Col. Max von Schoppenburg
At the end of WWI the Western Powers moved full force into the Mideast to fill the vacuum left by the mortally wounded Ottoman Empire. Through their inviolable hold over the League of Nations institution, Great Britain and France led the charge into the Levant to stake a claim on the rudderless Arab fiefdoms suddenly emancipated from the yoke of the Turkish sultans. This brazen power grab by London and Paris went largely unchallenged from a world still reeling from a decade of uninterrupted war and political enmity. It was also one of the primary reasons why the United States quickly disavowed itself from European affairs and gradually drifted away into an isolationist slumber for the next two decades.
When both Britain and France attempted to reestablish their suzerainty over the Levant at the end of the Second World War they found their pathway blocked by the emergence of a new political power structure that had unmistakably deposed the two European giants from the top of that exalted order. For the next fifty years the politics of the Mideast would be intricately entwined in the acrimonious Cold War intrigues between Washington and Moscow; with nary a sound of religious or social dissent from the indigenous populations within. The heavy-handedness and political repression wrought by Washington and Moscow’s Middle Eastern puppets merely served to squelch the social and religious fervor that was violently building up in those societies. As a result, when the Kremlin’s political sway went into recession after the breakup of the Soviet Union, only the USA was left to take the wrath of these suddenly unleashed religious forces that inevitably came to the fore in the Islamic World.
The one most challenging facet of American grand strategy in the Mideast since the end of the Cold War has been Washington’s determination to juggle the innate, religious sensitivities of the Islamist World, while holding precariously devoted to their obligations in safeguarding the sovereignty of the perpetually threatened state of Israel. This delicate balancing act has hamstrung every successive presidential administration in the White House since Israel gained its independence in 1948. In that duration America has alternatingly turned toward various, moderate Islamist states to facilitate Arab tolerance and to foster a reasonable state of coexistence with the state of Israel. At one time or another Washington has thrown their lot behind the Turks, Iranians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis in order to amplify their standing in the Arab World and to mitigate the effects of religious intolerance directed at the Jewish state of Israel. The results of those fortuitous arrangements have all been largely disappointing.
Since the precipitous decline of the Soviet state in the early 1980’s, two significant developments have come to the fore in the Islamist World which have seriously impeded the structuring of a sound, American grand strategy in the Mideast for the 21st Century. The first change came with the explosive rise of militant, Salafi jihadist terrorism among the more extremist elements of Sunni Islam. Once deemed a mere disruptive offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wholesale expansion of Salafi jihadist, terrorist groups in the last twenty years now threatens to engulf the whole Middle East and beyond in a colossal conflagration of epic magnitude. But this trend toward radical Sunni Salafism portends a more immediate threat to the practitioners of Islam’s Shia faith than it does to any other institution outside the Islamic World. Thus the second development now threatening the Islamic world, or at least the Islamic states of the Arab world and central Asia, is the inter-religious clash between Sunni and Shia denominations of the Islamic faith.
These developments might not have been so pronounced or threatening had the George W. Bush administration refrained from its ill-advised, military foray into Iraq in 2003, but what is done is done and American policy-makers must inevitably deal with the repercussions of that strategic miscalculation. It is best to do that by wholly identifying what is at stake in the war’s aftermath. First and foremost was the sudden emergence of the Islamic State militia; now the single most threatening and abhorrent Islamic terrorist organization in the world today. Had this group emerged ten years earlier than it actually did, it might have been possible to considerably degrade it, similarly in the way the intelligence community has chipped away at Al Qaeda’s infrastructure. That option however is no longer relevant to the current threat. But other than some ideological differences between the groups’ higher commands, these two jihadist terrorist groups are still one and the same and there’s a very good chance that they will reunite in the near future and become even a bigger threat than they are today.
Consequently the threat from ISIL is now exceedingly more magnified because it has plopped itself right in the center of the Sunni-Shia feud, which threatens to envelop the whole Persian Gulf. America’s abrupt departure from the quagmire in Iraq merely accentuated the deep animosity between Sunni and Shia factions and deeply revealed the extent of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s complicity in cultivating the religious feud for their own purposes. The current government in Baghdad is completely paralyzed by this rift and its military forces have been effectively reduced to competing Sunni-Shia factions, run increasingly from Teheran and Riyadh. This in turn has left the Iraqi Army largely impotent to compete against ISIL and has allowed its iniquitous tentacles to spread far beyond its Anbar Province origins.
In order to formulate a sound grand strategy for the region, American policy-makers must first concentrate on eliminating the most immediate and dangerous threat. Thus it is a military solution that Washington must resort to in clearing the playing field to allow for more constructive political policies to take root further on down the road. Fortunately for American policy-makers the quagmire in Iraq has furnished its strategic designers with a far more conducive and promising, third option besides the warring Sunni and Shia factions in Baghdad. The autonomous Kurdish-run region of Northern Iraq has been reliably and effectively engaged with ISIL for more than three years despite a totally inefficient collection of military hardware. The Kurds are the only combat faction in Iraq that have been able to beat ISIL on the battlefield without the military help of Iran or Saudi Arabia.
The Kurds present a quite auspicious alternative to both military and political planners who have grown increasingly wary of Baghdad’s fluctuating tendencies since America’s military withdrawal. In the Kurdish peshmerga militia the US military has found itself a determined and reliable military force willing to take the fight to ISIL on their own incentive, if they are provided with the necessary resources needed to succeed. And in the Kurdish KRG, the political entity that runs the autonomous Kurdish government in Northern Iraq, American policy-makers could perhaps gain a potentially powerful and palpably moderate, Islamic partner to at least restore some semblance of political continuity in the region and to help fight the spread of militant Salafism in Iraq and Syria. Sadly, very little of America’s substantial military aid packages to date have found their way into Kurdish hands and the KRG has been seemingly marginalized by the current administration in the White House in deference to the corrupt regime in Baghdad.
These two situations will have to change if America is to revise their grand strategy in the Mideast to account for the possible long-term effects of a sustained Sunni-Shia struggle for supremacy in the Persian Gulf and the Levant. America can best initiate this new strategy by openly advocating the establishment of a sovereign, Kurdish homeland in the disputed areas of Northern Iraq and Syria; in the region where the Kurds currently control and/or in the territories which Baghdad and Damascus have effectively abandoned to ISIL. Naturally such a drastic change in policy will no doubt elicit the disapproval and ire of Turkey and Iran, both of whom have sizeable Kurdish minorities in their midst, as well as the protests and hostility of Iraq and Syria, who show no desire of voluntarily surrendering their sovereign lands to non-Arab minorities, especially at the behest of America.
But regardless of Iranian and Turkish sensitivities, it is perhaps a long time in coming that American policy-makers come to the conclusion that Iraq is without a doubt, an irreversibly failed state. The only thing that ever kept it together in the first place was the long succession of oppressive and autocratic, military juntas' that have held sway in Baghdad since the fall of the Ottomans. It is today and will most likely remain, after the vicious sectarian violence of the post-Saddam era, a hopelessly divided land separated by Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tribesmen, ill at ease to let any one of them govern over their respective peoples. So far the Kurd’s political performance in their autonomous territory has far outshined the virulent partiality of the Sunni Arab and Shia factions in Baghdad. But more importantly, the Kurds have done a commendable job in overseeing and refurbishing the rich petroleum industries that provide a great deal of its economic prosperity. So while Baghdad has ultimately failed in uniting the country amicably among its most prevalent minorities and majority, the Kurdish-run government in Irbil has for the most part, provided most of its people with an inkling of peace and stability hitherto unseen in most other areas of Iraq.
Even among their own minorities in the autonomous zone, the Kurds have shown a distinct, egalitarian pride in overseeing the health and welfare of their Christian and Yezidi communities as well as displaying a level of religious tolerance practically unheard of in Baghdad and the Shia south. Thus the Kurds have more than proven their ability to govern by themselves and to take their place peacefully and productively inside the international community of sovereign nations that make up the UN. They have earned this status by standing up resolutely to the aggressive advance of ISIL and remaining loyal and respectful of the war-weary civilian populations caught amid the fighting. And as the Iraqi and Syrian Armies shamefully abandoned their defense of the civilian populations caught in the path of the ISIL advance, the Kurdish peshmerga and other civilian militias never wavered in front of such daunting adversity.
If America truly wants to salvage a sound grand strategy in the Middle East beyond the current morass of sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq than it should look to the Kurds, not so much as a prospective ally in the fight against ISIL, but more so as an equal partner in providing the political, military and economic peace and stability that has vastly disappeared from this ancient landscape. By signing on dutifully and unequivocally to Kurdish independence, the USA can essentially divest itself from the increasingly hopeless sectarian stalemate in Baghdad and at the same time, offer plausible rewards of territory and other political enticements to the Kurds for their sacrifice in challenging ISIL. Iraq as it currently exists is a monumental impediment to the integrity of America’s long-term interests in the Middle East, yet this obstacle can in time be made into a promising outlet of political strength if the seeds of democracy are allowed to take hold and flourish in a new Kurdish homeland.
The one overarching drawback for the USA in embracing the quest for a Kurdish homeland lies in the potential harm it will bring to Turkish-American relations. This will entail a substantial diplomatic undertaking to overcome, but it should not by any means be a pretext to forego a proper dialogue between all the relevant factions involved. The Turks were already in the process of making great strides in normalizing relations with their Kurdish minorities until ISIL broke on the scene and brought turmoil to the indigenous Kurdish borderlands between Turkey and Syria. But the Kurdish fighters in Syria, the YPG, have largely surpassed the combat expectations of the Turks and brought a new realization to the regime in Ankara that the Kurds could indeed be quite useful in providing a buffer between Turkey’s largely secular society and the extremist, Salafi jihadists of ISIL and their Al Qaeda cousins in the Al Nusra Front in Northern Syria.
The Kurds also have a persecuted minority in Iran straddling the mountainous borderlands of Northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. The Islamic state of Iran will most likely not look too kindly toward the establishment of a prospective Kurdish homeland alongside its western border, thus they would instantly present a military threat to the Kurdish people. However this threat could be mitigated if the Kurds were allowed to strike a political deal with their Shia comrades in the Iraqi Army by pledging their unbridled neutrality in an eventual civil war between Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq. This scenario is not altogether improbable considering that the Kurds and their Shia brethren share a common enemy in ISIL. And any attempts to infringe on the autonomous territory of the Kurds in Northern Iraq will most likely come from the Sunnis, who still feel resentment for voluntarily abandoning the city of Kirkuk to the Kurds, in the face of relentless military pressure from ISIL.
In the meantime America must revisit its pledge to provide military aid to the Iraqi Army at the expense of its more cohesive and effective Kurdish militias. America’s military establishment could begin a sustained and concerted military airlift of weapons and other war resources to the Kurdish militias’ tomorrow if it wasn’t politically constrained by the already broken and obsolete military arrangements they had procured with Baghdad before they withdrew all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had pretty much reneged on every standing political agreement he had signed with the US military, so it is highly debatable whether America could be rightfully accused of abandoning its obligations to the Baghdad government, especially when Iran swiftly moved in to become the real power broker in Iraqi politics.
It is obvious from the past performance of the Iraqi Army that America’s most modern and lethal military aid would be much better utilized if it was channeled through Irbil exclusively for the Kurdish peshmerga, rather than Baghdad and the incompetent Iraqi Army. Not only will this help the Kurds fend off the advance of ISIL in Northern Iraq but it would constitute the best way to prevent American A1 Abrams Tanks, Stryker APC’s and armored Humvees from falling into the hands of ISIL. The Iraqi Army has already ceded more than 30% of the military equipment America has provided it to ISIL and another 20-30% has been forcibly appropriated to the various, pro-Iranian, Shia militias operating in the relatively stable and secure, southern provinces of Iraq. These resources would have been invariably utilized if they had gone to soldiers unlikely to flee at the first sign of combat resistance. Even with the substantial weapons inventory that the Iraqi Army has not already lost to ISIL, it is highly doubtful that they could ever be used effectively by the collection of cowards and other treasonous elements lingering in the Iraqi Army today.
In any event, a decision to revise American grand strategy in the Middle East will almost surely fall to the next administration in the White House since the current occupants seem so averse to undertaking military solutions. But in the unlikely event that the destructive advance of ISIL does not suddenly explode far beyond the borders of the Levant and into America’s backyard, there is still a minute chance that American air power alone will be enough to sustain the Iraqi Army in the field, as long as they can avoid the decisive battle with the enemy. Thus American interests in Iraq and Syria will continue to be entrusted to a handful of Special Operations Forces and their eager yet overlooked and undermined Kurdish students, who comfortably remain the most viable option the Western World has in defeating ISIL on the field of battle.