Jun 19th 2014

Deconstructing The Iraq And Syria Conflicts

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The current escalating sectarian violence between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi forces and the unending civil war in Syria are now intertwined and neither can be resolved without the other, which requires a dramatic change in the political and military landscape in Syria and Iraq.

What is happening in Iraq today, and how the unfolding events may play out in the coming months or years, is directly related to three central developments:

First is President Bush’s misguided Iraq war, which has precipitated the violent conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the region. Second is President Obama’s failure to reach a security arrangement with Iraq before the complete withdrawal of American forces and conditioning continued American support of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki on the establishment of an inclusive government of reconciliation. Finally is the unwillingness of the US to provide the rebels in Syria early on with the kind of military hardware needed to blunt Assad’s onslaught. All combined have brought about the convergence of Al-Qaeda and Islamic jihadist groups into Iraq and subsequently into Syria, causing the unfolding horror we are witnessing today.

The legacy of the Iraq war has finally forced the Obama administration to reassess its involvement, or lack thereof, in the raging violent conflicts both in Iraq and Syria, and it must now develop a strategy that might help marginalize ISIS in both countries.

There is no clear-cut solution. The bloody conflict in the neighboring countries transcends ISIS’ aspiration to establish an Islamic Sunni state encompassing Iraq and Syria. There will be continuing violence embedded between the Sunnis and Shiites for many years. It has now reached a new peak as Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia assumed the leadership of their respective sects and are waging a proxy war in both Syria and Iraq, determined to preserve their hegemony if not the survival of their regimes.

For these reasons, the US ought to now pursue a multi-pronged strategy that must first deal with the urgent need to stop the advancement of ISIS toward Baghdad, and then move to the second tier to address the long-term Sunni-Shiite conflict that plagues the region.

In connection with Iraq, the US is left with no choice but to take the lead and orchestrate a military response against ISIS forces. Such an effort must be conditional upon Maliki’s full cooperation on the military front and agreeing to form a new government of reconciliation that must include Kurds and Sunnis.

Moreover, to show goodwill and entice Sunni tribal leaders to support the efforts against ISIS, the US must insist that Maliki release thousands of Sunni prisoners who have been incarcerated for years without trial, and stop exhorting (alongside Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) young Shiites to form militias against ISIS, which is a recipe for an intensified sectarian war and chaos.

Since Maliki is not likely to step down on his own volition, during the next few months the US ought to quietly encourage other Iraqi Shiite leaders, who are unhappy with the corrupt authoritarian Prime Minister and are committed to establishing a government of reconciliation, to push him out of power. This will be necessary to change the domestic political outlook and encourage the Kurds and the Sunnis, who deeply resent and distrust him, to cooperate in the longer term.

The US should also make every effort to contain the mutual animosity between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as both governments need to realize that the danger at hand must first be addressed.

Whereas Iraq holds “the Saudi government…responsible for the dangerous crimes committed by these terrorist groups,” the Saudis blame Iraq for the ‘sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threaten its stability and sovereignty.’

As it appears that Obama is seriously considering enlisting Iran politically and militarily to help Maliki stem the advances of ISIS towards Baghdad, the US should keep in mind that in whichever capacity Iran’s involvement in Iraq may be, it will only strengthen its hold on Iraq and further advance its regional ambition to become the dominant power.

For this reason, Iran’s involvement must be conditioned upon Tehran’s commitment in words and deeds to end its support of the Assad regime and help bring about the end of the horrifying civil war in Syria. Iran’s “professed” desire to engage its neighbors constructively and contribute to regional stability stands in total contrast to its continued support of the murderous Assad regime.

As long as the civil war in Syria persists, and even if ISIS is defeated in Iraq and loses much or even all of its territorial gains, it still occupies massive land swaths in Syria to which it can retreat and continue to fight from to realize its goal.

It is also important that while the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not likely to recede any time soon, there is a temporary common interest between the two. A commitment by Iran to assist in ending the civil war in Syria and eventually allow the emergence of a representative government in Damascus could ease the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and de-intensify the Sunni-Shiite divide.

The Saudis are as fearful of the spread of extremist Jihadists and are particularly concerned about ISIS’ intention to target the monarchy as much as Iran is concerned that ISIS’ potential success will lead to the establishment of an extremist Sunni state governed by strict Sharia law next door. These two common concerns may well create a thaw between the two countries.

Finally, the use of American military forces against ISIS is no longer avoidable. Without American military support, Iraq and the entire region will face a long period of violence and instability, which could draw other countries into the conflict with menacing implications.

Being that ISIS is on the move and is adept at guerilla warfare, it will be extremely difficult to bomb ISIS targets particularly because they hide among civilians. This may necessitate some American special forces on the ground, but the bulk of the forces will have to come from the Iraqi military.

Paradoxically, the current conflict in Iraq and the changing geopolitical dynamics could accelerate the process of ending the civil war in Syria. To that end, the US must seize upon this opening and spearhead the delivery of weapons to the rebels to stop Assad from continuing his indiscriminate bombing of rebel hideouts while killing thousands of civilians in the process.

For this reason, once the US commits to preventing ISIS from achieving its goal, it cannot do so incrementally. All countries in the region have a common interest to bring an end to ISIS’ unseemly ambition. They must now set aside their differences and rally under American leadership to achieve their common objective.



For Dr. Alon Ben-Meir's website, please cilck here.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "