WASHINGTON – With the benefit of hindsight we are all geniuses. Still, it would not have been too difficult to imagine the present scenario in which militant forces belonging to ISIS, an al Qaeda offshoot fighting in the Syrian civil war, have now taken over the Northern part of Iraq.
By allowing the Syrian conflict to fester, Washington created the opportunity for a spill over into Iraq. And this is exactly what happened.
The Obama “hands off” approach regarding Syria’s civil war is in large part responsible for this “domino effect”. Of course, it was and still easy to say that it is prudent for America to stay out of the Syrian mess that started in 2011, simply “because there are no good options over there”. Sure enough, Assad is the bad guy; but so are the jihadists and other assorted religious militants who have flocked into Syria with the intent of replacing Assad’s dictatorship with their own Islamic kind.
Better do nothing
As for the pro-Western insurgents, not enough of them, claims the Obama administration. Besides, they are deeply divided and they do not like us Americans that much, anyway. Therefore we would have taken a big chance by helping them. The risk was and is that weapons supplied to them may end up in the hands of the jihadists. So, better to stay out of this conflict and do nothing. Besides, Obama argued that he had been elected and re-elected with the promise of ending wars. Therefore, starting yet another conflict in the Middle East would have been politically inappropriate.
ISIS expanded its reach
Indeed. Great strategy for winning elections. Except that the Syrian conflict, as we were not paying much attention, has become a powerful magnet for all sorts of foreign fighters. And Iraq, until recently just a transit point for militants headed to Syria, has now become part of the conflict. ISIS got a firm foothold in Northern Iraq and it can now claim that it controls territories and cities in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.
Now, this is serious business. Whatever your opinion about the costly Iraq War launched by then President George W. Bush in March 2003, I think we would all agree that it was and still is in America’s interest that the country left behind after all US troops left at the end of 2011 should be stable and at peace.
But now Iraq is a huge mess. This can have vast repercussions. Iran may get involved. Other Sunni Arab states may also get involved in order to reassert control and prevent Iran from expanding its sphere of influence.
What will Washington do?
And what is America prepared to do? As of today, not much; except from expediting delivery of assorted hardware to the Iraqi military.
But any observer can see that this is no solution to the crisis at hand. Iraq’s main problem is not lack of assets. Iraq’s problem is a poorly trained and poorly motivated military. The most discomforting reports describe Iraqi soldiers who simply threw their uniforms away, put on civilian clothes and fled, as the jihadists were approaching Mosul.
US-trained Iraqi forces
And here we go back to the way in which the Obama administration ended the US military presence in Iraq in 2011.
We know that there were thorny political issues. Washington and Baghdad could not agree on a new Status of Forces Agreement, (SOFA). America wanted US forces in Iraq to be under US jurisdiction. Iraq resisted this. There being no compromise, Obama decided to have no deal and to withdraw all US forces.
In so doing, the administration took a big chance. But it declared to everybody that it had full confidence in the vastly expanded and –mind you– US-trained Iraqi armed forces and police.
Indeed. Now we see how good the training really was. These Iraqi troops were not defeated in combat. Challenged by a brutal enemy, they abandoned their posts, discarded their uniforms and fled.
Caught off guard
Sadly, the worst part of the story is that the US did not see any of this coming. (“Iraqi Drama Catches US Off Guard”, says a WSJ June 12 headline). Indeed while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was spending hours on Capitol Hill on June 11, defending a questionable deal involving the swap of 5 Taliban leaders for 1 US soldier, Iraq was exploding.
New National Security Team?
Senator John McCain summed up this strategic debacle by calling for a brand new National Security team made out of serious professionals who know what they are doing. The current team is composed of people who look more at focus groups and polls than at America’s national security interests. They are not up to the task.
America needs a plan to save Iraq. And we need it now.