Capstones: Triaging the Middle East

By Alan W. Dowd, 4.27.15

What some have termed “Islam’s civil war” is dizzying in its complexity: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen appear to be fracturing along sectarian fault lines. The air forces of Egypt and the UAE are striking jihadist groups in Libya. The Syrian government is using chemical weapons and scorched-earth tactics to cling to power. Its opponents are using mass-murder and mutilation to build a theocratic caliphate. Sunni jihadist groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and al Nusra are fighting with each other, while fighting against Shiite jihadist groups like Hezbollah, Iraq’s makeshift militias and Iran’s Quds force. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. are fighting a bruising proxy war against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, while fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, while Iranian advisors back the Syrian government, while America’s partners try to overthrow the Syrian government.

It all calls to mind Sen. Harry Truman’s observation from 1941. “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia; and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”

Washington doesn’t have that luxury, which is why President Obama reversed course last summer and redeployed U.S. forces to Iraq. The president’s decision saved Iraq from disintegration. But it also put to rest any hopes that the United States could extract itself from the Middle East, end a quarter-century of boots-on-the-ground intervention and return to what the realists call “offshore balancing.”

If the question of whether to be engaged is settled, how to be engaged and against whom is not. Perhaps the best way to make sense of how to deal with today’s Middle East is to borrow an example from medicine. Let’s say a patient staggers into the hospital suffering from severe chest pain, labored breathing, mouth abscesses and abdominal discomfort. The ER doctors would first stabilize the patient and then start triaging his symptoms: A heart attack would take immediate priority over lung cancer, lung cancer would have to be addressed more substantively and quickly than a bleeding ulcer, and the abscesses would be treated later.

In the same way, the United States and its allies must address the worst problems first and then move on to tackling the region’s other pathologies.

Priority #1: Defeating ISIS and prosecuting the war on jihadist terror

ISIS controls 34,000 square miles of territory (an area the size of Costa Rica), commands an army larger than Belgium’s, reigns over a population of 2 million and has a steady revenue stream (9,000 barrels of oil per day). In other words, ISIS already is something al Qaeda never was: a bona fide terror state in the heart of the Middle East.

If you doubt that the fight against ISIS is about protecting America and its interests, consider the words of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who calls on his followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere” and “destroy the idol of democracy.”

Or consider what national-security leaders have said. “The most immediate threat to U.S. national interests is ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter concludes, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. ISIS, the president adds, “threatens American personnel and facilities located in the region” and “if left unchecked…will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States.”

Yet the president’s actions haven’t matched his words. The U.S. response to ISIS is not succeeding at destroying the cancer, largely because Washington has not brought to bear the kind of kinetic force needed to realize that objective.

The numbers tell the story. Between August 2014 and the end of March 2015, the anti-ISIS air campaign—Operation Inherent Resolve—hit 5,547 targets. That’s 23 targets per day. By comparison, the 1999 air campaign over Serbia and Kosovo averaged 138 strike sorties a day. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the coalition conducted 1,600 strike/attack sorties per day. At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the coalition carried out 1,700 air sorties and missile launches against Saddam Hussein’s regime—on a single day. And last fall, the Syrian air force conducted 210 airstrikes in the span of 36 hours.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that it took 75 days for the U.S. military to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In that span of time, U.S. warplanes flew 6,500 strike sorties and dropped 17,500 munitions (86 strike sorties per day). In the first 76 days of Operation Inherent Resolve, “the United States conducted only 632 airstrikes and dropped only 1,700 munitions in Iraq and Syria” (eight strike sorties per day).

There are 4,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. To do what the president has vowed to do—“degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS—military experts say 10,000 to 25,000 troops are needed: forward air controllers to call in sustained airstrikes, embedded Special Operations forces to assist Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers in clearing territory, and heavy ground units to hold territory, smother jihadist flare-ups, backstop the Iraqi military and support the Iraqi government.

If President Bush’s “global war on terror” was too broad, we now know President Obama’s war on “core al Qaeda” was too narrow.

There are 41 jihadist-terror groups  in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004.

ISIS, it pays to recall, is a reconstituted, rebranded strain of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was decimated by the U.S. surge. Other offshoots of “core al Qaeda”—based in Pakistan—can be found in Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, India, Somalia and the Philippines. ISIS itself has affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria.

As Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, argues, “We have to energize every element of national power…to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”

With the president focused on “nation-building here at home,” Flynn’s counsel is not being heeded.

Priority #2: Ensuring the security of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey

The situation in Iraq—fueled by the metastasizing civil war in Syria—has triggered a cascade of crises that affect the security and stability of America’s most important regional allies: Saudi Arabia is building a massive wall along its Iraq border. Jordan has been drawn into a dangerous and destabilizing military campaign. Turkey is on edge. Israel has carried out preemptive strikes in Syria. ISIS nearly overran Baghdad. Iran has been empowered and elevated.

Defeating ISIS will go a long way toward helping America’s regional allies feel more secure. But any semblance of security gained from an ISIS defeat will be lost if a) the Syrian civil war continues, b) Iran joins the nuclear club or c) Iran emerges as the regional hegemon.

Syria’s civil war is now on par in length and lethality with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Bashar Assad should not be permitted to remain in power. But Washington’s “Assad must go” solution to Syria died the moment the president agreed to Moscow’s plan to disarm Assad, which elevated him from an international pariah into an indispensable partner in the disarmament process. (This breakthrough deal achieved, at best, dubious results: Assad’s army has continued to use chemical weapons.) It’s a grim reality that Washington is looking the other way—and Damascus is getting out of the way of U.S. warplanes—as these two enemies fight their common enemy, albeit by very different means.

Tehran’s expanding reach explains why Sunni Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will match whatever Shiite Iran does on the  nuclear front, why the Saudis are hitting back at Tehran in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and the global oil market, and why Israel and Saudi Arabia are exploring ways to address a nuclear Iran.  This freelancing on the part of longtime U.S. allies is at least partly a function of U.S. policies: The president drew a red line in Syria but then failed to enforce it. He supported the Mubarak government in Egypt, then the anti-Mubarak protestors, then Morsi’s democratic revolution and then Sisi’s autocratic counterrevolution. And his nuclear deal with Iran was a surrender of his own position.

“The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world,” Churchill observed. “Your friends must be supported with every vigor…At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.”

That must change.

Priority #3: Checking Iran

The administration may believe Iran can be normalized and “brought in from the cold.” But the regime in charge in Tehran is so at odds with the United States on so many issues that the risks and negatives of any rapprochement far outweigh the hoped-for benefits and positives.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary regime that seeks to upend the regional order. Thus, it uses terror as a tool of statecraft, bankrolls Hezbollah, supports proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, props up Assad, arms Afghan insurgents, and games the IAEA.

Sooner or later, Tehran’s advance must be reversed. Toward that end, the nuclear deal should be scuttled. As Henry Kissinger observes, “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort…to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”

If we think a non-nuclear Iran is difficult to handle, imagine what a nuclear Iran will be like.

Priority #4: Nurturing freedom

In his book “Conservative Internationalism,” Henry Nau argues that promoting freedom has always been a main tenet of American foreign policy, and must remain so. But Nau contends that Washington should use its resources “to spread freedom on the borders of existing freedom.”

If Turkey and Israel are the region’s islands of freedom, Iraq is at best an outcropping or atoll of freedom. Still, Iraq’s freedom experiment carries huge symbolic significance (see Baghdadi’s statements above and Tehran’s actions). But keeping Iraq within the borders of freedom is only part of the challenge. To attack the most persistent pathology in the Middle East, Washington must encourage freedom-oriented reforms by building on the strengths of each country.

For example, Jordan’s King Abdullah is the most liberalized monarch in the region—and arguably the most legitimate in the eyes of his subjects. Consider how the Arab Spring revolts bypassed Jordan. Although Jordan has work to do on press freedom and legislative powers, it ranks in the top 10 globally on economic freedom and has a growing commitment to the rule of law. Washington’s focus should be on these areas.

It is not an independent state, yet the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq has embraced democratic governance and is committed to building an “economically free area.” That should be a model for the rest of Iraq. And perhaps postwar, post-ISIS Iraq can become a model for postwar, post-ISIS Syria.

The UAE’s politics is shaped by regime selections rather than popular elections. Similarly, Qatar remains an autocracy that constrains political activity, civil society and individual freedoms. However, both boast high levels of economic freedom. Properly incubated, that can serve as a contagion for political freedom. While nobody’s perfect in the region, there’s a piecemeal patchwork pointing the way toward a freer, healthier Middle East. The long-term challenge is to preserve freedom where it has taken root and to give it room to grow elsewhere.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose