The first step to finding a solution is to know that there’s a problem. Donald Trump understands that the Washington foreign-policy establishment caused the whole Middle Eastern mess. I will review the problem and speculate about what a Trump administration might do about it.
For the thousand years before 2007, when the Bush administration hand-picked Nouri al-Maliki to head Iraq’s first Shia-dominated government, Sunni Muslims had ruled Iraq. Maliki was vetted both by the CIA and by the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
With Iraq in the hands of an Iranian ally, the Sunnis–disarmed and marginalized by the dismissal of the Iraqi army–were caught between pro-Iranian regimes in both Iraq and Syria. Maliki, as Ken Silverstein reports in the New Republic, ran one of history’s most corrupt regimes, demanding among other things a 45% cut in foreign investment in Iraq. The Sunnis had no state to protect them, and it was a matter of simple logic that a Sunni leader eventually would propose a new state including the Sunni regions of Syria as well as Iraq. Sadly, the mantle of Sunni statehood fell on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who projected not only an Islamic State but a new Caliphate as well. America had a dozen opportunities to preempt this but failed to do so.
From a fascinating defector’s account in the Foreign Policy website, we learn that the region’s jihadists debated the merits of remaining non-state actors on the al-Qaeda model versus attempting to form a state prior to the launch of ISIS. The defector reports a 2013 meeting in which al-Baghdadi demanded the allegiance of al-Qaeda (that is, al-Nusra Front) fighters in Syria:
Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important, he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the world….The participants differed greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria. Throughout its existence, al-Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a non-state actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committed acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them….
Despite the hesitation of many, Baghdadi persisted. Creating and running a state was of paramount importance to him. Up to this point, jihadis ran around without controlling their own territory. Baghdadi argued for borders, a citizenry, institutions, and a functioning bureaucracy. Abu Ahmad summed up Baghdadi’s pitch: “If such an Islamic state could survive its initial phase, it was there to stay forever.”
Baghdadi prevailed, however, not only because he persuaded the al-Qaeda ragtag of his project, but because he won over a large number of officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army. America had the opportunity to “de-Ba’athify” the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Army after the 2003 invasion, the way it de-Nazified the German Army after World War II. Instead, it hung them out to dry. Gen. Petraeus’ “surge” policy of 2007-2008 bought the Sunni’s temporary forbearance with hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts, but set the stage for a future Sunni insurgency, as I warned in 2010.
Trump is right to accuse the Bush administration of creating the mess, and also right to blame Obama for withdrawing American forces in 2011. Once the mess was made, the worst possible response was to do nothing about it (except, of course, to covertly arm “moderate Syrian rebels” with weapons from Libyan stockpiles, most of which found their way to al-Qaeda or ISIS).
Now the region is a self-perpetuating war of each against all. Iraq’s Shia militias, which replaced the feckless Iraqi army in fighting ISIS, are in reorganization under Iranian command on the model of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Kurds are fighting both ISIS and the Syrian government. ISIS is attacking both the Kurds, who field the most effective force opposing them in Syria, as well as the Turks, who are trying to limit the power of the Kurds. Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to support the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria, which means in effect funding either ISIS or the al-Nusra Front.
Russia, meanwhile, is flying bombing missions in Syria from Iranian air bases. Apart from its inclination to bedevil the floundering United States, Russia has a dog in the fight: as a number of foreign officials who have spoken with the Russian president have told me, Putin has told anyone who asks that he backs the Iranian Shi’ites because all of Russia’s Muslims are Sunni. Russia fears that a jihadist regime in Iraq or Syria would metastasize into a strategic threat to Russia. That is just what al-Baghdadi had in mind, as the Foreign Policy defector story made clear:
Baghdadi had another persuasive argument: A state would offer a home to Muslims from all over the world. Because al-Qaeda had always lurked in the shadows, it was difficult for ordinary Muslims to sign up. But an Islamic state, Baghdadi argued, could attract thousands, even millions, of like-minded jihadis. It would be a magnet.
What Trump might do
What’s needed is a deal, and a deal-maker. I have no information about Trump’s thinking other than news reports, but here is a rough sketch of what he might do:
Iraq’s Sunnis require the right combination of incentives and disincentives. The disincentive is just what Trump has proposed, an “extreme” and “vicious” campaign against the terrorist gang. The United States and whoever wants to join it (perhaps the French Foreign Legion?) should exterminate ISIS. That requires a combination of ruthless employment of air power with less squeamishness about collateral damage as well as a division or two on the ground. America doesn’t necessarily need to deploy the kind of soldier who joined the National Guard to get a subsidy for college tuition. As Erik Prince has suggested, private contractors could do the job cheaper, along with judicious use of special forces.
While the US grinds up ISIS, it should find a former Iraqi general to lead a Sunni zone in Iraq, and enlist former Iraqi army officers to join the war against ISIS. Gen. Petraeus no doubt still has the payroll list for the “Sunni Awakening” and “Sons of Iraq.” The Sunnis would get the incentive of an eventual Sunni state, provided that they help crush the terrorists.
The US would give quiet support to the Kurds’ aspirations for their own state, and encourage them to take control of northern Syria along the Turkish border. If the US doesn’t stand godfather to a Kurdish state, the Russians will. The Turks won’t like that, and it must be explained to them that it is in their own best interests: the Kurds have twice as many children as ethnic Turks, and by 2045 will have more military-age men than do the Turks.
Possibly the US should propose a UN-supervised referendum to allow the Kurdish-majority provinces of southeastern Turkey to secede and join the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in a new state. That would be good for Turkey. Those who vote “yes” are better off outside Turkey, and those who vote to stay in Turkey have no excuse to support separatists in the future. There are several million Iranian Kurds, and the US should encourage them to break away as well.
‘Look, Vladimir, here’s the deal’
The next conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin might go something like this: “Look, Vladimir, you say you’re worried about Sunni terrorists destabilizing Russia. We’re going to kill all the terrorists or hire people to kill them for us. We’re not going to arm jihadists to make trouble for you like we did in Afghanistan during the Cold War. We leave you alone, and you get out of our hair. You get to keep your naval station in Syria, and the Alawites get to have their own state in the northwest. Give Basher Assad a villa in Crimea and put in someone else to replace him–anyone you like. The Sunni areas of Syria will become a separate enclave, along with enclaves for the Druze.”
And Trump might add: “We’re taking care of the Sunni terrorists. Now you help us take care of the Iranians, or we’ll do it ourselves, and you won’t like that. You can either work together with us and we tell the Iranians to shut down their centrifuges and their ballistic missile program, or we’ll bomb it. You don’t want us to make the S-300 missiles you sold Iran look like junk–that’s bad for your arms business.
“As for Ukraine: let them vote on partition. If the eastern half votes to join Russia, you got it. If not, you stay the hell out of it.”
As Trump knows, everyone in a deal doesn’t have to walk away happy. Only the biggest stakeholders have to walk away happy. Everyone else can go suck eggs.
Russia can walk away with its Syrian naval station and some assurance that the Middle East jihad won’t spill over into its own territory. Syria’s Alawites and Sunnis both can declare victory. The Kurds, who provide the region’s most effective boots on the ground, will be big winners. Iraq’s Shi’ites will be able to rule themselves but not over the Sunnis and Kurds, which is a better situation than they had during the thousand years when the Sunnis ruled over them. Turkey won’t like the prospect of losing a chunk of its territory, even though it will be better off for it. Iran will lose its aspirations to a regional empire, and won’t like it at all, but no-one else will care.
Rebuilding America’s military, one of Trump’s campaign planks, is a sine qua non for success. Russia as well as China should fear America’s technological prowess today as much as Gorbachev feared Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s. Russia and China are closing the technology gap with the United States, and if the United States does not reverse that, not much else it does will matter.
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