The US government has been without a workable strategy for the Middle East since it left Iraq at the end of 2011. In the vacuum created by the Obama administration, the Sunni grievance throughout the region has metastasized into a full-fledged Islamist monster called ISIS or Islamic State. But a workable strategy against ISIS is essentially unthinkable without a corresponding plan to alter Iranian influence across the totality of the Levant.
ISIS has been dealt serious military blows from both Russian and American aircraft; however, to end the global scourge of radical Sunni Islamist terrorism will require the dismemberment of the Assad regime in Syria, the political enfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq and the complete elimination of the Hezbollah military infrastructure in Lebanon. Such a tall order cannot be done by any one country alone.
In fact, it is now clear that without US-Russia-China cooperation, the balance of power throughout the Middle East will continue to be tested through a spectrum of extreme Islamist power projection. Whether this regional war can be won by either Sunni or Shiite Islamist parties remains unclear. However, what has become most frightening is the advent of Russian power in protection of Iran and Assad. Equally frightening has been the apparent acceptance by which the Obama administration seems comfortable with this Shiite imperial axis. But such has been the case since the arrival of the Obama administration in 2009.
Obama won two American elections (2008 and 2012) by promising to end the Iraqi democratic project long before it could begin to be firmly established. In the process, he abandoned the Iraqi Sunnis and their 2010 inter-sectarian election triumph and allowed Iran to manipulate the aftermath of this election for their own ends. Obama did this because he had established secret nuclear negotiations with the most extreme Iranian government in its history. From this point of secret negotiations forward, not only was Iraq lost (to the Iranian orbit) but Syria and Lebanon were also seriously impacted. Obama could never admit that the US Republican Party had achieved a success with Iraq’s Sunni population. Furthermore, this success had been achieved while the majority Shiite community had also been empowered.
The spin within the US Democratic Party was that the Iraq invasion was a colossal mistake, and that the Bush surge of 2007-2008 was equally mistaken. Obama promised an American withdrawal from the so-called debacle in Iraq and an end to US ground wars throughout the region. In the meantime, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, took notice. Iran was on course toward a nuclear weapon, but Iran’s leader didn’t want to risk the return of the Republican Party in further US elections.
Khamenei knew that Obama could be susceptible to a nuclear deal which would leave in place the entirety of Iran’s enrichment infrastructure in exchange for a curtailment of fissile material. The Ayatollah had patience. After all, a period of around a decade is miniscule for a nation whose history spans over three thousand years. Meanwhile, the prospect of a cooperative Sunni-Shiite democratic government in Iraq (2010) was an anathema to the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iran-US secret nuclear contact began in earnest within the context of the Iraqi election of 2010. This election could have altered the course of Arab political history had the Obama administration chosen to place its full political leverage behind Ayad Allawi and his Iraqi National Movement. But this would have meant the estrangement of Iran from the prospect of an eventual “nuclear compromise”. Obama (for anti-Republican Party political reasons) didn’t want to admit that Iraq could ever become a democratic success. While at the same time, the US president’s fear of a ground war with Iran — over its burgeoning nuclear program — was something to be avoided at all costs (even with an Iranian sweetheart nuclear deal).
ISIS had risen in strength as an al Qaida affiliate early in the US occupation of Iraq. The Bush administration had made the initial mistake of completely disenfranchising the Sunni population of Iraq. The two major Bush mistakes included completely dismembering the Bath army and government apparatus and turning all Bath Party members into outlaws. This led to horrendous political chaos from 2004-2006. But by the end of the second Bush administration in 2008, the Sunni community had been mollified. ISIS numbers were dwindling as the Sunni population felt a greater sense of a democratic prospect. CIA projections of ISIS strength had dropped to less than four hundred fighters during the transition from the Bush administration to end of the first year of the new president.
However, within a short timeframe of four years (by 2014), ISIS had regained its military posture and had expanded vastly. The Obama administration can be held directly responsible for this expansion. By the end of 2011, the US had completely left Iraq. Two and a half years later, the radical Sunni Islamist organization was back in full force. ISIS (by 2014) — which had been reduced to less than four hundred fighters early in the first Obama administration — had taken over Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, made dramatic inroads into Anbar province, erased the border between Iraq and Syria, occupied much of eastern Syria and began plans for an international campaign of internet “lone wolf” terrorism throughout Europe and the US. Obama’s Iran-ISIS convoluted “die” had been cast.
Throughout the Middle East — in Israel, Turkey, the Sunni Arab states and the disenfranchised Sunni communities of the region — the US Democratic Party represents Iranian appeasement. ISIS cannot be defeated permanently without Sunni political enfranchisement. In other words, the democratic (small d) impulse of the George W. Bush administration is still the only way to alter the regional perception of a global superpower tilt toward Iran. In order to deflect this appeasement perception, it will require great compromise on all sides. Yes, the Sunnis need empowerment, but Russia needs to get something from a “Grand Bargain”, as do Iran and all the Shiites of the Levant. Such a “Grand Bargain” must entail a complete removal of the old Cold War machinery still operational within the region. But similar to the promise of the 2010 Iraqi election, all sides must also believe that within compromise there is also much to be gained.
Russia, the US and China must act in tandem. The political environment necessary to end the chaos throughout the Middle East is multilateral. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon must return to national function but without their history of an extreme authoritarian and/or imperial edifice. This might require a certain devolution of power, but not independence through partition. The fragmentation of the nation-state within the region would mean economic ruin and therefore only further chaos. This would be a victory for ISIS. The Sunni Arab community of Syria must achieve its majoritarian civil rights but never at the expense of any minority. The same is true in Iraq for the Shiites. Majoritarian rule is not the same as majority rule within a strict pluralistic structure. To become truly democratic, the nation-state must respect the rights of all its various communities.
However, as of this moment, all of this is mere premature conjecture. The US under the administration of Barack H. Obama has chosen the Iran nuclear deal over any other strategy within the Middle East. The entire current US leadership team has reconciled itself to doing absolutely nothing about Iranian hegemony throughout the region. They have so compartmentalized their nuclear approach toward Iran that at times they appear to be cheerleading business and banking toward Tehran. They do this without any concern for the consequences. However, if the choice is between ISIS or Iran, the Sunni communities of the Levant have little choice but to pick ISIS. This is the essential nature of Obama’s Iran-ISIS convolution.
By picking Iran, the US has turned a blind eye toward its Arab, Turkish and Israeli allies. But even worse, the US cannot hope to protect its own citizens from future “lone wolf” ISIS-inspired acts of terrorism. The next American president will have to dramatically break from the conundrum of this convoluted policy. To defeat ISIS means to roll back Iran. For that to happen, Russia and China must be on board. An American no-fly zone in Syria (uncoordinated politically with Moscow) is definitely not the answer! In fact, it’s a recipe for superpower confrontation. This strategy might have worked in 2012, when Secretary Clinton ran the State Department, but not now.
Meanwhile, there is the whole question of the Iran nuclear deal. Surely any attempt to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq will lead to the immediate abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal. This could mean war. Without Russia and China on board, such a roll-back and its dire aftermath could encompass a global superpower showdown. Obama has chosen to appease Iran instead of facing their imperial ambitions. Only an unprecedented historic superpower “Grand Bargain” — in order to convince Iran of the seriousness with which the US, Russia and China view Iranian behavior — would suffice to break such a potential global deadlock. Under these circumstances, it would be quite helpful if the idea of a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone became part of the idea of a superpower “Grand Bargain”.
This will mean Israel’s intense diplomatic involvement with its Arab neighbors. So be it. Turkey, the Sunni Arab states and Israel have all been looking for a way forward toward much greater regional cooperation. Such a nuclear-weapons-free zone could certainly become the diplomatic vehicle forward. It would most emphatically engender the support of Russia, China and the US.
The Obama years are about over. In the field of foreign policy, the world has become a much, much more dangerous place. The president’s Iran-ISIS convolution remains in the headlines throughout the world’s websites and newspapers. Without Sunni empowerment and the absence of Iranian hegemony, ISIS (or its latest iteration) will remain a significant threat for Europe and the US. This threat could easily spill over into the Caucuses, Central Asia and beyond. Until the vast majority of moderate Muslims are empowered within some system of civil and political rights, the Middle East will remain a powder keg of extremism.
Hopefully, for the next American president, global leadership will be defined by global cooperation. This can only mean an entirely new world security architecture. Obama’s current Iran-ISIS convolution has become a Hobbesian choice leading nowhere. It is a function of a post-WWII US paradigm that has begun to unravel. We see this in both Europe and the Far East. But it is especially true in the Middle East. New times require new answers. The Obama idea of a US-Iran moderate partnership — sometime in the next ten years — is a far-fetched gamble. But to go it alone in the Middle East, against Iran in Syria and in support of Sunni forces, might just risk war with Russia (another real gamble). Unless the superpowers work together, the ability of the world to free itself from political implications of the Iran-ISIS convolution will be next to nil.
International cooperation in Europe and Asia is the key to ending the multi-faceted stalemate in the Middle East. Let us pray that the world’s leaders have the good sense and courage to begin an alternative reality — an age of true peace.