Turmoil in the Middle East: Western Engagement?


2014-07-03 by Kenneth Maxwell

On the eve of Ramadan, the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levent (Isis), an violently extremist jihadi group, having seized territory in both Iraq and Syria, tore down the boundaries between them, and established a Caliphate, a sovereign state, believed by many Muslims to be the inheritor of the prophet Muhammed’s temporal and spiritual power.

The first caliphate was created in the 7th century after the death of the prophet. The last Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924.

The Isis leader has taken the name of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, – a reference to the first caliph in 632 –  and calls himself caliph Ibrahim.

Isis began has been active in Syria and Iraq since 2004, but the startling success of Isis on the battlefield over the past month, where the Iraqi army disintegrated overnight in the Sunni north and west of Iraq, leaving behind all of its American supplied equipment, including tanks, surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles, and helicopters, has sent shock waves through the Middle East and beyond.

ISIS Convoy in Iraq as Pictured by ISIS twitter lead.
ISIS Convoy in Iraq as Pictured by ISIS twitter lead.

Isis was already well funded. It controls oil fields captured in eastern Syria. Now it has funds looted from Iraqi banks. Isis seized Mosel, Iraq’s second city, on June 10. It seized the Baiji oil refinery on June 18th. It then took Tekrit, hometown of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Kurdish fighters, the seasoned  Peshmerga, have deployed along the borders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and have taken control of the oil rich Kirkuk province.

Kurdistan is now cut off from Baghdad by the Sunni insurgents.

The Kurds have long objected to the sectarian policy and lack of resources provided by the Shiia dominated central government in Baghdad led by the Shiia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The victories of Isis have made strange bedfellows. Iran supports the Shia dominated government in Baghdad, so does the beleaguered Alawite dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and so apparently, after a fashion, does President Barack Obama.

The US is flying surveillance unmanned drone missions over Iraq and has sent three hundred special forces advisers to assess conditions and needs. Iran has also sent drones and advisers.

My colleague Robbin Laird refers to this as Obama’s strategic triad: NSA, drones and Special Forces.

Iraqi lacks an Air Force.

It needs not sophisticated high priced complex fighter jets but effective, easily maintained, ground support jet fighters like the Brazilian Super Tucano.  

But Russia has already delivered 5 Su-30k fighter jets fighters by large Russia jumbo transport plane, as well as Russian experts. These jets are being reassembled in Baghdad and a second shipment is on the way.

The US has not provided the promised F-16 fighter jets, delayed until September or October by Congress, nor the promised attack Apache helicopters, which in any case will require months of pilot training.

Obama wants a unity government of all the factions in Baghdad.

But it is too late for this. Maliki is not inclined to step down.

Nor are the Sunnis and Kurds prepared to accept him any longer. In fact the Kurds are moving towards a referendum on the establishment of new Kurdish State.

In face of the rapid expansion of Isis control in Iraq and in Syria, and with the abandonment of border crossings by Iraqi forces, Saudi Arabia has already mobilized 30,000 troops on its border with Iraq.

With events moving so quickly and unpredictably on the ground, neither time, nor history, is on the US side this time around.

One thing is certain: The US and the West desperately needs a strategy and it needs one quickly.