Like many others, the staff at MacNicol and Associates enjoy starting off our day with a warm cup of coffee and some morning reading. Well, we usually enjoy it. David Ignatius’ Op-Ed in the Washington Post made for a particularly poor start to our morning. Just read the first two sentences:
“Let’s look at the reality on the ground in the Middle East: Iraq and Syria are effectively partitioned along sectarian lines; Lebanon and Yemen are close to fracturing; Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia survive intact but as increasingly authoritarian states.”
Unfortunately, David is right: the Middle East is once again a seemingly intractable mess. To make matters worse, the escalating Ukrainian conflict –mentioned in our post yesterday – is adding to the instability and uncertainty of the current geo-political scenario.
The last time we wrote about the ISIS, they had just captured the Northern city of Mosul- Iraq’s second largest city. Since then, the Sunni-extremists have advanced southward, toward the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich Gulf Coast. ISIS has encountered little resistance in its advancement and has taken numerous towns, some as few as 40 kilometers away from Baghdad.
Shiite Militias have mobilized and have established positions surrounding Baghdad. Many pundits suggest that if the capital were to fall, the country would soon collapse and devolve into multiple, competing states, divided along ethnic and religious lines. Needless to say, the West has a strong interest in defending Baghdad as well, seeing as they spent 8 years and $1.7 trillion fighting to overthrow Saddam Hussein and install ‘democracy’. In addition, any further disruptions to the Iraqi oil supply would send the worlds oil markets into frenzy.
Relative to the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East has an even more divisive and violent history, with a melting pot of ethnic and religious cultures. All in all, President Obama has been dealt a pretty terrible hand; there are really no good options. The Iraqis, together with many in the global community, are calling for an American intervention, but the actual execution of American involvement is a contentious and important decision.
Some have been calling for a full-scale military intervention, however, this view is held by a vocal minority. Among the pundits, it is almost a unanimous consensus that boots on the ground is off the table. The American public could not stomach the thought of a third war in Iraq.
Barring a full-scale mobilization, Obama still has a few potential options he can use to attempt to stabilize the region. For one, his administration could use targeted drone strikes to eliminate the ISIS militants and its leadership. However, this is a controversial policy that often yields many civilian casualties. The same can be said about targeted airstrikes. In order for airstrikes to be successful, the U.S. would need verifiable intelligence to identify targets and opportunities. At the moment, the Iraqi government cannot be relied upon to provide this information, and Obama seems unwilling to risk American lives by deploying troops to carry out the task. Despite claims by the administration that air strikes are off the table as well, it seems likely that Obama will use some combination of drone and air strikes to weaken the ISIS. That being said, targeted strikes alone will not be enough to halt the ISIS advance — the USA needs a partner that is committed both militarily and politically. That is to say, they need a partner willing to fight ISIS now and govern Iraq later.
The U.S. mantra concerning foreign policy has always been that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This policy was summarized by Senator Lindsey Graham, who stated that the U.S. had to cooperate with Joseph Stalin (pictured below with FDR) during World War II, in order to properly address the threat posed by Adolf Hitler. In the past, the U.S. has also equipped foreign militias to fight what are known as ‘proxy wars’, where they can support their allies economically rather than risking American lives. An example of such a tactic was with the militia group known as ‘the Mujahedeen’, which was supported by the U.S. to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. If this tactic were to be extrapolated to the current conflict, the U.S. would have two ‘enemies’ that could prove valuable friends: Bashar Al Assad in Syria, and the state of Iran.
As stated numerous times, the ISIS is a Sunni-extremist group, fixated on exacting revenge on the sectarian Nouri Al Maliki and his ruling Shiite government. Iran is the world’s largest Shiite majority country, and they have a significant vested interest in preventing the ascension of a Sunni-extremist group. Bashar Al Assad and his Syrian governments are Shia-Alwaite’s, and are also under enormous pressure from the ISIS. In a must-watch Charlie Rose interview, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, hinted at the possibility of allying with both Assad and Iran, who are traditionally seen as American enemies, to fight ISIS.
Theoretically, this strategy makes a lot of sense. Iran could mobilize Shiite Militias to fight the ISIS in Syria, and the U.S. could increase aid to Assad in order to fight the ISIS in Syria. Not surprisingly, this idea does not come without its share of complications. For one, Iran and U.S. have had ‘testy’ historical relations, to say the least. The scars of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis remain. More recently, Iran supported Shiite Militias in the Iraq War to fight back against the American ‘infidels’. It is tough to ignore the American blood on the hands of the Iranians. Furthermore, closer relations with Iran would serve to anger America’s two strongest allies in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni majority country, and thus would disapprove of U.S. involvement with its Shiite rival. Additionally, Iran refuses to recognize the state of Israel, and is has a long history of contention with the country.
Just one year ago, Barack Obama sat idle as Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons on his own people- a blatant violation of international law. Would the U.S. really be willing to get into bed with such a brutal tyrant? As if the situation needed to get anymore complicated, Russia is Syria’s largest supporter. Any support the U.S. provides to Syria would provide indirect support to Russia, who has cut off natural gas to Ukraine and faces potential sanctions by the EU.
To be blunt, the situation in the Middle East is a mess. There really aren’t any good options, only a few not as bad ones. President Obama needs to act swiftly to stabilize the region and the global oil market, before the conflagration spreads or intensifies.