From the start of the so called Arab spring, America has time and time again initiated moves which set it at odds with its traditional allies in the Middle East, to the extent that today it can only watch impotently developments in the region.
Iraq is a case in point. ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – is a jihadist terrorist organization that has already taken large areas in Syria and made significant gains in Iraq. It is now in the process of setting up a hard-core Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East.
Washington, apparently taken completely by surprise, finds itself in the same camp as Iran, its sworn enemy. Obviously it is to be deplored that Arab countries in the region are unequal to the task of overcoming an organization numbering no more than a few thousand terrorists. On the other hand, since the end of the WWII these countries have squandered their efforts and their resources in internecine warfare and in the conflict with Israel, secure in the knowledge that the US or the Soviet Union would come to the rescue if needed.
The greatest world power thus finds itself not only without a viable course of action in Iraq, but without the allies that might have made such a course possible.
Washington seems to have grasped the extent of its predicament. Secretary of State John Kerry has been making the rounds of Arab states to see whether he can cobble together a coalition to act in Syria and Iraq. He came to Cairo bearing gifts, and pledged to unfreeze speedily the dispatch of Apache helicopters badly needed by Egypt to fight jihadist terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula.
That freeze, together with most of America’s military aid, had been intended to “punish” the Egyptian people and the army that had dared to topple a “democratically elected president.”
Washington has yet to understand that truly democratic elections in the Middle East – except in Israel – will entail a profound cultural evolution enshrining the rights of the individual, gender equality, and tolerance towards minorities.
No amount of pressure will change the reality in Egypt. Kerry promised to unfreeze the supply of all military aid, though he hinted that Cairo should progress toward greater democracy. It will not help to bridge the gap between the two countries, since the leaders of Egypt as well as most Egyptians are deeply offended by what they see as an undeserved snub.
Having gotten rid of the Muslim Brotherhood they thought that America would applaud and offer them help. There are signs that Washington has grasped at last the importance of Egypt as a stabilizing factor in the region.
Unfortunately, it was not the only miscalculation of America’s foreign policy. Washington had offended long-time allies, such as Saudi Arabia, a staunch friend since 1940. Riyadh is still bitter at what it perceives as American treachery in entering secret negotiations with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program.
In Syria, America could not decide on a course of action. Not only it did not contribute to the fall of Assad, it did not back the moderate Sunni elements that were fighting the dictator, and thus indirectly contributed to the rise of ISIS.
Washington also lost influence in Libya, after leading from behind the European efforts to topple Muammar Gaddafi and is now watching helplessly as the country is plunged into chaos. Granted, Arab states are no poster for democracy and their people generally dislike the West and the United States, but a great power must act according to its own interests and cannot afford to be sanctimonious.
Washington also cannot afford a direct intervention in Iraq. This would entail a considerable war effort stretching from Syria to Iraq and guerrilla operations for which the Americans have no stomach. The human and material price would be too high, and there is no way that a compromise could be achieved between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
There might be a temporary respite for the Shiite government – leading to an increased Sunni hostility to the US, but there can’t be any hope of restoring unity to Iraq. During his recent visit, Kerry repeated that Washington was urging the ruler of Baghdad to form a national unity government with the Sunnis. Something akin to treating a terminal disease with placebos.
Unfortunately, America’s ill-advised policy after conquering Baghdad in 2003 is at the root of today’s problem. The Iraqi Army was disbanded, the civil service dissolved, and the power – held for so long by the Sunni minority – handed over to the Shi’ites, who promptly initiated discriminatory measures against the Sunni minority while moving closer to Shia Iran, the enemy of the West.
Disgruntled Sunnis took to terrorism – first against American troops and then against the Shi’ite population, while some joined the ranks of al-Qaida. The world can only look on while both factions are locked in mortal combat with no issue in sight.
Obama has withdrawn American soldiers from Iraq; had they stayed they would have given ISIS a real fight. On the other hand, he was only fulfilling a pledge made by former president George W. Bush.
Besides, who would have thought that a regular army with hundreds of thousands of soldiers trained by American experts would disintegrate when faced by a few thousands terrorists, however well organized? Though Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Iraqi government, is primarily to blame for having gone too far against the Sunni population, the Americans planted the seeds in 2003.
ISIS is not operating in a vacuum. It is being reinforced by embittered Sunnis and by Beduin tribes recruited in the past by the Americans to combat al-Qaida, something they did with notable success. It is true that not all the population – Sunni and Shia – is engaged in the fighting. There is no civil war yet, but the country is divided de facto. ISIS has taken over the main Sunni centers in the North and the Center and will undoubtedly meet with stiff resistance if and when it tries to progress in the Shia concentrations to the south.
However, it is hard to see Maliki being able to dislodge ISIS from its newly conquered territories. A brutal, extremist militant Islamic state is coming into being in the heart of the Middle East. It will become a bastion of terrorism unleashing its attacks against neighboring countries and sending its faithful on operations in Europe and the United States.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I led to the arbitrary creation of artificial entities; boundaries were drawn with no ethnic or tribal considerations with bitter enemies condemned to live together. These countries are today paying the price of constant squabbling and lack of economic progress.
From Libya to Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (with Lebanon not far behind) Muslim states can no longer ensure personal security and basic services to their peoples – who often resort to flight, leading to an unprecedented number of refugees.
Can something still be done to reverse that relentless trend? It is highly doubtful.
America, having painted itself into a corner, will watch helplessly as chaos spreads and threatens the West.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt, and Sweden.