The anti-ISIS fire brigade
I’m an Obamista–I campaigned for him and continue to support him. I even sympathize with his much-criticized reluctance to engage abroad. The United States needs a respite. We are a weary world policeman. Our most recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated our limitations more than our capacities.
But even while taking a break from our law and order role, we need to be prepared to lead the fire brigade. Uncontained fires that break out abroad can cause us serious damage here at home. The war in Syria, which the President initially viewed as one not directly affecting American national security, always had the potential to do so, by creating a safe haven for terrorists and by spilling over to neighboring countries.
Now both threats have become real. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has carved out a substantial area of control in both countries. While the challenges of governing may prevent ISIS from threatening the United States in the near future, the supposed caliphate it has established clearly intends to do so. Its threat to fly its black flag over the White House is bombast, but if it gains and consolidates a safe haven in Iraq and Syria ISIS will want to strike the United States. It would be delusional to think otherwise.
The President has chosen to act against ISIS, but in strictly limited ways. He is using American air power to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to threatened civilians as well as to prevent an advance on Iraqi Kurdistan, whose vaunted peshmerga have found it difficult to defend their long confrontation line with ISIS. The US is also providing advice and intelligence to both Kurdistan and Iraqi security forces, which performed miserably when ISIS advanced against Mosul and moved towards Baghdad.
The United States needs to do more. It needs to lead a fire brigade committed to containing and eventually defeating ISIS.
This should not be a US-only effort. ISIS threatens Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia more immediately than it threatens the US. But these are not countries that are used to cooperating with each other. Only Turkey has a habit of projecting military force into neighboring countries. But Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at odds over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, Lebanon is preoccupied with its internal difficulties, and Jordan is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees.
The main ground forces available to meet the ISIS threat are Iraqis and Syrians.
The Iraqi Kurds need help: air power, logistics and intelligence. For the moment, the Americans are providing all three. But there is no reason why Turkey can’t provide at least some of the air power and logistics to help Kurdistan. Turkey’s long border with Kurdish-controlled territory and the immediacy of the ISIS threat would enable it to intervene from the air and supply the Kurds with whatever materiel they may need. Perhaps Qatar might help from the air as well. It participated in the NATO-led operation against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and it shares Turkey’s affection for the Muslim Brotherhood, making it a natural ally.
The Iraqi security forces also need help. They are getting intelligence and some supplies. But President Obama wants Baghdad to form an inclusive government before he commits fully. Nouri al Maliki is still refusing to step down, despite strong hints from Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Iranians that he should do so. He is an extraordinarily stubborn man, and he has the largest block in parliament as well as a lot of personal preference votes in the April election to back his claim to the prime ministry. There are rumors that he is negotiating for a large security detail and immunity. It would be foolish not to give him both under current circumstances, if doing so will accelerate the process of forming a more inclusive government.
Simply changing the prime minister may not solve the problem. Iraq needs a new political compact that will give
- the Kurds money they are owed as well as some capacity to export their own oil and receive the proceeds from its sale;
- the Sunnis more power in Baghdad as well as control over their own destiny in the Sunni-dominated provinces and the money to realize their ambitions.
In exchange, the Kurds should be expected to commit to staying in Iraq and fighting ISIS while the Sunnis and their foreign supporters Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should be expected to turn against ISIS and help defeat it.
Nailing together a pact of this sort in peacetime would be difficult. It may be easier in wartime, as the consequences of failure are all too clear.
ISIS will be easier to defeat in Iraq if it is also attacked in Syria. Bashar al Asad cannot be expected to do that in any but a perfunctory way. It serves his purposes well to have an extremist threat that he can blame for the uprising against his rule. It also conveniently fights against more moderate opposition forces. The Syrian opposition needs more and better weapons and training in order to attack ISIS. It also needs help from the Syrian Kurds, who can attack from ISIS’ rear and have proven effective against ISIS at times in the past.
So the anti-ISIS fire brigade looks something like this:
- Kurds in the north and east supported by Turkey and Qatar in addition to the US,
- Iraqi army in the south and Syrian opposition (including Kurds) in the west supported by the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Putting that 360° coalition together is today’s challenge for American diplomacy.