Small World: Challenge in the Middle East — Redux

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Two questions are haunting American foreign policy architects these days: What to do about ISIS in the Middle East and what to do about Putin in Eastern Europe.

On their faces the two problems are not linked; in the background they are. Each poses a serious question for stability in its larger region and potential danger to American lives and interests.

Let’s take ISIS first where there is substantial disagreement among well-informed specialists. The first dispute is what is the correct name? ISIS, ISIL or IS or the term in use among Arabs daa’ish? I started out with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and will stick with that for the time being. When not busy beheading captives and driving non-Sunnis into exile, the fanatics have added a big chunk of Iraq to their large real estate seizures in Syria. They have overcome the feeble resistance of poorly trained (by the United States) and motivated Iraqi troops. Poorly equipped Kurdish militias have been only marginally more effective. Bombing raids in Iraq by U.S. planes returned in haste to the region have helped slow the ISIS advance.

A week ago, I queried a couple of visiting retired Foreign Service experts about what should be done. One, not normally hawkish, said American bombs should be dropped also on ISIS targets in Syria — with or presumably without Syrian permission. History teaches, however, that bombs without boots on the ground won’t work. The other retiree flatly admitted he had no idea how to handle the challenge.

I rounded the circle by arguing against either bombing or Special Forces raids, but rather the formation of a coalition that would quarantine the ISIS infection by containing them within guarded perimeters. The coalition would block sales of ISIS’s extracted oil and all commercial transactions. Turkey would be key because most of the foreign recruits for ISIS are permitted to move relatively freely across its borders. There are two problems for Turkey: Turkish President Erdogan, an Islamic-tinged ostensible democrat, (1.) has purged nationalist elements from the army making it weaker, and (2.) ISIS took 49 Turkish hostages when it occupied Iraq’s second largest city Mosul and captured the Turkish consulate.

Another problem for U.S. policy makers is who to include in an anti-ISIS coalition? Specifically, should Shia Iran, Washington’s 35-year antagonist, be included? Saudi Arabia, the leading anti-Shia Sunni state would not be overjoyed. Including Iran would also give the containment operation an anti-Sunni complexion — something (regional strife between the two branches of Islam) we definitely don’t want to encourage.

On the other hand, Iran is a special friend of Assad of Syria and if inducted into a regional effort might be able to persuade him to resume his former career in London as an ophthalmologist. That would leave the door open for a successor regime that might be able to unify old regime remnants and their moderate opposition against the ISIS terrorists.

Everything in this prescription would work out smoothly if everyone acted rationally with good will and long-term peace firmly in mind. But we are talking about the Middle East and it won’t be smooth harmony. Those twisted, wealthy minds, that have been funding ISIS since its inception, will not gracefully fall into line. Their perverted support will have to be controlled by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, which to date, haven’t been very helpful.

The U.S.-led coalition will also find it difficult to deal with the region’s rebellious youth and those like them in Europe. As I discussed last week, they are ready tinder for a conflagration. A successful operation will have to go beyond building a containment wall for ISIS. It must also work region-wide to raise education standards and stimulate economic growth that benefits ordinary folk.

Part of this broader anti-terrorism effort will also have to address the sad condition of strife-ridden Pakistan and soon-to-be standing alone Afghanistan. It would be terrible if ISIS escaped its confinement and infected nuke-armed South Asia.

I have outlined a very large scope operation — one that would severely test Obama’s leadership of a complex coalition. Does such an operation have a chance of success without the active contribution of Russia? Even more to the point, what is the chance of enlisting the informed and tax-paying support of the American people? No easy answer to either question.

I will take up Mr. Putin next week assuming he is still newsworthy.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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