Newly Harrowing Times in the Middle East

A new Sunni-Islam sect has grown out of the Syria conflict and the power vacuum of the large swaths of sparsely populated NW Iraq.  The new power is ISIS  The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq and they are frightening.

I think left and right in the U.S. can agree on that.

I know we all feel overwhelmed from all the continuing and seemingly never-ending traumatic news from the Middle East, but this seems to be rising, again, to can’t-ignore status.

Unfortunately, under the “you broke it, you bought it” ethic, the U.S. has, in my opinion, an ethical responsibility to this region.  On the right, with gas prices rising, others might see a national security reason to be interested.  Other’s still, also including myself, believe as the world’s premier military power, we have a responsibility to act in coordination with other’s to work against bad actors – like ISIS is.

I still think that Joe Biden was right when some time before Barack Obama was President he mentioned the idea of redefining the boundaries of Iraq.  This would be difficult, but it seems it is where we are heading anyway.  It was always going to be a struggle to maintain any sort of national government in Iraq, especially a Shiite-majority one, with the continued fighting between the militant wings of the Sunni majority and Shiite minority.  Not to mention the Kurdish minority in the NW.

I think what we are seeing here is the familiar pattern in the Middle East of the most militant, the ones with the power (ie gunpowder) making their presence known and taking power relatively easily given the power vacuum in this poor and sparsely populated section of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, this militant and extreme brand of power hungry individuals using Islam as the excuse to conquer and rule a region is the Taliban in Afghanistan all over again.  We have to be pro-active and we should all support some sort or action, not necessarily military, in this region.

We will disagree on the U.S.’s role in inflaming this mess, we will also disagree on what the U.S. role should now be.  However, hopefully the one thing we might agree on is we can’t  bury our heads in the sand on this.


9 thoughts on “Newly Harrowing Times in the Middle East

  1. braingood says:

    LJ: Came across this nugget on Balloon Juice this morning. Lot’s to digest. Interested in your thoughts:

    “What is Going on in Iraq- Adam L. Silverman, PhD*

    John asked yesterday “what is going on in Iraq?” After communicating with him offline, he asked if I would do a guest post with my answer. What we are seeing in Iraq is that the Iraqis are reorganizing, or attempting to reorganize, themselves. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al Qaeda affiliate in the Levant, which is fighting against the Iraqi government and the Shi’a, is basically capitalizing on Sunni discontent and disenfranchisement. This looks like, and at one level is, settling scores. It is true that the Sunnis are outnumbered and I have had conversations with informed observers who argue the Iraqi Sunnis know they cannot win, unfortunately no one seems to have told the Iraqi Sunnis that!

    Iraqi Sunnis have been telling us, explicitly, since as far back as 2007 when we started partnering with the Anbar Awakenings guys that as soon as they had a chance – read as soon as we were gone and conditions were right – they were going to go after the Shi’a. They are specifically and especially interested in going after the expatriate Shi’a that we had empowered and put in charge: Maliki and his Dawa Party and the Hakim’s and their ISCI Party and its Badr Corps militia. The Sadrists are not too high on their list of favorites either. By not actually listening, and by listening I mean hearing what they said and observing their behavior in order to get a fuller understanding of their messaging, we have helped to make this worse.

    First we seem to have, as policy and strategy, defaulted to and decided that democracy was really just voting and that majority rule was great, so what if it created majoritarianism. We compounded our problems from not actually understanding the message from the Awakenings and Sons of Iraq folks, by empowering the expatriate Shi’a. These Shi’a, PM Maliki and his Dawa Party and Ayutalluh Uzma Hakim and his ISCI Party and Badr Corps, where established in Iran as opposition to Saddam Hussein and are still closely tied to Iran. An important secondary effect that we do not like to think about is that when we brought the Badr Corps personnel into the Iraqi Army we were rebuilding, we did not let their ties to Iran stop us from including them. And I cannot emphasize enough about distrust of Iran among both Sunni and Shi’a Iraqis. Iran is like the black helicopter idea for Iraqis! During my first in depth interview with a Shi’a sheikh who was also an Imam, he told me that the Dawa and ISCI folks were not really Iraqis and that they were not even really Muslims, let alone Shi’a. He told me they were Zoroastrians – adherents to the ancient Persian monotheistic religion. I heard variations of this over and over again from Iraqi elites and notables, and not so elites and notables, who could not have coordinated their messages to me.

    Another self-inflicted wound was how we handled the Sons of Iraq handoff in 2008 when the Maliki government decided it was going to take over administration of the program from Coalition Forces. I was in regular contact with a number of the most influential Sons of Iraq and Awakening leaders in my brigades Operational Environment (OE) as part of my cultural engagement work for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division as a lot of these leaders were also the tribal, community, and/or religious leaders in the OE. No one was happy with how they were being treated, and this went beyond the usual complaining about losing control and prestige, let alone money, in the handoff. Rather, this was an honor and pride issue. I listened to an influential local Shi’a leader, who had joined the Awakenings movement assert that the Maliki government was going to turn his Sons of Iraq personnel into walid shab chai (the boy that brings the tea). It is the Iraqi’s country, and their government made a legitimate request, but we had ample reason to recognize that PM Maliki’s government was planning on targeting the Awakenings and Sons of Iraq, which should have influenced how we did the handover. At the time that we turned over administration, PM Maliki was already rolling up Awakenings and Sons of Iraq leaders in Wassit and Diyala Provinces in advance of the 2009 provincial elections in order to neutralize opposition and coup proof himself. In the most recent national elections he did the same thing with members of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya List. He was able to arrest or force into hiding enough Iraqiyya List members to reduce Allawi’s plurality and overturn its constitutional right to attempt to form a governing coalition.**

    The Iraqis rolled us in the 2008 Status of Forces negotiations and the deliberations on establishing the provincial and then national election processes. Once they realized they could run out the clock on us, they did. As a result we are no longer there to play referee and other events have diverted our attention. That is why now is a good time to settle scores. Syria is stuck in a Civil War, which provided the Levantine al Qaeda affiliate a way back into Iraq. They have capitalized on the dashed hopes and angers of a lot of Iraqis and scores are now being settled. Some of this is just vengeance, but some of it is also the process of state and societal formation, regardless of whether we like the potential outcome of that process. For all that we do not like to think about these things, state and societal formation, or reformation, is usually violent. It is often serially violent as well. There will be periods of violence – challenges to the established order or by the order to consolidate power, as well as to determine who gets to be included within society and who is to be partially or fully excluded. These periods will be interspersed with periods of calm. It is not, however, a quick or even easy process. The US has gone through this, though we like to ignore or forget it unless we have no other choice. For everyone who knows Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and the War of the Rebellion (now doing business as the Civil War) there have been well over a hundred smaller and localized rebellions, violent challenges to state and society, etc.

    State and societal formation and consolidation is a long process. It is often ugly and violent and it is what we are witnessing in Iraq. Right now the Iraqis are working out just who gets to be considered an Iraqi, as well as who gets to be in control and how state and society are going to be organized. And when this wave passes, eventually there will be another one. Expectations will have been raised, but whoever emerges will not be able to meet them, until one day they finally are able to do so and things will settle down. We have been watching this in Egypt for almost three years now.

    And this does not even account for what the Kurds may do. I fully expect the Kurds to declare independence as soon as they think everyone is sufficiently diverted with the Sunni versus Shi’a Arab violence in Iraq, the Civil War in Syria, and other events in the region that they can create a fait accompli on the ground. Given that Turkey’s governing party is increasingly divided and internally conflicted, the time may be ripe for independence from a Kurdish perspective.

    * Adam L. Silverman is the Cultural Advisor at the US Army War College. He served in Iraq in 2008 as the Cultural Advisor to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division as the Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 Field Social Scientist and Team Lead. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.

    ** For full disclosure: I know two of the Iraqiyya List members that PM Maliki targeted to flip the elections. One was the acting mayor of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The other is a retired Iraqi Army brigadier general who helped to form the Awakening movement and Sons of Iraq in our Operating Environment. Both of them, as is the case with most Iraqis, come from mixed kinship and tribal affiliations. They were Shi’a and Sunni respectively, but both had close familial relatives, as well as extended tribal kin in other parts of Iraq that were from the other sect. The real fight in Iraq, while now galvanized around Sunni versus Shi’a, has always been about resources and who gets to control. The extremists utilize sectarian religious differences to capitalize on these resource disputes and turn them into an existential religious fight.”

    1. Good, thoughtful, informative article Braingood. But I do not agree as the author seems to that this is a natural civil war and we’ll just have to let them fight it out.

      An important line came at the end. Don’t forget this (it seems it was written by John Cole, not by Dr. Adam Silverman…
      “The real fight in Iraq, while now galvanized around Sunni versus Shi’a, has always been about resources and who gets to control. The extremists utilize sectarian religious differences to capitalize on these resource disputes and turn them into an existential religious fight.””

  2. Mary Ella Anderson says:

    How many times will you fall for this? You don’t know what’s really going on. You don’t understand the culture. Everything intervention we have done has turned out badly because we don’t understand the perspective and culture of the country we are “saving” and everything we do only makes it worse for the people who are suffering. Just imaging, you’re an ordinary citizen in the midst of the civil that results from an earlier foreign intervention and here comes the US to drop bombs on you. How about we let the folks in that are solve their own problems? How about we grant them the ability to make their own decisions? How about we remember that the West has been deciding what is best for these folks and where their boundaries should be since the days of the British Empire? Show me one instance since Korea where intervention has had a good outcome.

  3. Monte says:

    “We have to be pro-active and we should all support some sort or action, not necessarily military, in this region.”
    The time to do anything that would propagate a good outcome is long past.
    I believe doing almost anything will be disastrous.
    The worst thing to do would be either drone or air strikes, too many civilians will be killed.
    Without boots on the ground, it is not possible to concentrate the enemy which is necessary for air strikes to be successful.
    And boots on the ground is not an option.
    It’s beginning to look like the continuation of the Iran/Iraq war. Which side do you choose this time?

    1. Anonymous says:

      Shorter: do nothing. Right? I mean, I’m fine with that as long as we all understand that there is no such thing as a “nuanced nothing.”

  4. Good articles from the NYT today.

    *An article from a thoughtful conservative whom I wish could take back his party: Russ Douthat The End of Iraq Changing Maps in the Mideast

    *Why this is not a civil war. ISIS is a organization that if allowed to become a government, would be worse than the Taliban. It is an organization which is incompatible with modern ideals like not committing mass executions – even of enemies.

    Liberals cannot allow this to grow to a war against cultures or religions. This “war on terror” cannot be a “war” but an international police action against criminals. The leaders of ISIS are simply warlords taking advantage of a low to no resource region (other than oil). Their tactics of extreme violence, repression, mass execution, all in the name of Islam is better dealt with now, internationally with a lead from local countries in the region. We should be willing to play a role in making this right as this is a continual, direct result of our unilateral invasion of Iraq.

    I’m not saying this role should involve bombs, it seems as a practical matter that left and right are agreed – no military. If not bombs, then strong soft diplomacy. Something. I don’t know what, I live in HumCo for goodness sake, but ISIS is not OK and it also isn’t OK to pretend we do not have some responsibility in this.

    Monte -in this case there is no need to choose sides. ISIS is a more repressive and militaristic splinter group from Al Qaeda. This is my point about policing – these are criminals, not countries and definitely not representatives of a religion)

    Here is one more NYT link that discusses the “Tangle of Alliances and Enmities”. I also linked to it from a comment in Fred’s blog yesterday.

    1. Monte says:

      The ISIS consists of about 800 souls, They are merely a catalyst for tribal attitudes that run deep into the culture.
      What ever side takes control will eliminate the ISIS, but not until their usefulness is exists.

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