Friday, January 8, 2016

The Cacophony of the Middle East

After the United States invaded and conquered Iraq back in 2003, President George W. Bush named Paul Bremer (with rather sweeping power) to run the post-Saddam Hussein country on behalf of the United States. Bremer made a number of fateful decisions with repercussions that echo well into the present. W’s father, President George H.W. Bush, had left Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government in power after the first Persian Gulf War (1990/1), knowing that had Hussein been deposed, his 20% Sunni minority controlling government would otherwise have been replaced by an Iran-friendly 60% Shiite majority, not a good result for the United States.
W undid his father’s policy. Bremer’s decisions began a long process that destabilized the entire region. Saddam was deposed in 2003, and a “democratically-elected” government was imposed (by us) on Iraq, which instantly gave Shiites control of the country to the rather clear exclusion of (and killing protection for) the Sunni minority. As time passed, as subsequent Iraqi governments moved increasingly closer to Shiite-run Iran, regional Sunnis found themselves discriminated against, unrepresented in a Shiite administration, with an army that simply did not deal with the growing schism between Sunnis and Shiites. With a tiny Shiite minority (10%) running mostly-Sunni Syria, parallel disenfranchisement tracked the failures in Iraq. What were those most tragic American decisions in early 2003?
Writing for Intelligence and National Security Vol. 25, No. 1, 76–85, February 2010, James Pfiffner wrote a seminal piece on those fateful decisions entitled US Blunders in Iraq: De-Baathification and Disbanding the Army: “In May 2003 Paul Bremer issued CPA Orders [Coalition Provisional Authority] to exclude from the new Iraq government members of the Baath Party (CPA Order 1) and to disband the Iraqi Army (CPA Order 2). These two orders severely undermined the capacity of the occupying forces to maintain security and continue the ordinary functioning of the Iraq government. The decisions reversed previous National Security Council judgments and were made over the objections of high ranking military and intelligence officers. The article concludes that the most likely decision maker was the Vice President [Dick Cheney].
“Early in the occupation of Iraq two key decisions were made that gravely jeopardized US chances for success in Iraq: (1) the decision to bar from government work Iraqis who ranked in the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party or who held positions in the top three levels of each ministry; (2) the decision to disband the Iraqi Army and replace it with a new army built from scratch. These two fateful decisions were made against the advice of military and CIA professionals and without consulting important members of the President’s staff and cabinet. This article will first examine the de-Baathification order and then take up the even more far reaching decision to disband the Iraqi Army.
“Both of these decisions fueled the insurgency by: (1) alienating hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who could not support themselves or their families; (2) by undermining the normal infrastructure necessary for social and economic activity; (3) by ensuring that there was not sufficient security to carry on normal life; and (4) by creating insurgents who were angry at the US, many of whom had weapons and were trained to use them.
“These two key decisions, however, were presaged by President Bush’s decision in late April 2003 to remove Jay Garner and put Paul Bremer in complete charge of Iraq. Garner had experience in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and had been a career Army officer. In his preparations, he had worked closely with military planners. Bremer, who had no experience in Iraq or in military occupations, worked in the Pentagon for the first nine days of May, and he arrived in Iraq on 12 May 2003.” Bremer pretty much sealed the fate of minority Sunnis, their leaders excluded from government, creating a “start-over” army that clearly made Sunni soldiers second class citizens. Sunnis lost their voice in Iraq, and the Assad regime in Syria made it even clearer that Sunnis in that nation were without representation as well.
Before our invasion of Iraq, Sunnis and Shiite kids played with each other. Neighbors weren’t flashing their Islamic choices. Saddam was a cruel leader, but for the most part, Iraqis just got along. Once the U.S.-imposed government became entrenched, Iraqis were told to pick sides, declare their allegiance to Shiite ideology if they were Shiites. Sunnis were very clearly second class citizens in both Syria and Iraq. Extremist Sunnis stepped into the void, announced their commitment to “protecting” Sunni interests. Baghdad exploded. Shiite neighborhoods were blasted. Destabilization became the norm. Still Baghdad moved increasingly closer to Iran; Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi army watched as their government reinforced ties with the Shiites who wanted them purged.
As extremism escalated in Iraq and Syria, amplified by over a million Sunni farmers who lost their livelihoods in the big drought, Iraq was faced with what to do. What needed to happen, what was essential if the Iraqi government ever had a shot of working, was to heal the giant rift between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites. Instead, Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamil Mohammed Hasan al-Maliki (2006-14) went the other way: he targeted the remaining Sunni leaders and made ties to Shiite Iran stronger (which resulted in his requiring the departure of American forces a major priority). Despite the claims of several presidential candidates that U.S. forces vacated Iraq too soon, we really didn’t have a choice. We were told to leave by the very government we installed in Baghdad, now catering to the wishes of the Iranian leadership who wanted America out.
A “start-over” Iraqi army, deeply divided between Shiite and Sunni soldiers (Shiite ruled, however), was faced with rising Sunni jihadist forces in the region. Sunni soldiers felt that there was little in it for them to fight Sunnis (even extremists), when their real enemies were the Shiites all around them. The only major force that could have stopped the ISIS explosion in their earlier incarnation – the Iraqi army – was too deeply divided to mount an effective campaign. Further, the army no longer had the experienced leaders that populated the military during Saddam’s rule, having been purged by Mr. Bremer a long time ago. That too many of these former Iraqi soldiers, with tons of combat experience, found their way into the ranks of ISIS itself is lost on too many U.S. wannabe policy-makers.
So when the Iraqi army defended major Iraqi towns from the ISIS onslaught, they were divided, and Sunni soldiers had little trouble turning away, abandoning their weapons in the field and retreating back into the Iraqi heartland. The rift between Shiite and Sunnis widened. Saudi Arabia, the bastion of ultra-conservative Sunni beliefs (Wahhabism) and its regional Sunni allies began funding surrogate wars against Shiites (who were funded by Iran). Iran’s money paid for Hezbollah and Yemeni Houthis.
Saudi Arabia watched as neighboring Iraq embraced Shiite policies. They watched as Iran began building nuclear weapons capacity. They felt betrayed as the West sought a d├ętente with Iran. The Saudis were surrounded, and U.S.-Saudi relations strained. New Saudi King Salman began to distance himself from the U.S., embraced a militancy that emboldened him into direct bombing attacks of Yemeni Houthis targets (based on U.S. satellite targeting). Tensions between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, never good, got a whole lot worse.
Saudi Arabia wanted to send a message to Iran’s Ayatollahs loud and clear: stop funding “terrorism” on our border, a rather direct response to Iran’s funding of Shiite Houthis in an effort to topple the Sunni leadership in Yemen. And so, on January 2nd, among the 47 “terrorists” executed by Saudi Arabia, was a leading Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. The public beheading of this holy man was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked in response, Saudi Arabia (joined by the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Bahrain) cut all diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran. Flights between the two countries were halted, and Saudis were banned from traveling to Iran.
Saudi Arabia and its immediate regional Sunni allies see Iran and Shiites as the primary terrorists. ISIS, per my early blogs, is more an American and Iranian concern than anything that should immediately be addressed by Sunni nations. Knowing that ISIS wants U.S. boots on the ground in the region more than air (which the administration opposes for obvious reasons), without some joint coalition between Sunni and Shiite powers against ISIS, the ability to counter ISIS on the ground is seriously impaired. And the recent incendiary events between Saudi Arabia (and her allies) and Iran make the necessary rapprochement exceptionally difficult.
The rest of the world appreciated how devastating this turn of events has become: “The Obama administration, caught in the middle by its quest for a closer relationship with Iran and its long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia, said it hoped Tehran and Riyadh would dial back the hostile rhetoric that has fueled the worst crisis between the regional rivals in decades… ‘We’re urging all sides to show some restraint and to not further inflame tensions that are on quite vivid display in the region,’ White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington.
“China, the European Union and Russia also called on Tehran and Riyadh to take steps to settle their differences peacefully, with Russia, an emerging center of gravity in the region, offering to mediate between them, according to Russian news agencies.” Washington Post, January 4th. In the end, matters in the Middle East just got a whole lot worse. That we have supported Saudis, a fairly repressive monarchy but willing to allow a regional American military presence, is a very complex and perhaps unsustainable relationship. But for ISIS to be properly contained, there really needs to be a combine regional Sunni-Shiite effort… and we just went back three giant steps.
I’m Peter Dekom, and to understand our own presidential candidates’ positions and “solutions” to ISIS and its ilk, it is very necessary to appreciate the complexity of the underlying forces that exist in the Middle East.

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