Friday, May 22, 2015
Nearing the Edge
Scarce resources, drought and demonizing zealots with a solid belief that God is on their side… with victories to prove it. Simplifying everything by denying that anyone who believes other than their mandate should be considered human. Nigeria’s Boko Haram engaged in mass rape of young girls captured from their schools… but those weren’t Muslim girls, so they weren’t considered human. Their Islamic State brethren slipped beneath a raging sandstorm (sheltered from U.S.-airstrikes) and seized Baghdad-close Ramadi as Iraqi troops repeated their past – fleeing as fast as they could, leaving weapons and supplies behind by the ton.
It’s a Christian-Sunni battleground in Nigeria, a Shiite-Sunni battleground in Iraq and Syria. When confronted by IS extremists who engage in unlimited atrocities and genocide as opposed to the clear Shiite forces of Iraq and Iran with an abysmal history of anti-Sunni cruelty, the majority of Sunnis trapped in IS-held lands prefer IS (who are at least claiming to be Sunnis) to their clearly-defined Shiite enemies (thank you for reawakening that animosity, America). They may not be happy about their forced choice, but then, to them, it’s down to a question of simple survival. And trust me, they are terrified of IS, deeply suspicious of Shiite forces that have made Iraq hell for them, but they don’t seem to have a place anywhere where they can live their normal lives with even a modicum of safety and comfort.
What this means for the region as a whole is a redefinition of political boundaries. Shiite-Iraq, heavily under Iran’s sphere of influence and control, is breaking off from its Kurdish residents in the north and its Sunni factions west and south. Baghdad and environs are the hot-zone dividing line, with pockets of both Sunnis and Shiites within their tattered boundaries. Shiite forces from Iraq and Iran are streaming back to recapture Ramadi, but the writing is on the wall for those stubbornly clinging to an American notion that Iraq, as configured when U.S. forces extracted, was a viable and sustainable country. Exceptionally unlikely.
As President Obama calls the fall of Ramadi a “set-back” in the effort to defeat IS, and while we were not allied with Syria to protect the history-rich city of Palmyra which also fell into IS hands, and as miserable as those in IS lands might be, there definitely seems to be a new Sunni state forming (maybe two) in the region. “Civil war broke out four years ago in Syria, providing an opening for groups such as ISIS to emerge and take on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. With its latest offensive, ISIS controls more than half the country -- in parts of 10 of 14 provinces -- as well as ‘the vast majority of the gas and oil fields,’ the [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] estimates.” CNN.com, May 21st. American strategy is simply not working; the battle is not being won from the air. Syria is clearly falling apart, and Iraq’s unraveling appears to be on the horizon as well.
The question is when… and to many in the region, the answer is soon. What’s worse, from an American perspective, is that the Iraqi moderates are losing credibility by the second. Hardliners, demanding that the country accept new religious boundaries as a political reality, are prevailing. Iran is hunkering down for a long fight with the Sunni extremists, but it is at least is picking up, for all practical purposes, the vast tracks of oil-rich Shiite lands in eastern Iraq.
“[T]he defeat [in Ramadi] has given new momentum to [Iraq’s] Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s rivals within his own Shiite political bloc… At the urging of American officials who sought to sideline the militias, Mr. Abadi had, in effect, gambled that the combination of United States airstrikes and local Sunni tribal fighters would be able to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city as fighting intensified in recent weeks. The hope was that a victory in Ramadi could also serve as a push for a broader offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.
“‘Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,’ said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. ‘It’s from the Shia side.’… Mr. Abadi’s rivals within Iraq’s Shiite political bloc have been accusing him for months of doing too much to work with Sunnis rather than empowering the militias and fellow Shiites.” New York Times, May 18th. Powerful militias and politicos with strong ties to Iran are attempting to formalize that Iraq is a Shiite nation and that Sunnis are the clear enemy.
The United States helped shove former Iraqi PM, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, out the door in favor of al-Abadi, but al-Maliki is still a very big presence, pressing his pro-Iranian Shiite agenda. And al-Maliki’s allies are moving hard and fast against the moderates. Al-Abadi “became prime minister last year with strong backing from the United States on the belief that he would be a more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and would reach out to the country’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Mr. Abadi has done so, by pushing for the arming of local Sunni tribesmen and reaching a deal with the Kurds to share oil revenue.
“But at every turn he has been thwarted by powerful Shiite leaders with links to Iran, including Mr. Maliki. Now, the latest setback in Ramadi has given Mr. Abadi’s rivals even more ammunition… Some Shiite politicians, including Mr. Maliki, and powerful militia leaders linked to Iran, whose fighters are now preparing to fight in Anbar, have become increasingly critical of Mr. Abadi. Either they have spoken out themselves or news media outlets they control have taken aim at the prime minister through distorted coverage that has highlighted security failures in Anbar.” NY Times. The other shoe is in the air and dropping fast.
American Hawks (like newly-announced GOP candidate, Lindsey Graham) want to insert massive U.S. forces back into Iraq to crush IS and topple Syria’s Assad Shiite minority regime, but exactly who will rule those “liberated” territories in the exceptionally unlikely chance American troops prevail where they have consistently failed for a very, very long time? What’s the plan? How viable is such a vision in a world that now despises U.S. interference that seems to be a rather consistent blueprint for failure?
There is no doubt that IS is the enemy. Iran is not exactly a warm and cuddly potential ally. The Sunni bloc of Gulf states is clearly terrified of the situation. And the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, with increasing global support for Palestinian independence, is a complicating factor also with no clear solution in sight. So exactly what is the plan? It seems almost inevitable that a new Sunnis enclave-nation, born of ultra-violence and genocidal cruelty, is solidifying in Iraq and parts of Syria. Will IS maintain its hold on those lands or will moderation based on internecine struggles subdue that cruel occupying force?
The answers are not clear, but one harsh truth does seem rather apparent: the American vision of that region of the Middle East is definitely not happening. What we need to determine is how to keep our interests protected and our people safe in this new environment, a tall order by anyone’s standards.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the United States needs leadership that understands that our current expectations need to be replaced by a new pragmatism that can work.