For better Mideast strategy U.S. should “Keep Calm and Carry On”

By James “Spike” Stephenson

December 19, 2014   |   0 comments


Beirut—The iconic British government poster—Keep Calm and Carry On—issued in 1939 epitomized the resolve that came to be associated with British resilience through six long years of World War II, much of it on the losing end, before victory in 1945.

Threatened by jihadist spillover from Syria’s civil war, internal conflict between radical Sunnis and Shiites, political paralysis, the burden of over a million Syrian refugees added to its population of 4 million, and the general turmoil gripping the Middle East—Lebanon carries on.

From here, one looks at some of the political dysfunction and fear-mongering in Washington—rumors and sensationalism about ISIS suicide bombers pouring across the Rio Grande, Ebola coming to America, the Caliphate engulfing the Middle East, Russia and China edging out a weakened West because America cannot or will not lead, and a “sluggish” economy.

By comparison, Lebanon, which really does have ISIS inside its borders and other immediate political, economic and social threats, seems the paragon of calm amidst the storm.

Our floundering is disconcerting, more so because it is entirely self-inflicted. We are a great power, but we are in need of a national intervention. We could begin with a unified and consistent policy toward the greater Middle East—not as we would have it be, but as it is.

All sovereign states act in ways their leaders perceive to be in their interests. Syria’s Bashar Assad believes his fight against what is overwhelmingly a Sunni insurgency is existential. Regime supporters— Alawi, Christian and Druze— largely share that view. They need only look to the atrocities committed by ISIS against Alawis, Yazidis, Kurds, Shiites, Christians and non-compliant Sunnis to reinforce their legitimate fears.

Russia supports Syria because Assad is a decades-long ally and one of its last outposts of influence in the Middle East. Iran has invested significant blood and treasure in Syria to support its distant coreligionists and extend its influence from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to counter Iran by ousting Assad and creating a Sunni majority government in Damascus, though they have supported different proxies.

Iraq is a sectarian nightmare with neither the Shiite majority nor the minority Sunnis Arabs and Kurds willing to be ruled by any other than their own kind. All of Iraq’s neighbors have interests in supporting one faction or the other, and they do. The combination of the Iraq War, the Arab Spring and their fallout stirred this toxic brew, out of which emerged ISIS.

Irrespective of whether everyone, including the United States, was too slow to recognize the potent danger of ISIS, its blitzkrieg to the gates of Baghdad this summer and fall and its unspeakable atrocities had the salutary effect of aligning virtually every state’s interests against it. (The exception of course is the tide of would-be jihadists who have flocked to the black flag of ISIS.)

Aligned interests are not necessarily united interests. Turkey embraces multiple interests and, for the moment, relegates the containment and degradation of ISIS to a distant third behind dethroning Assad and dealing with its Kurdish problem. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States remain wary of enabling any advantage to Iran.

Jordan supports the US-led coalition against ISIS, but confronts its own internal security challenges and is wary of enabling Iranian regional influence by degrading ISIS. Yemen, Egypt, Libya and the rest of North Africa are too preoccupied with their own internal challenges to offer much more than moral support, if that.

Indeed the tide of foreign fighters filling the ranks of ISIS flows from many of the very countries whose governments support the defeat of ISIS.

Israel has its own calculi, which do not include degrading ISIS at the expense of empowering Iranian influence over Syria, not to mention empowering its near enemy, Hezbollah.

This is the Middle East as it is, with which we have to contend. It is messy, confounding, duplicitous, treacherous, unwanted and overwhelming-—all the more reason the United States needs to actually be united and clear-eyed on our interests and everyone else’s. From such realpolitik, realistic objectives, strategy and tactics emerge.

President Obama has been hammered by those across the political spectrum over his unwillingness to plunge headfirst into the Syrian civil war, either by providing more than token arms and training to the “moderate” Syrian armed opposition, sending in Special Forces advisors, bombing Syrian regime forces or establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.

He was right to resist overt military intervention in yet another civil war, with virtually no prospect of a good outcome and the sure prospect of the expenditure of more blood and treasure. Unfortunately, he failed to clearly articulate this to the country and its allies, giving the impression of confusion and indecision.

The administration was slow to recognize the peril ISIS presented to Iraq and the region, and initially reluctant to commit US air assets and advisors to stem the ISIS onslaught, after the collapse of the Iraqi army and security forces.

However, President Obama was right to insist the Iraqis must be the agents of their own salvation; to recognize the malevolent role the Maliki government played in the rise of ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi forces; and to orchestrate the ouster of Maliki, before committing significant support.

The shock-and-awe advance of ISIS has been largely blunted in Iraq, including the Kurdish autonomous region, with the help of US arms, coalition air strikes and, yes, Iranian military assistance. While the administration rightly emphasized its efforts were focused on degrading ISIS in Iraq, it finally hit ISIS strongholds in Syria with significant air strikes. It was slow to understand the strategic significance of the Kurdish defense of Kobane, even though the town itself had no strategic value, and too solicitous of the interests of Turkey in doing nothing to aid the Kurds fighting there.

One can argue that the commitment of US air assets could be more robust, and the hard refusal to commit Special Forces advisors and forward air controllers to some Iraqi and Kurdish combat units is baffling, though understandable from the viewpoint of domestic political realities.

But overall, the administration has gotten it about right. What is missing is a clear articulation of our interests in enabling Iraqi ground forces to degrade, contain and ultimately diminish ISIS. Syria is a related, but different problem with different interests.

It is a vagary of war that the US degrading ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra frees the Syrian regime, to some extent, to focus on defeating the other more “moderate” anti-regime combatants. But it must be remembered that although both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have fought each other, they have united to decimate other anti-regime elements.

The defeat of the Assad regime by either would enable a blood bath against regime combatants, minorities and moderate Sunni combatants and civilians. The imminent defeat of the Assad regime is emphatically not in the West’s interest. The degradation and containment of ISIS is.

In 2004, U.S. General John Abizaid, then-Commander of US Central Command, coined the phrase “The Long War” to describe the enduring challenge posed by al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups. The term was not welcomed by pundits who prefer quick wars with tidy outcomes, but it was prophetic.

ISIS is a manifestation of The Long War, as are the other jihadist derivatives in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, the Maghreb, Nigeria and South Asia. That war will last generations, and the West and its allies must be prepared to fight it as such.

More the reason for the United States and its allies to put its domestic houses in order, articulate a clear strategy and tactics to prevail, and “keep calm and carry on.”

James Stephenson is a Senior Advisor at Creative Associates International. This blog represents the views of the author alone and not those of Creative Associates International.

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