Yesterday’s Washington Post featured on its front page an article by Karen De Young on the proposal to set up a humanitarian zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, running from around Kobani westward to north of Aleppo. That zone would be carved out and protected by Turkish military power and, with the expanded use of Incirlik air base, by U.S. aircraft from on high. Why yesterday eludes me, since the notion has been in the news hopper since the Vice President’s trip to Ankara some 11 days ago, and, as far as anyone outside the Administration’s inner circle knows, the President still has not made up his mind whether to pursue this course.
Monday’s Arabic-language press carried an article, dateline Baghdad, reporting some actual new news: that the new government of Haidar al-Abadi has uncovered 50,000 “ghost” soldiers in the Iraqi Army. That’s a much larger number even than most realistic observers of the Maliki disaster supposed; it amounts to around four entire divisions, or about 20 percent of the putative total force (if one believes any numbers coming out of Iraq, which is probably best defined as a matter of faith).
Now, of course there’s been lots of other news over the past few days from the Levant, not to speak of the larger MENA region. On Monday in Mosul, for example, Islamic State authorities banned the use of contraceptive pills and shut down all the clinics dispensing them. Today’s papers carry a story about new deal between Baghdad and Erbil that holds promise for resolving long-standing conflicts between the postwar Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government. These larger stories—about a prospective Turko-Syrian humanitarian zone and the Abadi government’s budding anti-corruption and national reunification campaign—bear heavily on the core strategic issue currently in play, which is this: When the dust settles, will Iran have pliant or kindred regimes to deal with in Damascus and Baghdad, or not?
Ha, and you thought I was going to finger ISIS/ISIL/Da’ash as the core problem. It isn’t; it is derivative of the combination of the protraction of the Syrian civil war and the fecklessness of the Sunni Arab states to drive that civil war toward a conclusion they desire. The fact that the United States has been passive (or worse) is a contributing factor in the Syrian catastrophe, no doubt. And the fact that Iraq is no longer governed by Sunnis feeds that fecklessness, as well; that, too, is a consequence of U.S. action, however inexcusably unwitting it was. So between U.S. sins of omission and commission, we have a mongrel of sorts in this fight—and most of us wish we didn’t.
But deeper than all this is the underlying social reality that, as I was at pains to explain last time, this entire political zone is under-institutionalized compared to the West, at least when it comes to state-defined political structures. The result of the simultaneous collapse of both the internal order of several fragile states (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya—we helped a lot there, too) and hence of the rickety state sub-system order cobbled together at the end of World War I, has led to the far-reaching radicalization of ideational systems along mainly sectarian religious lines and to the far-advanced militarization of the region’s politics.
Now, the naive thought in 2003 that the Iraq War would open the floodgates of democracy in the Arab world; the still-naive thought at the end of 2010 and into the spring of 2011 that the so-called Arab Spring would do the same. The still-still naive think that the sectarian conflicts raging within Islam can be analogized to 16th-century Europe’s religious wars, as if the circumstances were close enough to take such a proposition seriously, and so constitute a positive sign pointing toward the development of religious pluralism and, in time, the birth of a new secular place for normal politics (by Western reckoning) to set roots. Many of the same people also told us that the Muslim Brotherhood was a neo-liberal and democratizable political force in Egypt. (You should take down names—which I could list but won’t—and not trust anything such poseurs may say in the future.)
None of that happened, nor in any known universe could it have happened. Instead what we have throughout the region are echoing chaos in many places and shivering fear in most others. Traditional societies are not used to and do not like the cadences of disorder, and in reaction to disorder they will yearn for and often enough be willing to tolerate even the most draconian despotisms that promise to reestablish order. “Better sixty years of tyranny than sixty days of anarchy”, goes a universally familiar saying in Sunni Arab lands, and not for no good historical reasons. That swing of the pendulum is already well advanced in Egypt. What is already ugly is liable to become much uglier still (to Western liberal eyes) in the fullness of time. The idea that a genuine liberal democracy could come out of all this anytime soon, except maybe in the exceptional case of Tunisia, was and remains a sick joke. Optimism is nice—a force-multiplier, an old boss of mine used to say. But there is nothing redeemable in optimism when it is based on raw ignorance of others’ history and culture, and when it is at the same time a faith-based projection of a mythologized version of one’s own realities.
ISIS/ISIL/Da’ash is an outcropping of this new destabilized regional reality, as are self-declared ISIL “colonies” in parts of Libya and among some radicalized elements even inside Saudi Arabia. So far, the most coherent and capable regional powers are all non-Arab states: Iran, Israel and Turkey. Contrary to decades of tendentious propaganda, Israel has next to nothing to do with any of this. Contrary to the delusional neo-Ottoman dreams of some AK Party types, Turkey has until now been marginal to the action (ah, but see below). The Iranian regime, however, with both sectarian and solid national security interests in maximizing the mayhem, and hence the weakness, of the Arab world, has been an active force applying pressures that have helped sunder Syria and Yemen, that have helped keep Iraq in pieces, that have suborned Lebanon through the power of Hizballah, and that have put pressure on other Sunni-led states, notably Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as well.
And that is why Iran, not Da’ash, is at the core of our strategic problem set today. Iran has not created the weaknesses and failures of the Arab world, but it has set out to deepen and exploit them. Whosoever does not understand this, which may include the aforementioned President, resembles the reality-challenged individual who thinks that one can affect the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow.
So, dear reader, if you understand all this, then you are in a position perhaps to understand the key news stories mentioned at the top of this little essay. Let’s take them one by one.
The notion of establishing a humanitarian zone, with or without a no-fly protective zone up in the sky, is nothing new. Lots of people proposed a no-fly zone relatively early in the Syrian civil war, and some others proposed humanitarian zones to deal with refugee issues and other matters. I myself proposed some apparently similar measures but they were actually more policy ambitious; I did so here on March 6, 2012, in “The Wisdom of Sheikh Zubar: A U.S.-Turkish Option for Syria.” In that essay, I argued that humanitarian and no-fly zones, and arming the opposition as well, would either not be enough, not be quick enough, or would not work at all. I dismissed the idea out of hand that a non-kinetic reaction that could make a decisive difference on the ground was available. I suggested instead that Turkey, backed by the United States and NATO, shock the inner-core of the Syrian political system in order to catalyze a coup against Bashar al-Assad, using the humanitarian zone pretext for the Turks to march toward and if necessary into and beyond Aleppo.
I admitted at the time that the plan carried many risks, but I also asserted that doing nothing was more risky still, because the Syrian opposition would become radically Islamicized on balance, the cancer would spread to neighboring countries, and our options would shrink even as their costs of implementation would rise. I am sorry to say that I have been proven correct on all points. You can go back and read it yourself here; indeed, I wish you would.
That was more than two and half years ago, before another roughly 180,000 Syrian graves had to be dug, before many millions of innocent people became internal or external refugees, before the civil war began to seriously infect Syria’s neighbors, and of course before the rise of Da’ash. At around that time, when the Turkish Foreign Minister (now the Prime Minister) came to Washington ready to listen to such plans, the President pulled a Nancy Reagan: He just said no. It was too close to the 2012 election and the permanent White House campaign, then in high gear, was unwilling to do anything that might indirectly raise gasoline prices. And now here we are, with the President said to be considering a humanitarian zone carved out of parts of Syria by dint of Turkish military force. Sort of makes one a little crazy, doesn’t it?
Ah, but there are big differences between my idea more than two and half years ago and what the Obama Administration is pondering, Hamlet-like and in public, now. My proposal was bold: it was meant to cauterize the Syrian wound and stop the bleeding by toppling from the inside a then-vulnerable Assad regime. It is much too late for that now. The Russians and the Iranians have made the regime stronger, the Syrian opposition, never much of a reed to lean on, is divided and fighting amongst itself, and the Obama Administration has embarrassed itself so many times over with time-wasting UN missions and fatuous Geneva meetings and, above all, the disastrous “non-strike” event, as it is called, that no one takes it seriously. The notion, perhaps true, that the United States pulled its punches over Syria in order to usher in a détente with Iran over the wonderment of a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program just makes the Administration look all the more pathetic. There never was a high prospect for such a deal (see below).
And back then, very important, the Administration had called for the end of the Assad regime, so we and the Turks were aligned on the basic goal; now, what Washington wants is not (yet) aligned with the Turkish or Saudi or Israeli or any other country’s understanding of political reality in the region. They all know that without a resolution of the civil war in Syria the fuel that feeds Da’ash will not stop.
So as before, my idea sort of looks like what’s on the table; but it wasn’t, and it isn’t. At this point, creating this zone would require a lot more U.S. military power to flow into the region—air power mainly, but special forces likely as well. Is it worth it? What’s the mission? What’s the political objective? What’s the risk of not doing it?
More important in the longer run, if the Turks get sucked deeper into Syria now, what would be the implications for Kurdish nationalism? The deal between Baghdad and Erbil—if it sticks and lasts, a big “if”—hurts Turkey, which has sought to arbitrage that conflict for its own economic and political advantage. How would Iran react if, after pacifying Syria, the Turks turned south, into Iraq, to finish off Da’ash? Might we be aiding a replay of the Ottoman-Safavid wars? Do our leaders even know what that refers to? (Hint: no.) Is that a risk worth running?
These are the kinds of questions our leaders should be asking about this prospective “humanitarian zone.” Are they? Allow me to express some skepticism. And my view of this? U.S. power should be used against both the Assad regime and Da’ash, as I have suggested many times, lest we appear to potential Sunni allies to be aligned with Iran and its proxies. Our attacks against the regime should be ferocious and strategically significant: command centers, airfields, arsenals, elite forces. Turkish power, too, should be projected into Syria only if it is projected decisively, with a political endgame in mind matched to the use of force, and with clear U.S. support and NATO approval. Half measures will lead to the hell of ambiguity they usually do; if we are not prepared to do this right, we should not do it at all.
Now, Iraq. The Abadi government is full of information about the level of corruption in the Iraqi military, some of probably even accurate. It has detailed the two basic methods Iraqi Shi‘a officers have used to furlough large number of soldiers, keep all or part of their salaries, and sell off their food and weapons. It tells of how officers did not report desertions or combat deaths so that salaries and supplies would keep coming, landing in their pockets. It is calling the “ghost” soldiers an Arabic equivalent of “spacemen”, in the double meaning of those just taking up space on paper and those who are far, far away, as though in orbit. So good; these guys have some sense of humor left.
According to the news reports, some 24 high-ranking officers have been dismissed, but none will apparently be charged with any crime. Al-Abadi admitted, too, that the “ghost” problem is not limited to the military but exists in all Iraqi ministries. He promised to clean up the mess.
That’s commendable, but what makes him think he can actually do that? What the local news articles don’t say, because in the Arab context they really don’t have to, is that tribal and clan affinities shaped the “ghost soldier” phenomenon to a considerable degree. The thieving officers did not, as a rule, keep all the loot for themselves; that, in local terms, would really be corruption. No, they shared it with kin according to the formula common in the hamula. And many of the soldiers who were let loose to go home, with partial pay sent to their families on occasion, were also often related, albeit usually less directly, to the conniving officer.
Abadi has to know that, among Shi‘a in particular, there is little positive affinity with the abstract concept known as “Iraq.” Even for the Sunnis who ran the country from its creation, there wasn’t a strong affinity. Social trust in Iraq has a shape characteristic within tribal societies: There is very deep bonding social capital within kin networks but it is very narrow; as to bridging social capital between different tribal and clan networks, there is very little. So for Abadi to find enough Shi‘a men who are willing to put “Iraq” above their self-protecting tribal and clan networks strikes me as something close to a mission impossible.
Abadi needs to say what he has said to please the Americans, on whose military generosity he now depends. And he needs to say it to rouse whatever remnants of Iraqi nationalism still remain after the horrors of the past forty years. It is entirely possible—indeed, we’ve seen it already here and there—that a reinvigorated Iraqi military can take the fight to Da’ash at least in parts of Iraq where Shi‘a live, including and especially near Baghdad. As I have said before, Da’ash is a weaker and less coherent force than most Americans seem to think; it, too, is under-institutionalized. But can a Shi‘a army take and hold Sunni territory on behalf of “Iraq”? Again, please allow me a right to skepticism. Only if Abadi can win the trust of the Sunni tribal leaders (and starting with the Kurds makes sense in that regard) does he have a chance. Politics, not force, will decide this, but after all that has happened it is a very steep uphill climb for any Shi‘a-based regime in Baghdad.
As for the deal with the Kurds, the anti-corruption drive is actually critical. The deal allows U.S. weapons to go to the Kurds, but not directly. The deal sends Kurdish oil into the Iraqi system, and the payment comes back mediated by Baghdad. Salaries for the peshmerga are also supposed to come from Baghdad. There is every reason to fear that the mess in Baghdad will turn these promises to dust; if Shi‘a clansmen will steal from Sunnis and other Shi‘a, they will certainly not break stride to also steal from Kurds. So if Abadi cannot clean up Baghdad, he will not be able to deliver on his side of the bargain with the Kurds, who are clearly operating from a position of relative strength. Even with the deal, therefore, prospective Kurdish independence remains a real possibility—just delayed some, perhaps.
Regardless of the actual mix of influence between Baghdad and Erbil, if Abadi can count the Kurds as allies for the time being, that affects not only the Turkish calculation of interest, but also Iran’s. The Iranian leadership prefers a weaker rump Shi‘a Iraq, the better to cajole, bribe, manipulate, and threaten. Adding Kurds to the Iraqi mix even potentially gives Baghdad a tool to affect Iran though its own restless Kurdish population. We’ll see what happens; my wager is that the new deal will fail.
The Iranians will likely end up, it seems to me, with a more or less pliant Shi‘a rump Iraq that they can manipulate and limit, but not fully control. With any luck on our part, they will lose their non-Sunni ally in Damascus and have to face a Turkish state playing a more critical strategic role in the Arab world. The eventual consequences of that are hard to predict, but there’s plenty of history to study as a heuristic guide. So Iran will likely come up well short of the hegemonic regional position it seems to crave. As long as the regime is what it is, that’s good, of course.
Still, a lot obviously depends on whether the Iranians manage to nuke up in the end, or come so close that everyone knows they can do so very quickly. So where are we with that one?
I am not an Iran expert. I have never seriously studied Farsi. And since I believe that what is going on has its roots in Iranian society and politics, I have every right to just shut up. And I probably should (not that regional or country experts always get things right). That said, I will offer a mere hunch that I have nurtured over the years.
I start from the premise that the Supreme Leader is an old and sick man, and that he gave President Rouhani instructions to get rid of the sanctions but isn’t willing to trade anything significant and semi-permanent in return. He supposes, not without good reasons, that it is easier for Iran to walk away from the table without a deal than it is for the U.S. Administration to do so. We have allies with their own opinions and interests, and Iran does not. We have democratic noise to deal with; Iran does not. In short, I have thought all along that an acceptable deal was unlikely, since whatever Rouhani and Zarif brought to Khamenei would likely be rejected.
In my view, the Supreme Leader’s main concern is domestic control and stability. I think he worries that a deal with the Great Satan might unleash all sorts of fermentation, especially among the young, who would interpret an agreement in very broad social terms. That would threaten the regime, forcing him to decide between co-optive reform, or unleashing the Basij to bash skulls, or oscillations of both. I don’t think he wants to do either if he can help it.
So his basic calculus? Negotiate with the West, and if the West is weak and capitulates, fine. If it doesn’t, we walk away, not much harm done, and we have bought time to draw near weapons-breakout status. The limitations of the interim agreement are only temporary and do not affect all aspects of the program, so not much harm is done there.
If I am right, the recent failure to reach a deal (and never mind the face-saving window-dressing extension) puts the Obama Administration back to where it was before all the talking began, except with the Iranian program much further advanced: Either acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear-weapons or near-breakout capability and trust to deterrence, or use coercion to stop them. Coercion need not start with air attacks; it can start with economic warfare, including blockades and other instrumentalities better not discussed in public. But it would be tantamount to war.
What will President Obama do in roughly seven months when this becomes clear even to him? Well, no one knows, including, I would venture, Obama. But I would not rule out coercion, and if I were the Iranians, I would be worried. The President doesn’t care much about foreign/national security policy; he cares overwhelmingly about partisan politics. That means he cares in turn about only two national security challenges: mass-casualty terrorism and WMD proliferation. He cares about them because if they go wrong, and especially if they go wrong in a linked way, the political fallout would be disastrous.
Early in the Administration the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran was discussed, fought over, and discussed again; and President Obama concluded that a nuclear weapons-armed Iran was unacceptable, too dangerous for the region and beyond, and that if necessary force would need to be used to prevent it. I think that, despite his feckless behavior since, he still believes this and probably would use force to stop the Iranians from a breakout. He prefers to defer the decision to his successor, no doubt, and so will play for time. But if he can’t do that, if the Iranians rush to the goal line, my hunch is that he would smash them, one way or another.
And just by the way, a muscular and successful last-ditch effort on Syria would help persuade the mullahs that the President is not a pushover after all. That might even prevent push coming to shove between the United States and Iran, and it would constitute a better way—maybe the only available way—to keep Iran from approaching breakout status. After all, being “nice” to the Iranians as regards their nefarious activities in the region does not seem to have gotten their attention, has it?