As the United States pivots back onto a war footing in the Middle East, President Obama’s strategy is rooted in at least three basic assumptions, all of them highly questionable.
In his prime-time speech Wednesday, Obama envisioned the emergence of a newly unified Iraqi government, an effective Iraqi fighting force and a reenergized, U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel front in Syria. Along with U.S. training and airstrikes, and help from international allies, those three factors would spell defeat for Islamic State militants who have made deep inroads in both Syria and Iraq.
All three goals seem long shots in a region where U.S. aims have often foundered amid harsh and intractable realities.
Key to the plan is the belief that a new Iraqi government can bring reconciliation to a deeply divided land and draw alienated Sunni Muslim Arabs back into the national fold. This notion seems dubious. The administration of the new prime minister, Haider Abadi, is not significantly different from that of his predecessor and longtime colleague Nouri Maliki, who was the poster boy for U.S.-backed governance in Iraq until he was labeled a sectarian spoiler.
There is no guarantee that the government’s essentially sectarian nature will be transformed. It could even get worse, as majority Shiite Muslims demand revenge for Sunni complicity in militant mass executions and other atrocities.
Still, many analysts agree that swapping out administrations in Baghdad was a necessary move. There were few other options to revive a dysfunctional government threatened by a militant front.
“Yes, it’s the same old faces, it’s old wine in a new bottle,” said Fawaz Gerges, former director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “It’s not a fundamentally different political landscape. But it’s a good solid beginning, a first step in the right direction.”
Still, whatever concessions the Shiite Abadi makes — giving a crucial security portfolio to the Sunnis, for instance — will not necessarily assuage alienated Sunnis and make for a governable, cohesive nation. The divisions are too profound for a quick fix. The sectarian bloodletting of 2006-07 provides an ominous backdrop.
Sunni outrage runs deep: Sunni leaders routinely label the Shiite-run army and militias as more of a terrorist threat than Islamic State.
In Baghdad, Shiites remain at the helm, a fact that many Sunnis cannot accept after decades of somewhat favorable treatment under the late Saddam Hussein, a Sunni with an Arab tribal background. And Sunni leadership remains deeply fractured, with no single religious figure — such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the chief Shiite cleric in Iraq — who can issue authoritative edicts.
“If there was one thing I learned from observing Iraqi politics, it is nearly impossible to ‘make the Sunnis happy,’” said Yasir Abbas, an analyst with Caerus Associates, a Washington-based group that researches conflict areas. “The Sunnis have yet to come to terms with being a large minority in Iraq.”
Meantime, the Kurds continue to press demands — exclusive rights to their oil, expansion into mixed Arab-Kurd areas such as Kirkuk — that Arabs, Shiite and Sunni alike, find unpalatable. Ultimately, the Kurds will probably accede to U.S. pressure to moderate their stance, but a long-term solution to their many grievances still seems far off.
Also, the Obama plan presumes that the tattered Iraqi security forces — both the regular army and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the north — can swiftly be transformed into modern armies capable of confronting Islamic State. Based on their performances so far, this is a stretch.
Both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga have retreated in humiliating fashion from Islamic State forces in recent months, leaving vulnerable minorities and others in the lurch. The indecorous retreats raised fundamental questions about the Iraqi forces’ ultimate viability, despite extensive U.S. training and close collaboration with U.S. troops during the American-led occupation that ended in 2011.
Neither the Iraqi military nor the peshmerga fit the definition of an effective, modern army. The Iraqi forces, said to number more than 300,000, have been beset by phantom units, rampant corruption, divided loyalties and a lack of desire to confront Islamic State. An exception is certain special forces, but their numbers are limited, and many Sunnis regard them as no better than death squad commandos.
Sunnis are also put off by the robust presence in Baghdad and elsewhere of Shiite militiamen, many of them backed by Iran. But it is arguably thanks to the Shiite volunteers that the Islamic State advance was thwarted north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the peshmerga’s much-heralded recapture of territory in the north clearly has as much to do with U.S. airstrikes as with the performance of the Kurdish fighters, who have seemed disorganized, badly equipped and saddled with an aging command structure still reliving the glory days of their 1980s guerrilla war against Hussein.
This is a very different fight. Absent U.S. air support, which will not always be available, it is unclear how the peshmerga can overcome Islamic State.
Still unclear is a key question: Who is capable of mounting a ground offensive to retake key Sunni cities such as Tikrit and Mosul?
The latter, Iraq’s second-largest city and home to about 2 million people, has become a Sunni militant bastion and fortress. The task seems likely to fall to the Iraqi army, with backing from Shiite militias and possibly the peshmerga. Mosul’s predominantly Sunni Arab residents will undoubtedly resist fiercely what they will view as an invasion by hostile forces. It could devolve into a massive street battle, a larger version of the 2004 battle for Fallouja.
“We know Mosul is an Arab city, and there are extreme sensitivities involved, so we are proceeding cautiously,” Brig. Gen. Sardar Karim of the peshmerga said recently near the front lines in the north, a scarce 15 miles east of Mosul.
U.S. and Iraqi expectations that a game-changing Sunni opposition will spontaneously arise in Mosul and the Sunni provinces now under militant dominion remain wishful thinking. This time around, there will be no U.S. boots on the ground, no U.S. commanders with sacks of cash destined for tribal sheiks willing to abandon Al Qaeda. U.S. bombardment will be of little use in the urban confines of places such as Mosul and Tikrit.
Finally, Obama’s strategy to bludgeon Islamic State in Syria rests on another questionable notion, that so-called moderate rebels, to the extent that they exist anymore in Syria, can somehow be transformed from a halting, atomized force into a well-oiled war machine on two fronts, against Islamic State and President Bashar Assad’s government. Three years of warfare suggest otherwise.
There is little concrete evidence that the strategy will work, despite the pledge of new money and arms, and the cheerleading from various interventionists in the United States, from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to sundry Washington think tanks that regularly pump out position papers citing the untapped potential of the “moderates.”
Various rebel groups have already received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, along with training, from the U.S. and its allies, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, along with immense logistical assistance from Turkey, which shares a 500-plus-mile border with Syria. The aid rivals the billions of dollars funneled to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a largesse that helped midwife Al Qaeda and three decades of Afghan instability.
This time, the money and arms have successfully destabilized the Assad government and contributed to unimaginable destruction in Syria. But the massive effort has also energized Islamic State, now heralded as an even more robust threat than Al Qaeda.
The various rebel forces labeled “moderate” remain factionalized, riven with criminal elements and infused with religious extremism. This week, the family of Steven Joel Sotloff, the U.S. journalist beheaded in Syria, charged that it was “moderate” rebels who sold him to the extremists for cash.
Many units affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army collaborate openly with Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Unlike Islamic State, Al Qaeda is clear in its goal of mounting attacks in Western Europe and the United States.
The process of “vetting” rebels for U.S. aid has appeared problematic. Many reports have surfaced of weapons ending up in the hands of Islamic militants.
“In Syria, the partners on the ground are the most worrisome element of the strategy,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Rand Corp. analyst, said Thursday in a conference call. “What’s not clear is what is different from even several months ago, when the president outlined and articulated his concerns about arming the opposition groups in Syria.”
In his speech this week, the president made no mention of toppling Assad’s government, an event that could unleash even more turmoil and sectarian-fueled killings. The Obama approach appears more aimed at containing Islamic State within Syria while the U.S. ramps up its focus on neighboring Iraq. There is some logic to this approach.
In Iraq, the situation is less dire and complex than in Syria. Washington also has ostensible allies in Iraq, and a government partner. Iraq remains a strategic, oil-rich nation in which the United States has invested much blood and money.
“Barack Obama knows very well that there is no effective strategy in Syria,” said Gerges. “The key concern for the Obama administration is not Syria, it is Iraq.”
McDonnell, The Times’ Beirut bureau chief, has covered the Syrian conflict since 2011. He previously covered the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, beginning in 2003. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.