Two weeks have passed since the United States initiated a war against the group known as the Islamic State and, like clockwork, the obvious has occurred. First, the Islamic State’s advance has been more or less checked where most experts thought it would be: along Iraq’s intra-communal no-mans-land where the country’s Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite populations all meet. After a brief scare in August, when it looked like the Kurds and the remnants of the Iraqi army in Baghdad might fold like cheap suits, U.S. airpower and Special Forces troops arrived in time to stiffen resistance on the ground.
Such resistance isn’t perfect, of course. Here and there the Islamic State has been able to push forward in areas where U.S. airstrikes are less intense or where opposition on the ground is a little less firm. Our allies in Iraq — the Kurds and the Shiites — are still struggling, and by all accounts what’s left of the Iraqi army, upon which we have lavished so much time, money and effort, is still largely a joke that is incapable of advancing into territory held by the Islamic State. In Iraq, for all intents and purposes, the conflict has entered a static phase that won’t be ending for a few more months at least. The Islamic State can’t advance and our allies lack the strength on the ground to counter attack effectively.
More worrisome, though not unexpected, is the widening of the air campaign to Syria, where U.S. aircraft and drones are now reigning death from the skies in the same airspace that the forces of Bashar Assad are operating. Given that just a year or so ago President Obama was contemplating airstrikes against the Assad regime, the fact that the U.S. is now effectively helping Assad retake his country must be disconcerting to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One wonders if the pilots of our aircraft and Assad’s pilots wave to each other in passing.
Of course, official policy out of Washington these days is that we are not, in fact, helping the rump Syria controlled by the Assad government. That would make us de facto allies of Syria’s patrons, Russia and Iran, and we can’t be having that. No, the line being maintained by the powers that be here in America is that as our airpower “degrades and destroys” the Islamic State’s ability to field large formations of troops, our allies on the ground — meaning: the folks most responsible for creating the Islamic State — will train and then help field an army of “moderate, pro-Western rebels” (insert derisive snort here) that will take and hold ground after we bomb the hell out of it from the air.
Thus, the prediction made here a few months ago that the Islamic State was going to be a short-lived phenomenon because it had effectively angered everyone of consequence in the region is broadly being borne out. When the U.S., Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia can all agree to drop bombs on you and then get at least one female UAE fighter pilot to do it, well, your days are clearly numbered. The Islamic State is not long for this world, and given the absolute horror show that this rag-tag group of fundamentalist crazies has engaged in since rolling across Iraq this past summer, that’s an unabashedly good thing. Victory is sure, it’s now just a matter of time.
With friends like these…
Or, is it? While America’s ability to obliterate things from the sky is unquestioned, the guerrillas themselves are not stupid. Eventually they will learn, if they have not already, that massing in large, easily identified groups is a death sentence. Once recognized, they will do what every other guerrilla army has done since time immemorial: fade into the background by blending in with the population. When our allies on the ground march in to take territory they will find that rather than facing no opposition, they will have instead walked into something of a trap, as the Sunni population in both Iraq and Syria will have become the guerrilla army’s bolt-hole and hiding place.
That is when these forces will then face their biggest test. Will they be able to hold territory that America’s superior firepower has opened up to them? How will they fare once on the ground amidst a hostile population they are seeking to control? Here, the news might not be so good and should give folks in Washington and those hawks around the country calling for greater U.S. involvement on the ground some pause.
First, when it comes to the Kurds, it is not at all clear that they are interested in liberating non-Kurdish territory. Indeed, beyond using this crisis to firm up their grip on the parts of Iraq they have long claimed anyway, there is seemingly little that they would gain by doing so. That’s because their Peshmerga units will become targets the moment they cross from Kurdistan into Sunni Iraq. Instead of defending their homes and families, the Kurds will be invading and occupying someone else’s, something they are not terribly experienced with. Given that the Kurds want independence, not a unified Iraq, why should they fight and die to keep one part of Iraq part of and beholden to another part that the Kurds themselves have no real loyalty to? No amount of cajoling by Uncle Sam will change this fact.
Then there are Shiite Iraqis in Baghdad and the south. While they may have much more of an interest in keeping Sunni Iraq in the fold for purely nationalist regions, it’s not clear that their principal regional ally, Iran, has much of an interest in spending huge amounts of blood and treasure on pacifying an occupied Iraqi Sunni heartland. After all, Iran is a Persian, Shiite state and has consistently been at odds with its Arab neighbors for much of its history. Splitting Arabs along sectarian lines while not being seen to be directly responsible for doing so thus plays to their advantage, and the Ayatollahs must surely realize that a rump Shiite Iraq strongly aligned with Tehran is a better deal for them than a whole Iraq split along ethnic lines that is only weakly aligned with Iran.
This leaves us with our allies in the Sunni Arab world: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Of course, these folks are those most responsible for creating the Islamic State and its like-minded nutcases in the anti-Assad opposition in Syria. Unlike the Kurds or the Iranians, the Sunni Arabs do have an interest in keeping Iraq whole simply because a large Arab Iraq is an important buffer to further Iranian encroachment into the greater Middle East. Indeed, this is why the Gulf Arabs and the broader Sunni Arab world helped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq financially and diplomatically during the long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The Gulf Arabs’ plan then was to fight Iran to the last Iraqi and they nearly succeeded, only finding out too late that Hussein as a guard dog against an Iranian burglar was a bit too wild for comfort.
So it should be clear that even with massive amounts of U.S. airpower being applied to the region the basic political problem causing much of this mayhem is at the moment insoluble: No political actor in the region wants to see or has the strength to impose on their own a situation, where Iraq is whole, strong, democratic, and as a consequence of democracy, more or less dominated by the country’s Shiite population. Such a country would simply tip the balance of power in the region too much in Iran’s favor and so will always be opposed by the Sunni Arab states.
It’s the post-game play that matters
Destroying the Islamic State will do nothing to solve this basic problem, and when the dust clears and our allies on the ground march in it will become glaringly obvious that this will be the case. After being shot at and bombed while occupying sullen Iraqi Sunni populations, the Kurds will inevitably retreat — perhaps formally declaring their independence in the process. Even if they do not, their autonomy from Baghdad is so complete now that they are effectively independent in all but name anyway. This will then leave the field to pro-Iranian forces in both Syria and Iraq that will effectively return the situation to status quo ante bellum, which was, of course, the intolerable state of affairs for the Sunni Gulf Arabs that created this whole mess in the first place.
What happens then should be obvious, as we’ve already seen it: Sunni Gulf Arabs will inevitably intervene in order to try once again to roll back Iran’s gains. As before, this will be done “clandestinely” through the financing of shadowy rebel armies, militant brigades and terror groups, since the ruling houses of the Gulf Arab states are too weak and cowardly to actually use their own military forces in the open and on their own. That’s what the U.S. is for, after all, and it makes sense, too: All those comfortable Gulf Arab citizens drafted to fight a war against Iran or its proxies might get it in their heads that maybe they should have a say in the affairs of their own country if they are to actually, you know, fight, die and endure hardship for it. These are societies premised on the principle of no taxation without representation, and war is nothing if not a tax.
Ultimately, the Islamic State will be destroyed, but that’s a foreordained, pointless fact that misses the obvious conclusion that it will merely be replaced by some other militant Sunni-Arab group that hates both Iran and America. The politics of the region today are such that two blocs of power, Iran and the Gulf Arabs, are fighting for control of a strategic buffer region that neither side wants to see the other control outright. Neither Riyadh nor Tehran is strong enough in the ways that matter to win, nor can they directly attack one another for fear of damaging their mutually vulnerable oil infrastructure and their equally fragile domestic ruling systems. Their only hope is to draw in an outsider to do their dirty work for them.
Thus, the tournament of shadows taking place on opposite shores of the Persian Gulf and spreading out to points beyond will go on indefinitely until one side manages to sucker an outside power into wading into this hopeless conflict on their own side. As any competent swindler knows, the trick to pulling off such a long con is to find someone arrogant enough, powerful enough and gullible enough to fall for the obvious lies and obfuscations that are part of any such endeavor. Such a fool has to be greedy, believe that they can do anything and that there are always quick, easy, no-cost solutions to every obstacle. Think they can find a mark like that?