from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Middle East Chaos

June 11, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The fall of Mosul, Iraq to a terrorist group should change the American perceptions of developments in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration has spent its efforts in the region on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that front is actually stable: no one is predicting or expecting a massive collapse into violence.

But look north and east. Today’s news is of the capture of Iraq’s second largest city by the Islamist terrorist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda offshoot. Meanwhile in Syria, roughly 12,000 jihadis are now gathered, producing chaos in that country and sowing seeds of trouble for neighboring countries and our own. The estimate now is that 70 Americans are among the jihadis in Syria, one of whom recently engaged in a suicide bombing, so the question arises: what will they do when they come home?

There is a common thread here, in my view: these developments were not inevitable. The situation in Syria is the product in good part of America’s failure to act when we had a chance, in 2011 and 2012, and even in 2013 when President Obama backed away at the last minute from bombing Syria to punish Assad for his murderous use of chemical weapons. In 2012 the President rejected the advice of most of his top advisers (using the term loosely, because he does not seem to value their advice), Panetta, Clinton, and Petraeus, to give the Syrian rebels significant amounts of non-lethal and lethal assistance. The massive refugee flow from Syria threatens the stability of Jordan and of Lebanon, and the concentration of 12,000 jihadis there is a danger to them and to the United States and all our allies.

In Iraq, President Obama withdrew all U.S. troops as soon as he could. Would an American presence have avoided today’s debacle? It’s quite possible, because the United States was often able to broker deals between Sunnis and Shia that headed off the kind of violence we see today. David Rothkopf describes where we are now, in an article entitled "We Are Losing the War on Terror:"

This compounds ISIS gains in Fallujah and across Anbar province. Should the Iraqi government fail to regain control of this region, the consequences of an extremist rump state on Jordan’s eastern border and of conflict with Kurds in the north are grave. Such a scenario is quite possible, in fact; 11 years after the United States went to war with Iraq we could be on the verge of seeing it fracture into an extremist Sunni state in the west and an Iranian puppet state in the east -- perhaps the worst possible outcome we could have envisioned.

So, the worst possible outcomes in Syria and in Iraq, after five years of Obama foreign policy designed to get us out of Middle East morasses. What is the current policy for addressing these dangers? As Rothkopf added, "President Barack Obama’s West Point speech -- which suggested that we could now safely start to hand off such issues to partners on the ground -- has, in the case of Pakistan and Iraq, been debunked within the last few days." And I would add, is being debunked in Syria every day.

Implementing a serious and effective counter-terror policy will be far more difficult now, with a variety of Al-Qaida linked groups such as ISIS and AQAP and AQIM growing in strength, than it would have been five years ago. We’ve lost influence in Iraq and in fact have lost influence throughout the Middle East with friends and enemies alike. The beginning of a more effective policy is an acknowledgement that the current one isn’t working. We need the functional equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s clear realization after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that he needed an entirely new approach to the USSR, and of George W. Bush’s realization in 2006 that we were losing the war in Iraq and needed a new war plan there. The West Point speech points in the opposite direction: self-congratulation and more of the same. Perhaps the disaster in Mosul will force the President and his advisers (or perhaps the more accurate term is "and other high officials") to recognize the need for change. Two and a half more years of disasters in the Middle East will create too much more damage.

A final note: all this bad news can, logically, lead the administration to seek a great piece of good news: an Iran nuclear deal.

Of course a bad deal would be bad news, but the administration may be tempted to make compromises it should not make in order to have some accomplishment in the region, some way of combating the argument that things are falling apart. After all, a "bad" deal is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps it is not coincidental that just yesterday, the French Foreign Minister insisted that Iran must not be allowed thousands of centrifuges in any deal, but must hold only hundreds. He is trying to stiffen the P5+1 negotiating position, for which we should thank him.

But a deal that adds to the current witches’ brew a belief in the region that Iran will escape sanctions and move, slowly but steadily, toward the bomb would create even more dangers. One can only hope that Iran’s role in Iraq and in Syria stiffens the U.S. negotiating posture, and hope that disasters in Syria and Iraq do not in fact lead to a weakening of the American demands at the negotiating table.