What are our real interests in the Middle East? What would we find unacceptable? Destruction of Israel? Slaughter of the Kurds? Annihilation of religious or ethnic minorities such as the Yesidis? Closing of trade routes especially for oil? Most people would probably agree on these. Sure there are some isolationists that say none of this is our business. That would be unrealistic. Chase Yesidis up a mountain and public pressure demands we send in the planes and we do. Nobody wants another Rwanda. Since the beginning of the 19th century we have had warships with marines aboard protecting trade routes. We’re not about to change now. We feel a certain affinity towards the Israelis and the Kurds. We have extended our protection to both for decades and that’s not going to change either. What else? Iran as Nuclear power is a problem we will deal with separately.
To come up with a better policy we have understand what is going on in the Middle East. Broadly speaking there is a Muslim Civil War going on. On one side we have Iran and its Allies, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah, Iraq and Hamas. They’re roughly joined by adherence to Shia Islam. On the other side we have ISIS and other Sunni Syrian rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and to a lesser extent Turkey. Sunni Muslim practice binds this group together. One side severely discriminates against other religions and practices strict religious law which deals out ancient punishments and puts women in a lower place. The other side discriminates against other religions and practices strict religious law which deals out ancient punishments and puts women in a lower place. That’s right both sides culturally have little in common with our values. Surely not in the same way as the Israelis and Kurds who strive for democratic and human rights. If either side wins we would have a Theocracy totally hostile to the West and all other religions. Iran is already a Theocracy and the Sunni side is dominated by radical Islam such as Wahhabism looking for the restoration of the Caliphate. Worse they would probably have nuclear weapons. Iran is almost there and the Saudis won’t be far behind. We are the Great Satan to Iran and ISIS would like to lop off our heads.
What then do we do? Back our friends and put ourselves in position to honor our humanitarian obligations. Luckily we have it in our means to accomplish both. Simply move our support operations to Iraqi Kurdistan. It makes far more sense to arm and coordinate air ground control with the Kurds. They have proven they can fight and like and need us. Better still we would have an unsinkable Aircraft Carrier from which to project our power when needed to accomplish our limited goals. We would be in a better position to punish those who directly attack us or our allies with drones or other means.
How do we do this? Crisis. Just report that ISIS is planning a massive attack on Kurdistan and we need to rush equipment and trainers there. Of course we have to enlarge the air facilities there to accomplish this. No more routing stuff through Baghdad that never gets to the Kurds. As that great statesman Rahm Emanuel said “don’t let a crisis go to waste”. Even if it may or may not exist. We don’t have to explain anything to anybody. Just do it. What about our Iraqi allies in Baghdad? What allies. The Shia government there kicked us out, undid our work with the Sunnis and Kurds and aligned with Iran’s group. They made their choices and remember the new government there is led by the same party. By backing them we are in effect choosing the side that gasses and barrel bombs its own people over those who slaughter the opposition. Some choice. But ISIS threatens us and our allies. And the Iran group doesn’t? We have made our aid conditional on Baghdad’s treatment of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities and the fact that will never be the case gives us an out. How long before will the Sunni and Kurd representatives complain about the Shia majority if they haven’t already. Reason enough to move our aid away from Baghdad and directly to the Kurds.
How would this work? When our military and the Kurds are ready, a limited offensive to acquire a buffer zone adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan and clearing enough area in Kurdish Syria to be sustainable. ISIS would either pull back from confronting the Kurds or take a beating that would make them vulnerable to the Iranian group who are their real enemy. We would then be in position to bring threatened minorities into the buffer areas where they can be protected.
Won’t Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors, Turkey, Iran and Iraq object? Probably. So what. Turkey hasn’t been much of a friend lately. When is the last time we were able to use Incirlik Airbase for all our military purposes? Actually this would put us in a better negotiating position with the Turks. The large Kurdish minority in Turkey looking across the border to their well armed and trained brethren might really fix the Turks attention. If Iran has to worry about their Kurdish minority, so much the better. Iraq had its chance to earn Kurdish allegiance and blew it. But would we really abandon Iraq? They chose to throw their lot win Iran so let Iran defend them. After all it is a Sunni vs. Shia war.
What about our traditional Arab allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, gulf states and Jordan? They’ll be happy that we have moved away from supporting Iran’s ally Iraq. To the extent that we push ISIS away from the Kurds and toward Baghdad and Assad, it helps them against Iran. A bonus of ISIS and other Syrian Sunnis success against Assad would be the possible Russian loss of Tartus, their only Mediterranean naval base. Would the Russian actually fight to keep it? It would definitely put them on the horns of the dilemma. A nice change. If the Iran group starts gaining the upper hand we can always increase our aid to the Sunni Group to restore the balance.
The coalition we corralled to fight ISIS never seemed to be so willing, so asking them to little beyond helping in the push from the Kurdish areas would be popular. They weren’t going to put troops on the ground and we really don’t need much from their air forces.
If this sounds like we don’t want anybody to win, you’re getting the idea. At some point the people in the Middle East have to sort things out themselves. We have to realize that we have little ability to influence events over the long-standing deep religious and cultural differences in the area. Some say the problems in the Muslim World go back to the 10th Century theological triumph of the Ash’arites over the Mu’tazilites. In any case the problems are deep-seated in an area where religion plays a very central part. Europe went through the horrors of all out religious conflict during the 30 Years War that lasted till futility lead to exhaustion, peace and new directions.(you might read The Last Valley by J.B. Pick for an idea about that war). Until that happens in the Middle East, all we can do in a smaller world is to help are friends, stop some of the horrors and mitigate the effect on the rest of us.
Changing our policy without any public announcement or acknowledgement may sound devious, but acting in our own national interest is actually statecraft. Just don’t tell anybody.