Tony Badran/Now Lebanon
The very core of the White House strategy rests on the false premise that the retreating US can create an alternative concert system of states.
The Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank close to the Obama administration, has produced a strategy for the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). While the paper, authored by Marc Lynch, professor of politics at George Washington University and senior fellow at CNAS, presents itself as a set of new recommendations, it really just re-packages the White House’s current policy. But this is a very useful exercise, as it makes explicit a number of assumptions that the administration is consciously playing down. By exposing the White House’s full thinking to the light of day, the paper inadvertently highlights glaring deficiencies in the president’s strategy.
Lynch’s paper is part of a quiet White House campaign. In the last couple of weeks, its influence was evident in a number of articles that made the same point: President Obama is facing pressure to escalate in Iraq and Syria, but he should resist that pressure and dial back, especially in Syria.
Limiting the American commitment to the war is only one part of the president’s strategy. The other is to integrate Iran into a new regional security architecture. But this goal introduces a debilitating contradiction into the heart of the strategy. On the one hand, the president seeks to keep the Middle East at bay; on the other hand, however, he is working to impose a radical new order on US allies, who regard Iran as an enemy. Thus, the strategy exhibits a stunning disregard for geopolitical realities.
Riding roughshod over allies is a dangerous proposition even when the US is fully engaged in the region. But Obama is intent on avoiding precisely such a commitment. If his goal is to minimize US involvement, he should be seeking to tailor his policy to the interests of traditional US allies—Saudi Arabia and Turkey, first and foremost. The strategy, however, either ignores those interests, or pretends that they are much more malleable than they actually are. As a result, the strategy is beset by false assumptions. A few in particular stand out.
First, Obama’s strategy assumes that ISIS is so threatening to the local players that they will overlook their conflicts with each other and work together against the common threat. We’ve already seen that this is a fallacy, as Sunni regional actors, even when they’ve joined the coalition, have continued to prioritize the removal of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s primary ally. For them, regime change is a core interest — a priority unaffected by the ISIS factor.
Even more fanciful is the strategy’s rosy view of Iran’s posture and calculation. The allies of the US remain preoccupied with Iran’s malicious role, as Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal recently made clear. Ignoring this central fact of regional politics, the paper contends that “the Iranian regime’s domestic and regional policy goals currently require de-escalation with Saudi Arabia.” This is a claim easily disproved by Iran’s actual regional posture, from Yemen all the way to its continued full-throttled support for the Assad regime, to say nothing of its nuclear drive. Iranian “de-escalation” is a fiction.
The White House is looking to use the ISIS crisis “to create a sustainable regional accord.” Presumably, it envisions a scenario in which Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will sit down together and work out a regional accommodation. Not only will this not happen, it also assumes a symmetry that does not exist. It suggests that Riyadh and Ankara command influence over Sunni fighters in Syria and Iraq that is analogous to the influence that Iran has over its proxies. This is an erroneous assumption. There’s nothing analogous to the Qods Force and its Hezbollah arm in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
Still, the White House points to the new Iraqi government as a model for the kind of cooperation that, in Lynch’s words, has “helped stabilize the situation and galvanize political change.” The idea is that the new government in Baghdad is generating cooperation across sectarian lines—not just inside Iraq but also in the region more broadly.
But does anyone outside of the White House and its surrogates in the Washington policy world actually think this is happening? As Hussain Abdul-Hussain points out, the Sunni tribes of Iraq have no confidence whatsoever in the Obama administration, and they continue to side with ISIS.
Then there’s Syria. First, the White House strategy, as channeled by Lynch, proceeds from the assumption that Washington will not support the rebels in any serious manner. Instead, it will abandon the goal of regime change and work for a “pause” in the fighting between Assad and the rebels. How? By pushing to “expand local ceasefires.” But this is a thinly-veiled pro-Assad position, as no less a figure than UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recently stated. Those local ceasefires, he said, are in fact “part of Assad’s war plan, and not part of any peace plan.”
The White House is sacrificing regime change in order “to secure Assad’s/Iran’s buy-in” for the “pause” and for some form of power sharing with the opposition. Iran, according to this view, will go for a deal that “protects its core equities in Syria” — which are left undefined. Per Iran’s own definition, they must include preserving the regime with Assad at the helm. The American abandonment of regime change may or may not secure Iranian buy-in, but it will certainly alienate all of America’s allies.
In the end, the very core of the strategy rests on the premise that the retreating US can create an alternative concert system of states, “a new regional compact [bridging] the Iranian-Arab divide,” that will work to stabilize the region.
As Obama remarked recently, “the old order that had been in place for 50 years, 60 years … was unsustainable.” This was an order which American power underwrote. The new, supposedly more sustainable order is one where the “stake and equities” of the Islamic Republic are “protected,” where Assad stays in power, and where everyone ignores his policies which have killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims and uprooted millions more.
Not only will Obama’s strategy not achieve his own stated goal of defeating ISIS, it will bring untold disruption to a Middle East that has already seen enough.
***Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.