U.S.: What Is the Greatest Threat of Them All?

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by Jim Lobe*

This month’s stunning campaign by Sunni insurgents led by the radical Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) against the mainly Shi’a government of Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki is stoking a growing debate here about the hierarchy of threats facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond.

On one side, many foreign policy “realists” have argued that the greatest threat is precisely the kind of violent Sunni jihadism associated with Al Qaeda, whose prominence now appears to have been eclipsed by the even more violent ISIL. In their view, Washington should be ready, if not eager, to cooperate with Iran, which, like the U.S., has rushed military advisers, weapons, and even drone aircraft to Baghdad, in order to protect the Iraqi government and help organise a counter-offensive to regain lost territory.

Some voices in this camp even favour working with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose air force reportedly bombed ISIL positions inside Iraq Wednesday, to help repel the threat.

“There’s only one strategy with a decent chance of winning: forge a military and political coalition with the power to stifle the jihadis in both Iraq and Syria,” according to the former president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. “This means partnering with Iran, Russia, and President Assad of Syria. This would be a very tricky arrangement among unfriendly and non-trusting partners, but the overriding point is that they all have common interests,” he wrote in The Daily Beast.

On the other side, pro-Israel neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists, who maintain their hold — if increasingly shakily — on the Republican Party, vehemently oppose any such cooperation, insisting that Tehran poses Washington’s greatest strategic threat, especially if it succeeds in what they depict as its determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

For them, talk of any cooperation with either Syria or Iran, which they accuse of having supported Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist groups in the past, is anathema.

“(W)e should not aid our stronger adversary power against our weaker adversary power in the struggle underway in Iraq,” according to George W. Bush’s former ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, now with the American Enterprise Institute. “U.S. strategy must rather be to prevent Tehran from re-establishing its scimitar of power stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon,” he wrote for Fox News in an op-ed that called for renewed U.S. efforts to overthrow “the ayatollahs”.

The hawks have instead urged, among other things, Washington to deploy special operations forces and airpower to attack ISIL in both Iraq and Syria while substantially boosting military aid to “moderate” rebel factions fighting to oust Assad.

Yet a third camp argues that the current fixation on ISIL — not to say the 13-year-old preoccupation with the Middle East more generally — is overdrawn and misplaced and that Washington needs to engage a serious threat reassessment and prioritise accordingly.

Noting disappointingly that Obama himself had identified “terrorism” as the greatest threat to the U.S. in a major foreign policy speech last month, political theorist Francis Fukuyama cited Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and increased tensions over maritime claims between China and its U.S.-allied neighbours as greater causes for concern.

“He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China,” Fukuyama wrote in a Financial Times column entitled “ISIS risks distracting us from more menacing foes.”

In the face of ISIL’s advance, the administration appears to lean toward the “realist” camp, but, for a variety of reasons feels constrained in moving more decisively in its direction.

Indeed, at the outset of the crisis, both Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, made clear that they were open to at least consulting, if not cooperating with Tehran in dealing with the ISIL threat.

Kerry even sent his top deputy, William Burns, to explore those possibilities in a meeting with senior Iranian officials on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna – the highest-level bilateral talks about regional-security issues the two governments have held in memory.

But the sudden emergence of a possible de facto U.S.-Iranian partnership propelled its many foes into action. These included not only neo-conservatives and other anti-Iran hawks, including the powerful Israel lobby here, but also Washington’s traditional regional allies, including Israel itself, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

They have long feared a return to the pre-1979 era when Washington recognised Tehran as the Gulf’s pre-eminent power and, in any case, have repeatedly ignored U.S. appeals in the past to reconcile themselves to a new Iraq in which the majority Shi’a community will no longer accept Sunni predominance.

“Some [U.S. allies] worry that the U.S. is seeking a new alliance with Iran to supplant its old alliance system in the region,” wrote Michael Singh, a former Bush Middle East aide now with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near Policy (WINEP), on the same day of the Vienna meeting.

“As misplaced as these worries may be, an American embrace of an Iranian security role in Iraq – or even bilateral talks with Iran on regional security that exclude other stakeholders – will only exacerbate them,” he warned in the neo-conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal which has published a flood of op-eds and editorials over the past two weeks opposing any cooperation with Iran on Iraq.

Faced with these pressures, Obama, who has vowed to keep the U.S. out of a regional Sunni-Shi’a civil war, is eager to reassure those allies that he has no intention of partnering with Iran to save Maliki himself (to whom the Iranians appear to remain committed, at least for now).

U.S. officials have made no secret of their preference for a less-sectarian leader who is capable of reaching out to the Sunni community in Iraq in ways that could pry it loose from ISIL’s grip or influence.

That no doubt was a major part of the message conveyed by Kerry – along with the dangers posed by ISIL, even to Saudi Arabia itself — in his meeting in Jeddah Friday with King Abdullah, who until now has clearly viewed Tehran as the greater threat.

Similarly, the White House announcement Thursday that it will ask Congress to approve a whopping 500 million dollars in military and other assistance to “moderate” rebel groups in Syria to fight both Assad and ISIL also appeared designed to reassure the Saudis and its Gulf allies that Washington remains responsive to their interests, even if the aid is unlikely to materialise before some time next year.

While that announcement may please U.S. hawks and Washington’s traditional allies in the region, it is unlikely to strengthen those in Tehran who favour cooperating with the U.S. on regional security issues. Indeed, it risks bolstering hard-liners who see the conflict in both Iraq and Syria in sectarian terms and accuse Washington of siding with their Sunni rivals in the Gulf.

That the announcement was made on the same day that Baghdad thanked Damascus for bombing ISIL positions in Iraq, however, illustrates the complexities of the tangled alliances at play and the urgent questions for U.S. policy-makers: who is the greatest threat and whom best to work with in defeating it?

*This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.

26 Comments

  1. Iran’s support of Assad in Syria spawned ISIS ? I don’t think so.
    Try the US, Sauds, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and others arming ISIS to the back teeth, training them, giving them huge amounts of money and other forms of support.
    Just as the US created the Taliban in Afghanistan (with assistance from the Pakistan military), so too they have now created ISIL, DAASH or IS – as they now prefer to be referred to.
    Like the Disney cartoon character, the US has taken on the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice and set in motion a number of unretractable spells, which have ejected the genie of Islamic extremism loose on the world – yet again.
    Thus far, there is no blowback for the USA but do not forget that after the US trained, financed and supported Afghan mujahadeen there came the Taliban who provided camps for Al Qaeda.
    We all know what happened next, don’t we? The biggest US disaster since Pearl Harbour.
    Iran did not create the mujahadeen, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra or the Islamic State.
    They were creations of the US, Israel, Jordan, Qatar and their Saudi gangster chums.
    When will you Americans finally wise-up to your disastrous foreign policy bungling?
    Only when another World Trade Centre comes crashing down yet again – I suppose.

  2. It’s clear that any involvement by the US in that region, especially alliances with Iran, is just going to get us more entangled in the regional and sectarian conflicts brewing there. Trying to force a marriage of convenience between the US and its long time nemesis for the sake of convenience is even more inane since all that would do is open up a whole another set of worms we have to deal with including burning existing relationships with Israel and the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s solution will only be found with the Iraqis themselves. If the country devolves into another sectarian civil war, let them fight it out. Every time external nations have dabbled into these fights the situation has only gotten worse. Most believe that Bush should have never invaded Iraq in the first place. Why are we advocating getting even more involved when Maliki and his stupid decisions and the meddling of Iran is at the heart of the conflict, just as Iran’s support of Assad in Syria spawned ISIS now. The only solution is to get rid of Maliki, have the Iraqis build a true coalition government including Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish representation and keep Iran and everyone else out.

  3. Good analysis of a fluid and dynamic situation: the spirit has not yet left the body, but the body is slowly circling the drain — not yet gone, but clearly going. This is probably a good time to clear our minds of what has been and try to focus on what is emerging: Sykes-Picot is (and are) dead. Take that map of the Levant — from the Sinai north to the Turkish border, and across to the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris, include the other Hashemite Kingdom (yeah, the one bestowed upon the first Abdullah and now presided over by his great grandson) — and start erasing straight lines drawn across the desert by people far from those straight lines who had no remote understanding of the region. (Not even the Ottomans pretended that “Syria” and “Iraq” were “countries” — the Ottomans had the good sense to understand that each of the major ethnic, linguistic, and religious subdivisions of Islam — of which there are almost as many as there are within Christianity and Judaism — needed to be dealt with and governed on their own terms and in their own ways.)

    Nuri al-Maliki is the focus of Sunni anger — not just ISIL, but also of the Sunni sheikhs and tribes that are the population of the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. The US surge in 2007 was able to help restore a degree of willingness on the part of the Sunni sheikhs and their peoples to support a unified federal Iraqi state under Shi’a control, but Maliki has effectively — insofar as I can tell — definitively blown that willingness. That does not mean that the Sunni sheikhs support ISIL — far from it; but they will work with ISIL as long as Maliki is in charge of the Iraqi Government. I suspect Iran may have come to the same conclusion: with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani himself at last weighing in against Maliki, the US is in the unusual (not to say uncomfortable) position of hoping Iran will do the dirty work for us — Kerry having said all the right things to Maliki, but with little to back them up other than rhetoric. And Maliki having cut a deal with Moscow for weaponry and aircraft, and apparently in the process of cutting a deal with Tehran for the return of at least some of the Iraqi fighter aircraft that fled across the border when the US attacked in 2003, the 300 or so US “advisers” are in the interesting position of providing US intelligence to surviving elements of the Iraqi military (which we trained) so they can use their new Russian and Iranian-provided equipment to attack ISIL insurgents the US is not itself yet willing to attack. (One assignment for the US advisers is to try to calculate just how much equipment and POL and food and medical supplies the US provided to the Iraqi military is now in ISIL’s hands: I suspect it would make ISIL somewhere around the 8th or 9th largest recipient of US military equipment in recent years.)

    With the Turks also apparently having moved significantly toward a better relationship with Iraq’s Kurds (and legislatively moderating their attitude towards their own Turkish Kurds), the kleidoscope now is beginning to suggest a realistic possibility for the Kurds to start preparing for de jure as well as de facto independence. Baghdad no longer has the capacity to block this. Nor does Syria. And Turkey and Iran seem to be preparing to live with it. The question for the US and others is — why pay ANY price — no matter how large or small — to try to save a single, unitary Iraq as it has been known since the end of WW I? Indeed, why try to preserve a single, unitary Syria?

    Sooner or later, people are probably going to take matters into their own hands — much as we did in the US 150 years ago — and despite significant bloodletting and destruction and the cries of anguish among outsiders looking in [but who aren’t paying much of a price themselves for the bloodletting and destruction] — take matters into their own hands and sort things out for their own countries. The US doesn’t know enough about Thailand to make decisions about what the outcome of the upheaval in that country should be. Nor of Egypt. Nor of Ukraine. On humanitarian grounds, I’m as sorry as anyone to see the bloodshed, but sometimes the people immediately involved have to sort things out among themselves — just as we did in similar circumstances in an earlier time. We need to accept the reality that Sykes-Picot is gone and a new map is emerging, and try to figure out how to deal with that new reality. David Passage

  4. I can only say that the more the US gets involved in the Middle East, the messier it gets.
    People here in the Uk are making the point that Iran has never invaded anyone.
    The main country to do that – apart from Israel and the US – was Saddam’s Iraq, who – at US urging – invaded Iran, leading to a hugely costly – in material, financial and human terms – 8 year war, which ended up in an unresolved stalemate. Well done, the USA – I don’t think.
    Having decided to remove Saddam by invading Iraq, the US managed to change the situation inside the country from a situation where not one single jihadist was in Iraq to a situation where jihadists now directly control significant parts of Iraq – and Syria too. They are also on record as considering Jordan as part of their “territory” as well as all of historic Palestine.
    As for handing over half a billion dollars to the so-called “moderate” opposition in Syria – just when will the US finally start to wise up? You are swamping the Middle East with weapons systems you cannot control and training jihadists in how to deploy modern technology which could very well end up back on the US’s own doorstep.
    Are you Yanks all utterly crazy? Have you all taken leave of your senses?
    It is high time you all booted out the likes of Bolton and all his other fellow Zionist travelling conspirators. While we all understand it is what he does to earn his Israeli shekels this does not mean anyone else should share in his vacuuous stupidity.
    US: Grow up; stop meddling in the Middle East – you only make matters worse.
    Leave the people of the Middle East to decide their own fates themselves.
    The only time you need to get involved is if there are any real threats to the US mainland. Otherwise, just leave “well” alone.

  5. Thank you Mr Lobe for this post, a sort of primer to the news shows on Sunday, if not more. Failure know’s no bounds with the war mongers, regardless of which country they inhabit. I wonder, will the Pentagon risk a Coup to satisfy the blood thirsty Idiots, both inside and out of the government? Reality check, after all these years and the $trillions spent, and what have we to show for such folly, and they want more? Perhaps keeping Guantanamo open, hasn’t been such a bad idea. Round up all these hawks and deposit them there, subject them to water boarding in person, see who they really serve.

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