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Intervention in the Islamic State Increasingly Messy

President Obama’s alliance aims to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, but US allies are acting in their own self-interests.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Islamic State last summer invaded and captured territories in Iraq from its bases in Syria, thereby posing the greatest threat to the post-1919 borders of the lands of ancient Mesopotamia.

Soon, the United States and world media were bombarded with graphic images of beheadings, executions, crucifixions, and a current of horror spreading through the West. As the Islamic State (IS) gained power, it began to wage total war. The great French historian Albert Sorel said, “War and pity do not go together.” (1)

Watching the IS campaigns, we are reminded of the Seven Years War, the first global war, a war of endless atrocity. One contemporary witness said the carnage resembled the invasion of the Huns, where he found “hanged people after their noses and ears were cut off, their limbs torn away, their entrails and hearts open.” That kind of savagery has returned to the region.

Perhaps the only bright spot: Unchecked, the Islamic State’s brutality will be a major help in containing it, thanks to fresh resistance.

Truthout has interviewed several Middle East experts including Wallace Terrill from the US Army’s Institute of Strategic Studies, Milt Bearden, former CIA chief of Afghan Operations; former senior CIA official Graham Fuller; Col. Pat Lang, former head of the DIA’s Mideast operations, and, last but by no means least, Wayne White, a Mideast policy expert and former senior official at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).

All of them agreed that a key factor fueling the IS menace in Iraq and Syria is a centuries’ old communitarian rivalry, that began with the death of Mohammad in 632 AD, a conflict began over which group was to lead Islam in the future. Today these old rivals use religion as a cover for their territorial ambitions. Hatred between the Shia and the Sunnis has thus become a fixed and dominating factor in Iraq’s communal life, and today it produces endless internal chaos in Syria and Iraq.

According to Lang, the old antagonism between the two strands of Islam was held at bay in Iraq by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator whose regime was toppled by the Americans after the 2003 US invasion. Before the US invasion, Sunni and Shia intermarried, but that ceased after the overthrow of Saddam.

At the time of the invasion, the Sunnis, 20 percent of the population, ran the country: its basic services, water, sewage and electrical systems, and its oil industry. It manned the secret police, the Iraqi Army and all key government ministries. Any opposition to Saddam’s rule was mercilessly crushed by his security forces. But for all of his violence, Saddam did one thing right – he “placed an absolute lid on sectarians,” Bearden recently told Truthout.

The ruling group under Saddam was the Baath Party, a secular, hard-drinking, hard-fighting bunch that fostered industrial modernization and promoted rights for Arab women, who enjoyed a high status in the regime. Iraq was and is a key state in the Arab world, and the Baath party acted as administrative glue for the entire regime. (2)

But with the coming of the Americans, the Bush government treated the members of the Baath Party as equivalent to belonging to Hitler’s Nazi Party. The Americans, led by L. Paul Bremer, fired 28,000 teachers and disbanded the Iraqi Army in a single day. A Pentagon official said that the Iraqi army had been “one of the most respected institutions in Iraq, and Iraq expert Phoebe Marr described it to this reporter as “a focal point of national identity.

Marr said that putting the Shia in power upset the balance of power in Iraq. As Terrill noted, the Sunni viewed post-Saddam polices such as de-Ba’athication and disbanding the Iraq Army “as a mechanism to break Sunni political power and reduce Sunni Arabs to second-class citizens.” The sidelining of Sunnis let loose a poisonous malice that itched to take revenge, and it aimed to keep the Sunnis, helpless, subsidiary and small.

The new political order set up in Iraq favored a new political order set up by the US-favored Islamist and pro-Iranian factions. Bearden had warned this reporter as early as 2004, “We are starting to play the ethnic card in Iraq, just as the Soviets played it in Afghanistan.” Talking to Truthout, he added, “You only play it when you’re losing, and by playing it, you simply speed up the process of losing.”

What came to power in Iraq after Saddam were the Shia, 60 percent of the population, many infected with US, pro-Iranian ties. Tossed into the street were 400,000 government employees who were at a loss to recover their dignity, status or any the means of livelihood. Predictably, widespread resentment resulted.

The Shia under Maliki began to put Shia in senior positions in the government ministries, restricting Sunnis’ participation. The US leadership had painted itself in a corner because having established the new government meant that it could not modify or repeal the laws discriminating against the Sunni, leaving them without any means of appeal, said Katz. In 2008, Maliki passed the Justice and Accountability Law, also aimed at repressing Sunnis, and the Sunnis began to suffer from the endless administrative incapacity of the new government, which was not only corrupt, but exhibited endless petty bungling by its officials.

“We unbottled sectarianism in Iraq,” said Bearden.

Marr had told Truthout, “Having the US military unleash different historical enemies on each other has become an unspoken US policy.” One of the effects of this power shift was to re-energize Islamic militant forces in the country.

Said former CIA head of counterterrorism, Vince Cannistro, “The Sunnis were a secular force, hostile to Iran and Shiite influences, and not much given to promoting radical religious causes.”

The polarization created by this situation created an ideal opening for the Islamic State, according to Kenneth Katz, Mideast expert at the Congressional Research Service. Protests against Maliki were emboldened by the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria. The Sunni unrest in Iraq was fortified by the departure of US forces under the Status of Forces agreement whereby all US combat forces would be out of Iraq by December 31, 2011. Many Sunnis protested the agreement and violent Sunni elements began to revive.

The Aims of IS

The beginnings of IS go back to a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an admirer of Osama bin Laden, who founded his own jihadi group, Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which was soon to become Al Qaeda in Iraq. A follower of his was soon to assume much larger dimensions. His name was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On June 29, 2014, al-Baghdadi bestowed on himself a new title: head of the new Caliphate that claimed political and military authority over Muslims worldwide, according to numerous new accounts. The group’s more immediate goal, however, is to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant region, which covers Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and other areas.

In June, IS astonished the world by seizing tracts the size of Britain in Iraq and capturing the city of Mosul. Only then did the nature of its threat become startlingly clear. Most US accounts of that capture declared its success was due to old Iraqi Soviet-trained generals leading IS, but this view is mistaken. White said that IS had “largely been in the lead,” adding that IS’ allies “had little do to with its conquest.”

After the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s army came under heavy criticism when four Iraqi divisions collapsed in the face of IS. The United States had relied on the Vinnell Corp., and US forces to train the Iraqi Army, spending $25 billion in the process. Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has alleged that Maliki did not take seriously the threat the Islamic State posed, adding that Maliki ignored repeated warnings and that his own forces brought up the matter to the prime minister himself – to no avail. Stung to fury, Maliki gave as good as he got. He alleged that the Kurds had collaborated with IS to “mastermind” the fall of Mosul.

President Obama’s Dilemmas

President Obama wants to “degrade and destroy IS,” but first he has to contain it. He has established an international coalition including 60 members, whose purpose is to forcibly confront IS. Unfortunately, the aims of the coalition members are a confusion of incompatibles.

Obama is being forced to reconcile the contradicting strategic aims of US allies, all of whom use the war to prosecute their own agenda. Many are unsavory. The Kurdish Regional Govt. has used the war to consolidate its own position, reestablishing military relationships with the Western powers and boosting its standing in the Iraqi cabinet. The Saudis and the Iranians are both competing to establish a vast, regional empire to be ruled by the Sunnis or Shias, respectively.

Turkey is dead set on toppling Assad, but Assad enjoys strong support from Iran and Russia, plus Iran is carefully trying to establish new relations with the United States. Turkey has also turned a blind eye to IS operations in Iraq and Syria. Fuller said that Ankara declared its foreign policy independence from the United States a decade ago, and added that Turkey “will never again play the role of ‘loyal’ US ally.”

Obama, Fuller said, is trying to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “back off from his reckless willingness to tolerate IS efforts to bring down Assad,” adding that that policy had done great damage to Turkey’s relations with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. In addition, Erdogan has begun to arrest his political opponents, undercutting his own party, said Fuller.

That is just the beginning. The so-called “moderate” Arab states like Qatar back the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar recently got the United Arab Emirates to bomb militant forces in Libya. The Saudis supported Sunni terrorism in the past, and most of the so-called “moderate” Arab states have horrible human rights records; they deny rights for women and oppose the spread of democracy in the region, according to Terrill.

Obama’s Goals

President Obama wants to end America’s overinvestment in the Middle East, and one goal of his policy is to ensure that Iraq endures as an important nation-state. IS Pan-Islamic ideology wants to abolish nation states throughout the region.

According to the Mideast experts interviewed by Truthout, the Shia-dominated Iraq central government and its Kurdish Regional Government desire to crush Sunni Arab military and political influence. They cherish the illusionary hope that the hawks in the Obama adminstration and US Congress will soon send in a hefty number of US ground troops to assist in the Iraqi government’s ethnic-sectarian cleansing of the Sunnis, White said. To thwart these designs, Obama is pressuring the new Iraqi government of Haider Al Abadi to grant sweeping political concessions that would replace the narrow, vindictive, and persecutory anti-Sunni policies of former Prime Minister Maliki’s government since it was those festering Sunni grievances that drove the Sunnis into the arms of IS.

Moreover, according to Fuller and Terrill, the IS’ momentum came to a standstill in September and early October. In fact, just recently, American air strikes, combined with local Kurdish forces, recaptured a large swath of territory from Islamic State militants on Dec. 18, opening a path from the autonomous Kurdish region to Mount Sinjar in the west near the Syrian border, US news accounts claimed.

The two-day offensive, which involved 8,000 fighters known as peshmerga, was the largest one to date in the war against IS, these stories said.

The Toxic Militias

To many US Mideast experts, the Iraqi Shiite militias are poison, an incoherent mass of thugs.

Fuller stated that the Iraqi militias “are even more feared by the Sunni, plus they are an alienating element.” They act as auxilaries with the anti-Sunni Iraqi Army and they and the Iraqi pershmerga have continually and repeatedly committed atrocities against the towns and villages they have “liberated.” Worse, each time the pershmerga have freed any town or territory in western Iraq, the people they drive out are mislabeled Kurdish. “Plus they prevent the return of Sunnis or Christians,” White said.

In other words, these US allies are not armies, but factions. The peshmerga and the Shiite milias are flying their own flags, not the flag of the nation state of Iraq, and are assaulting and killing Sunnis and threating to kill more if they refuse to leave.

Since the West wants to destroy and degrade IS, it has little choice but to cooperate with such Shia. White said that the Shi’a miltias “fill a needed gap” because they are defending sites like the Shi’a mosque/shrine city of Samaara to prevent it falling to IS. But these militias cannot be relied on. Any newly rebuilt Iraqi Army has to “weed them out of the picture,” in White’s words. That can be done only if the new Iraqi government is able to cut dramatic deals with the Sunni Arabs and secular military elements that will resusitate the political importance that Maliki denied them. Unfortunely, Shia militia men balk at giving Sunnis more rights.

But war is war. If the West truly wants to defeat IS, it may have little choice but to cooperate, explicitly or implicitly, with such fighters. Many Sunnis who helped the United States defeat al-Qaeda back in 2006 have since defected to IS, and Kurds have limited ability to advance beyond their heartland.

The Witches’ Cauldron of Syria

Syria has proven a puzzle for the administration. In 2001, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad responded to indigenous protests against his regime with ferocity – beginning a long, bloody three-sided civil war. Many US officials, who at first wanted him to fall, began to believe that he would fall, which proved a serious misjudgment. Michael O’Hanlon told Truthout it was “a failure of intelligence.”

Mideast experts interviewed by Truthout claim that this view is mistaken. “It became clear from the people very close to the president that he had deep, deep reservations about intervening in Syria,” said Julianne Smith, who served as deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.

The first hints the initial White House attitude had changed occurred in the second half of 2012, when the CIA realized that the Syrian military was starting to change its tactics with help from Iranian advisers, who had cracked the Syrian opposition’s battlefield communications. US intelligence officials misjudged the ability of the Syrian army to evolve and adapt, with assistance from Hezbollah and Iran, leading to faulty predictions that Bashar al-Assad’s days were numbered.

Lang, said that with Assad’s Army and Hezbollah fighting side by side, “The Syrian forces are evolving into a really efficient army.” The Iranian protégé, Hezbollah’s Shia militia, has been battle-hardened in its wars with Israel. But US officials have made it clear that the United States is not directly supporting Assad, even though Assad has turned off his air defense to facilitate American strikes on IS, Terrill said.

Obama’s policy desires the Syrian rebels to defend territory rather than go on the offensive against IS, yet the rebels themselves claim that with more weapons and US air support, “they could take the extremists on more aggressively. There is little evidence that this bravado is warranted,” said Steven Metz, a strategy expert at the Army’s Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Myth of the Moderate Rebels

There is no doubt that Assad’s tactics are vile, but the Syrian Army and its various allies are the strongest enemies of IS in the region. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, supporter of the 2003 war with Iraq, said in her recent memoirs that Obama’s “failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Bashar al-Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

White said that the narrative that claims that IS had its birth in Syria and then invaded Iraq is incorrect. (This reporter misreported this point for Truthout last spring.) “Rather than rising up in Syria and then pushing into Iraq, from the beginning, IS contained a large percentage of Iraqi jihadists welling up from the old al-Qaeda grouping,” he said, adding, “During the Syrian fighting, (it) used increasingly sympathetic areas of northwestern Iraq as a sanctuary, a major recruitment source and a recovery zone for casualties.”

According to Metz, arming the rebels was “the shakiest of all policies,” reflecting the Obama administration’s “desperate effort to balance multiple pressures, priorities and goals.”

He said that arming the Syrian rebels, “was a long shot from the start,” adding, “Case after case shows that arming rebels without a US presence on the ground seldom works. Without American advisers in Syria and with the rebels fighting a two-front war against IS and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the relationship between Washington and the ‘moderate’ rebels is prone to failure.”

The deeply divided rebels have, so far, “demonstrated little battlefield prowess,” Metz said, adding, “They do have a propensity for human rights abuses and for forming alliances of convenience with radicals.” Plus Clinton’s view also overlooked the fact that the “moderate” Syrian rebels want to topple Assad much more than they want to fight IS, according to Mideast experts interviewed by Truthout.

Rebuilding Iraq’s Army

The Iraqi Army doesn’t fight because graft and corruption have crippled its ability to fight. In brief, the Iraqi Army seethes with inner rot. News accounts revealed that there were 50,000 ghost soldiers who did not exist collecting salaries from the central government. Army generals put in place by al-Maliki staffed it with political favorites with the result that the army was contaminated by corruption from top to bottom. One Iraqi general is labeled the “arak guy,” because he is addicted to drinking anis-flavored liquor on the job. Another general is known as “chicken guy” because of his reputation for selling his soldiers’ poultry provisions. A third, “General Deftar,” is infamous for selling officer commissions.

The Obama administration is exerting pressure on Iraqi officials to end the kickbacks, inflated payrolls and other graft rotting the will of the army. Obama is giving assistance but there are limits. According to news accounts, American officials have said that working with the tribes – and military corruption – are beyond the scope of their mission plus there is no evidence that proves the presence of advisers “will reduce corruption,” said White.

What is the chance of putting the Iraqi army back on its feet?

Col. Pat Lang, former head of DIA’s Mideast operations, told Truthout that any rebuilt Shia army “will not amount to anything.” He pointed out that rebuilding an army is a vast project requiring disciplined recruits, a unified command structure, logistical systems, transport and equipment, communications, joint maneuvers and sound strategy. “The Shia have always been afraid of the Sunni,” Lang said. “The Sunni governed Iraq long before the coming of the Ottoman Empire.” Lang had no confidence in the Iraqi army becoming an effective force, and neither did other Mideast experts.

Reviving the Tribes

The Sunni Arabs are pressuring the administration to give them funds and arms supplies under the rubric of a “national guard” that would mobilize forces, an idea that spurs solid resistance from the Iraqi government. The legislation to set up the national guard has stalled in the Baghdad parliament, and the Sunni requests have been ignored so far because the current Iraqi government deeply fears rearming the Sunnis.

As White pointed out, the chance of resurrecting the old US-Awakening alliance is “iffy” because America is no longer the “premier military actor on the ground as it was in 2004” when the tribes and secular insurgents first proposed the deal, and “the Bush administration foolishly rejected it, but then took the offer at the end of 2006 because all hell had broken loose when the Samarra mosque/shrine was bombed earlier that year. Maliki, the new PM, “bitterly opposed the deal, but the US “defiantly – and correctly – ignored him.”

Having been “screwed once, the Sunnis are now VERY wary,” White said.

End Game

Not only will ousting IS from Iraq be a horrid, prolonged military slog, but many Sunni Arab “liberated” areas would be in ruins once bitterly fought through – more “occupied” than “liberated,” White said.

Fuller thinks that the West should withdraw and let the factions and movements in Iraq fight it out.

Bearden expressed caution about further American involvement: “Remember. America has not won a war since 1945.”


1.Europe Under the Old Regime, Albert Sorel, Harper Torchbooks, pp. 70.

2. The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the war, Losing the Peace, Yale University Press, Ali A. Alwawi, pp.150.