2014-12-05 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake
There is little question that the ISIL induced crisis is a major one. And it is one with cascading regional implications.
With several years of dynamic change in the region, and the failure to create a stable Iraq during the period after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, ISIL is like throwing a match into a gas can.
And the tensions in the divisions within the Middle East itself come into play and are augmented and aggravated by both responses to ISIL and the impact of success or failure in containing the impact of the ISIL movement.
In a recent interview with Dr. Amatzia Baram, a leading Israeli expert on the Middle East and notably with regard to Iraq, the regional implications of dealing with ISIL were underscored:
I see essentially two main very negative developments.
One is that Iraq will never be Iraq again, and I cannot see Syria becoming Syria again.
If you have this terrible instability, it’s very, very hard on the other Middle East states.
They see this huge problem, and this is a spoiler of any hope for any stability.
I would still think the American administration has the right approach to see what they can do to try and put Humpty Dumpty back, when it comes to Iraq.
So my main concern would be how to bring stability back to this area by keeping Iraq as Iraq, and Syria as Syria, and saying that, which may be the case we should know within a few months.
The idea is to try and help a new architecture emerge that will enhance stability rather chaos. That’s number one issue.
Number two, not less importantly, is that ISIS cannot be allowed more success.
They already had great success, but they have to at least be stopped.
I can see already all over the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Africa, the intellectual pull from ISIS as a radicalization virus spreading around much of the Islamic world. In other words, if they are more successful, even though it may not create a total chaos where they are already, just the fact that they are so successful means that others will follow their example in the broader region.
So what kind of architecture is possible in view of the dynamics in Iraq and beyond, and the need to have realistic engagement by the US and its allies, rather than an open-ended set of commitments?
Or put another way, we tried occupation and unification via support of an Iraqi Army controlled by the Sunnis in Baghdad. That did not work, but what is a realistic alternatives which can be pursued with realistic means and appropriate to the evolving situation?
It is about ends and means; it is not about replaying the past decade.
There is little doubt that a transitional opportunity was missed by the Obama Administration, but with a new Republican Congress we clearly do not need to hear simply that Obama was wrong or that he had no choice and that we need to repeat the past decade.
We need for Congress to consider realistic policy options and to debate those options in an open manner to gain the trust of the American public, who has every right not to be handed an ultimatum from the Administration or be simply dictated to by events.
Let us start with the simple proposition: Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003.
The President can build on two important realities providing him opportunities in Iraq.
First, Iraq in 2014 is not the Iraq of 2003. Not the least of the differences is the embrace of allies in the effort.
Second, secular forces in Iraq are fighting for their very lives, one which provides the force on the ground and which can anchor sanity in the region, namely the Kurds.
Even more significantly, the first trend intersects with the second.
But Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003 in another key dimension: directly dealing with the failure of the Baghdad government to govern Iraq but rather to use its assets to try to dominate Iraq in the interests of the Shia.
This means that the Iraq Army, a central focus of attention for the US Army in “stability operations,” and “nation building” is an inherently flawed instrument of power.
An alternative path needs to be highlighted and supported.
The US and its allies can commit to the territorial integrity of Iraq but to one which is federal in character, rather than one dominated by a Sh’i-Baghdad.
In the current environment, there are three key players, each of whom is playing a key role and which can anchor a federal Iraq.
The Kurds are clearly focused on fighting and protecting their region and can be counted upon to play a key role in any future Iraq federation.
The US and its allies have clearly seen the value of working with the Kurds, and both training and operating from Kurdish territory.
But there is a limit on what the Kurds will do with regard to the integrity of Iraq.
The Turkish President is playing a deadly game of leveraging the ISIL crisis to augment his internal power and to seek to play a role in shaping the future of Syria but doing precious little to help deal in a concrete manner with ISIL.
And to be clear, this is more about domestic politics and the efforts of the current President to reverse course in the classic Ataturk solution set for Turkish identity.
In the interview, Baram provided some guidance on what the US could do to deal with Turkey, which is clearly at a crossroads of either supporting NATO or befriending ISIL, notably pushed by the question of the Syrian Kurds.
The Turks have no intention of sending ground troops, for the current Turkish Administration is an ally of ISIL.
The Turks are brokering ISIL oil and selling it into the global market among other ways in which they are working with ISIL…..
But what to do about support for the Syrian Kurds?
Here Turkey comes into play; the support of the current Turkish Administration of ISIL is making the US Administration absolutely furious but not furious enough to provide weapons and other supplies to the Syrian Kurds.
And as far as the Turkish reluctance to allow the use of their airbase, it may come to choosing sides between ISIL and NATO.
This crisis is that serious.
The US could begin to build a new airbase in north-eastern Jordan (or expand the existing one there) to prepare to remove its reliance on the Turkish base, a position which might well prove necessary in the evolving politics in the region.
A recent report published in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the Turkish Administration is finally adjusting its position, and by so doing will open up its airbases to the campaign. But if the Turkish Administration fails to do so, it is time to move on.
U.S. and Turkish officials have narrowed their differences over a joint military mission in Syria that would give the U.S. and its coalition partners permission to use Turkish air bases to launch strike operations against Islamic State targets across northern Syria, according to officials in both countries.
As part of the deal, U.S. and Turkish officials are discussing the creation of a protected zone along a portion of the Syrian border that would be off-limits to Assad regime aircraft and would provide sanctuary to Western-backed opposition forces and refugees.
U.S. and coalition aircraft would use Incirlik and other Turkish air bases to patrol the zone, ensuring that rebels crossing the border from Turkey don’t come under attack there, officials said.
Turkey had proposed a far more extensive no-fly zone across one-third of northern Syria, according to officials. That idea was, however, a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which told Ankara that something so invasive would constitute an act of war against the Assad regime.
In contrast to a formal no-fly zone, the narrower safe zone along the border under discussion wouldn’t require any strikes to take out Syrian air defenses. Instead, the U.S. and its coalition partners could send a quiet warning to the Assad regime to stay away from the zone or risk retaliation.
The second key player are the Shia.
The Shia will fight to defend Baghdad, although some US help in terms of airpower is being offered and clearly of use.
The target of the ISIL leadership is clearly Baghdad and the fight between Sunnis and Shia could revolve around the current capital city.
Yet it is very likely that the militia and the fighting remnants of the Iraqi Army can certainly when aided by US and allied air strikes and the Iranian Quds Force defend Baghdad.
This leaves the crucial Sunni factor.
Here the US and its allies have no easy choices.
The Sunnis simply do not trust their experience since 2003 with regard to Baghdad and the Shia role in dominating Iraq through the use of the military, and other power instruments.
To broker a federal Iraq, Mosul needs to be captured and managed by an honest broker, not the Shia Iraqi Army.
The Sunnis are crucial to a federal Iraq, and need to be enlisted to support a new effort away from the Shia dominated approach of the Baghdad government and the training of its Army for control as much as security purposes.
Again Baram provides targeted insight which can be leveraged for a way ahead.
The Kurds have a clear agenda, but so do the Sunnis.
They do not want to be dominated by a Baghdad Shia government.
A way to turn them against ISIL is to provide for their ability to defend themselves against other forces within Iraq and outside of it.
Which means that first and foremost, they want a defense force that will protect them against anybody and everybody: of course, ISIL, but also the Iraqi National Army.
In view of some revanchist Sunni groups, though, this force must be defensive, not sufficiently powerful to overcome either the Kurdish peshmergas or the national Army and, say, conquer Baghdad.
But you see, right now they are in a bind because if they join you, and you don’t give them any guarantees for the future, why not just leverage the ISIL destabilization?
And if the Iraq Army occupies Mosul it will be viewed precisely as that by the Sunnis with the Shia seen to be occupying Mosul. And the U.S. and allied role as an honest broker would simply not be possible.
A way to achieve this is to return the 101st Airborne to Mosul and the recover their key role in providing stability.
The performance of the 101st the last time in Mosul was outstanding and it is crucial to return the same unit to make the same point – we are here to manage in the interests of the citizens of Mosul, not the rulers of Baghdad.
As an airmobile force, there is no group of “boots on the ground” better suited to return to Mosul, help throw back the ISIL and to broker peace than the 101st.
And if one were to return to Veteran’s Day in 2003 and look back at the 101st in Mosul one can capture a sense of the way ahead:
Three suspected terrorists were captured in raids conducted by the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul Saturday and Sunday.
Based on intelligence gathered from local Iraqi citizens, the division’s second Brigade Combat Team sent joint security forces to three different locations in Mosul and detained the suspects for questioning.
One person suspected of planning attacks on coalition forces was found at a hospital in Mosul Saturday. Another thought responsible for several bombings was found Sunday morning in a Mosul home.
The home of a third suspect was targeted, but the suspect was not there.
The suspect’s driver was detained, however, and terrorist paraphernalia, including photos of Osama Bin Laden, were confiscated.
Despite recent attacks by former regime loyalists and foreign terrorists, civilians increasingly cooperate with coalition and Iraqi security forces. Joint patrols, checkpoints and raids by these forces daily target threats to peace and stability in northern Iraq.
In a separate mission, two weapons caches and 13 people were grabbed during routine patrols conducted by 101st and Iraqi security forces Saturday in northern Iraq.
The new Sinjar Police arrested eight people conducting an illegal checkpoint this weekend, and turned them over to coalition forces as the detainees claimed affiliation with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
About the same time, a U.S. patrol discovered a cache of 30 60-mm mortar rounds south of Mosul. In a separate incident, the Coalition for Iraqi National Unity turned in 42 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, two RPG boosters, six RPG rounds and four heavy machine guns to U.S. forces northwest of Mosul. Saturday night, three people were detained at a checkpoint in Mosul for illegal weapons possession and were taken to a Mosul police station.
In addition, the Iraqi Border Patrol apprehended two smugglers on the Iraq-Syria border for attempting to move 15 barrels of benzene across the border on nine donkeys.
The Iraqi border guards and the Mosul and Sinjar police forces, trained by the 101st Airborne Division, continue to demonstrate the ability to conduct security operations.
The 101st would be part of a new approach whereby the Kurds, the Shia in Iraq and the Sunnis would have autonomy within a federated Iraq.
Guard units to provide security in each of the federated territories would be funded from a national account and able to ensure that each of these territories could be defended against security threats of the sort constituted by the ISIL.
And one could toss into the mix the notion of moving the capital from Baghdad.
The US could not agree on a capital so a swamp was picked and the origins of Washington DC as the new national capital in a territory no one wanted allowed the new federation to arise and be built. Perhaps something equally drastic is necessary to break the stranglehold of Baghdad, as a center of Shia power might be necessary.
The 101st would broker the Sunni transition and leave; the Kurdish effort would be supported with training and engagements to a level, which makes tactical and strategic sense; and continued working relationships with the government in Baghdad largely Shia in character would be fostered as well.
The new airbase in Jordan would in part support the military side of this, sea based capabilities, which can insert force as necessary, and perhaps an airstrip in Kurdistan to support operations would be relied upon to support any necessary military operations in support of the Federation.
Only a light footprint would remain to support military operations with political support to the Federation of Iraq as the core political objective.
What is clear is that air strikes with no clear strategic objectives other than destroying what can be reached of ISIL is not enough.
In view of a recent report by the chief of the Kurdish military staff that ISIS can field around 200,000 rather than mere 30,000 fighters this is certainly the case.
And “boots on the ground” to do the past ten years all over again is not on offer and makes no sense.
There is a way ahead, which can build around a federated Iraq, assisted with targeted military aid and assistance, but not a repeat of an Iraqi occupation.
Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003.
And Congress can play a very positive role in shaping a way ahead with legitimacy and credibility.
It makes no sense to have an Administration red marking the “correct” number of troops to employ with no strategic objective in sight.
For the Vietnam generation we have seen this before and do not want to see it again.
As former Lcpl. Bill Jayne who was wounded during the siege of Khe Sanh warns:
We have an announcement of 1500 “advisors” going to Iraq.
War has always been a racket, to some degree, but I would argue that what is really relevant today is that war has become a bureaucratic program of perpetual focus….
War, since the Korean War three generations ago, has become in the United States simply another government program like building sewage treatment plants.
Legislators should withhold appropriations and authorization for perpetual war that does nothing but aggrandize the power of the executive branch.
If it’s really in the national interest to defeat the latest bunch of Islamic thugs and lunatics, then let Congress declare war and mobilize the entire nation in the cause of victory.
Otherwise, get the hell out.
The entire Middle East and all its oil are not worth the bones of one tattooed lance corporal.
For an earlier version of this article published by Breaking Defense see the following: