into the GCC.
The World of Least Bad Options
None of these steps will be easy, but it is time that the Administration, Congress, think tanks, and media began to accept the fact that the United States faces an unstable mess in the entire MENA region that is likely to take at least a decade to play out before there is any real stability. There are no “good” options that can avoid this reality, or avoid the fact the United States must choose between unpleasant alternatives in many cases, and must act rather than wait.
Iraq is only one case in point, and one that cannot be separated from Syria, Iran, or the other states around it. The situation is complex and uncertain, and every course of action involves serious risks. The United States has already shown, however, that delays, half measures, and a reliance on hope, other actors, and soft power is ineffective in dealing with the threats the United States faces. It is time to act on hard choices, and focus on proven friends rather than the hope that somehow the enemies of our enemies will be the answer.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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