President Barack Obama ran for office on an anti-war message in 2008. Fulfilling a campaign pledge, he fully withdrew all ground troops from Iraq in 2011 and has commenced a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, Obama is discovering that although he may not be interested in war, war is interested in him. As Americans were forcefully shown on December 2, 2015 with the San Bernardino terrorist attack, US disengagement has only served to embolden terrorists and give them free reign to spread their ideology.
It is time for a dramatic change. A regional strategy, one which restores American leadership and bolsters American allies, is absolutely necessary.
Although years of inaction and the entry of Russia into the Syrian conflict have narrowed the options, there is still the potential for a powerful and enduring anti-terrorism strategy in the Middle East. This strategy should include a reassessment of long-held assumptions and a realignment where US national security interests so warrant.
The strategy should be two-pronged: support for Kurdish independence and outreach to Arab Shi’ite Muslims.
The Kurds Considered the world’s largest population of stateless people, the Kurds are counter-normative for the Middle East.
Their homeland straddles the borders of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the departure of Western imperial powers from the Middle East the Kurds were stripped of their right to self-determination.
Buffeted between the Turkish, Arab and Iranian hegemons, the Kurds have experienced extraordinary oppression throughout the 20th century.
The Kurds benefited tremendously from the American dismantlement of the Ba’athist regime. During the war, coalition forces experienced the lowest casualty rates in the Kurdish areas, and worked closely with the Kurdish Peshmerga in prosecution of the war effort.
In the portion of the homeland that falls within Syria, only Kurdish forces have been combating Islamic State, as exemplified by the hard-fought victory in the Turkish border town of Kobane. Syrian President Bashar Assad deliberately withdrew the Syrian Army from that region in 2013, effectively relinquishing sovereignty over the area. In Iran, the Kurds have fought for independence from both the Shah, and after his fall, the Islamic Republic. In Turkey, the Kurds have also been fighting for independence and/ or cultural and political autonomy for generations. Due to Turkey’s status as a NATO member, realpolitik gave the Kurdish movement a patina of pro-Soviet socialist leanings. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and Turkey’s apparent regression to its caliphal origins, the Kurdish militancy now looks to the West for support as a secular and democratic ethno-nationalist movement.
The Obama administration has struggled mightily to identify “moderate” rebels to train and equip in Syria. Yet, by sponsoring Sunni Arab insurgents, the US has only succeeded in providing arms and training to what have proven to be Salafi and proto-Islamist terrorist organizations. Individual vetting, on the other hand, has led to an embarrassing multi-million-dollar waste of taxpayers’ money. The Kurds are the ally that US has been searching for in Syria, and in Iraq they are an effective pro-Western fighting force within their own autonomous region in the north.
The US should openly and directly arm the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, and adopt as the official American position support for a sovereign Kurdish state.
The US should also demand greater autonomy for the Kurdish region in Iran and Turkey. Notwithstanding President Obama’s unilateral conciliation with Iran, the Islamic Republic is no friend of the US. Iran must be reminded that the US has interests and allies in the region, and that there is a price to be paid for antagonizing America. Turkey, in spite of NATO affiliation, is culturally profoundly anti-American. The US should assess whether an alliance predicated upon a geopolitical reality that no longer exists is in fact worth denying support to a people who are generally pro-American and whose independence would disrupt the morbid status quo of the Middle East.
Shi’ite Engagement During the reign of Saddam Hussein the Shi’ites of Iraq suffered severe repression.
Their mosques were shut down, and their religious leaders were imprisoned and murdered. It was the American invasion and defeat of Saddam that liberated the Shi’ites.
During the war and occupation, Coalition forces suffered approximately one seventh the number of casualties in Shi’ite-controlled areas as in Sunni regions. The casualties were overwhelmingly inflicted by Iranian influenced and funded militias. The majority of the oppressed Shi’ites welcomed the defeat of the Ba’athist regime and cooperated with the US in the effort to establish a democratic government. The abrupt and complete withdrawal of American forces was a fatal blow to the newly developing civil society. Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the spiritual leader of the Shi’ite community of Iraq, which constitutes over 60 percent of the population. Sistani has encouraged full participation in the democratic process and has issued fatwas both prohibiting anti-US violence during the occupation and in favor of military action against IS. Sistani’s quietest approach to Shi’ite Islam has earned wide praise and is often credited with contributing to the orderly transition to democracy which had been occurring in Iraq prior to the US departure.
Under Obama, the American foreign policy establishment, having deemed the invasion of Iraq a “mistake,” seems all but resigned to the outcome that Iraqi Shi’ites are destined to be vassals of Iran and will inevitably assimilate Iran’s staunchly anti-American dogma.
With American inaction, this will surely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it need not be the case.
The Shi’ites of Iraq are caught in a very difficult situation; facing ferocious attack by IS and having been abandoned by the US, turning to Iran is the less than optimal choice of last resort.
The US should re-establish a military presence in Iraq with a strong program for training and equipping the Shi’ite majority and its moderate Sunni allies.
Ultimately, the US can regain the initiative and renew its leadership in the global war on terror by nurturing alliances with the Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites, and promoting a system of highly autonomous federalism in Iraq that may ultimately lead to peaceful independence for Kurdistan to the north (linked with the Kurdish region of Syria), and for the Shi’ite region to the south. The US should also reconsider its alliance with despotic and oppressive Sunni regimes including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, nations which share the same Salafist ideology as IS and have supported the terrorist group since its inception.
Finally, the US should carefully consider whether Turkey has outlived its usefulness as a NATO member, or perhaps whether NATO itself still has relevance in a post-Cold War world.The author is an Iraq War veteran, former criminal prosecutor and candidate for United States Congress in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District.