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Background to a Tragedy Foretold in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Ukraine

The Guns of August 2014

by MATTHEW STEVENSON

WASHINGTON —President Obama, welcoming Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq to the White House on Monday, said that after nearly nine years of war, Iraq had become a “sovereign, self-reliant and democratic” country that could serve as a model for aspiring democrats across the Middle East.

New York Times, December 12, 2011

Doubts about the sincerity of Americans in Iraq probably began when President Ronald Reagan dispatched his former national security advisor Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane to Tehran in 1986 with a cake and a Bible and proposed swapping arms for American hostages in Lebanon.

Until that moment, in the long war between Iran and Iraq, Saddam was our man, a bulwark against Shiite expansion in the Gulf, a non-fundamental (i.e., someone not adverse to girls or gin) Muslim willing to do the West’s bidding.

Bud’s cake and Bible alerted Saddam to the fickleness of Western support, and he repaid the favor in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait and let his troops drive all those looted Mercedes back to Baghdad.

The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait led to the first Gulf War and Saddam’s alleged death threat against President George H.W. Bush, cited in 2003 when his son, President George W. Bush, decided to overthrow Saddam’s regime.

Driving Saddam into a hole near Tikrit (where he was captured and later hanged) wasn’t the hard part of the blitzkrieg. The biggest challenge was deciding who should run Iraq once Saddam was swinging from the gallows.

Remembering the Mesopotamia, Churchill had faced the same conundrum in 1921, and at the Cairo Conference he went with an invented, cereal-box monarchy, an air campaign to subdue rebels, and a cadre of loyal Sunnis to keep the majority Shiite population on their knees.

In one form or another, that unholy coalition lasted until the 2003 American invasion, when the Bush administration decided to turn the country over to the Shiite majority.

Never mind that such a government would align Iraq more closely with Antichrists in Tehran.

*   *   *

By suppressing the Sunnis, the U.S. hoped to keep al-Qaida sympathizers in Iraq away from the oil fields. Under this partition, Shiites would get the government, the U.S. would get the oil, and Sunnis, especially those with Osama bin Laden posters on their kitchen walls, would get the shaft.

The problem with this division of Iraqi spoils is that it required the Bush administration to disband the Iraqi army and Saddam’s Baathist party infrastructure, two centers of power not solely identified with either Sunni or Shiite interests.

At the same time (mid-2000s) the U.S. army withdrew its forces into frontier stockades.  Iraq fell into anarchy until Gen. David Petraeus took time out from his amorous counter-insurgencies and paid Sunni warlords, especially in western Iraq, some $300 million to fight on the American side.

The rent-an-army surge worked until the Obama administration stopped payment on the Petraeus incentive compensation and left it to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to explain to the opposition the fine print of the American victory, what in the Vietnam War President Nixon called “peace with honor.”

President Barak Obama put it this way in December 2011:

But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations and we are ending a war not with a final battle but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement. . . .

. . . what we have now achieved is an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive and that has enormous potential.

Meanwhile, with a diminished voice in the government, the Sunnis found themselves squeezed between Shiites to the south, Kurds to the north, and Assad’s Syria (sympathetic to Shiite Iran) to the West.

*   *   *

In reality, Iraq was never more than a political campaign prop.

For Obama, Iraq was a holdover problem from the Bush presidency, a straw man that could be dragged out whenever voters got nostalgic about Bushisms (“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”).

Obama had campaigned for the presidency against the war in Iraq and, once in office, decided—for political, not military reasons—to time the American troop withdrawal between the 2010 mid-term elections (when he needed to appear tough on terror) and his reelection campaign in 2012 (when it worked better to say we were done with “those folks”).

As president, Obama kept up the bizarre tradition of visiting American troops in Baghdad on unannounced visits in the dead of night, although he spared them the photo-op with Bush’s plastic Thanksgiving turkey.

On these stealth visits, however, Obama had no time for Prime Minister Maliki (who was told to write to his congressman whenever he had problems).

By 2011, the U.S. president was wishing away the legacy of the American war in Iraq, even though it included more than 100,000 civilian casualties and the puppet government left behind preferred to have its strings pulled in Tehran more than from Washington.

Come the 2012 election, Obama could run on the delivered promise of successfully ending the Iraq war, when all he had done was to close down the Baghdad production and open the tragedy on a new stage in Syria (with all the props the Americans left behind in the desert).

*   *   *

In its early phases, Arab Spring demonstrators in Daraa, Syria, were opposing the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and undoubtedly had the support of American and Israeli covert operatives, who saw in Arab flower power a chance to detach Syria from the Iranian axis of evil and, by so doing, letting Hezbollah die on the vines of southern Lebanon.

What saved Assad from the alliance of the C.I.A., Mossad, and aggrieved rebels across Syria was the intervention of President Putin’s Russia, which decided to support Assad as a way to blow smoke in the direction of the Obama administration.

In Putin’s mind, the U.S. had rubbed out his man in Libya and enlisted Neo-fascists in Georgia and Ukraine in the containment of Russia’s global aspirations. He was also still smarting from the air campaign against Belgrade, to liberate Kosovo from the Serbs.

The unintended consequences of Russia’s support for Assad was to broaden the rebel coalition in Syria to include jihadis who had been operating in western Iraq and now came to Syria, together with their death threats and surplus American armament.

*  *  *

Little did General David Petraeus know, when he was funding the Sunni Awakening in western Iraq, that his initial public offering would later pay dividends in the Syrian civil war, which among the rebels now included the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, now simply the Islamic State or IS).

Usually hooded, always carrying machine guns and flying black banners, the Islamic State mixes seventh century theology with Sharia and crucifixions for shopkeepers who give Allah bad service.

Just as anti-Russian American operatives in Afghanistan funded the nascent Taliban in the 1980s, so the deathly lab culture of the Islamic State incubated in the violence that the Bush and Obama administrations visited on Iraq.

In addition, many of the weapons that have been used to establish the caliphate between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers came either directly from the Americans or by way of the Iraqi army, which has a habit of throwing down its guns when it is under attack or surrendering bases.  (New Yorkers might ask:  “Whaddaya want for a trillion bucks?”)

Likewise, some Islamic State military training and competence has come from disenfranchised soldiers and Baathists who the Bush administration dismissed when Saddam’s statue was pulled down in 2003.

These Baathist military officers might not share the fondness in the caliphate for hashtagging beheadings and adultery stonings, but they have sided with the Islamic State for now, on the assumption that Maliki’s Iraq will fracture into constituent Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish states.

In that great divide they would prefer to end up in the Sunni sector—and later fight the fundamentalists for control.

*  *  *

The biggest reason that the Islamic State and other rebels have turned Iraq and the surrounding area into a bloodbath is because once the artificial borders around Iraq are removed, other neighboring countries will likewise see their own jurisdictions come under challenge.  As Iraq goes, so goes the Middle East.

The borders around Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan (not to mention other Middle Eastern states) were drawn during or after the Paris peace conference that settled the First World War, and those lines in the sand ignored patterns of nationalism, history, geography, race, ethnicity, or commerce.

Lawrence of Arabia thought he had promised the Arabs one big magic kingdom; instead his overlords delivered the Balkans of the Near East.

—Iraq, for example, was created as a filling station for the British Navy, not because Shiites in the south wanted to be joined to Sunnis or Kurds in the north.

—Lebanon and Syria were created (thanks to those wily WW I diplomats, Sykes and Picot, who cut the secret deal between Britain and France) to satisfy the colonial dreams of Frenchmen who had suffered in the Verdun mud, not because they corresponded to normal standards of statehood.  Otherwise, why mix crusader Christians together with Sunnis and Shiites.

—The same geographic confusion describes the territory of Israel, which emerged from the mandate of Palestine to inherit borders that make those once drawn around the Holy Roman Empire look exact.

—Greater Israel, in which I would include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is the Jewish equivalent of Lebanon and Syria, states that include several powerful minorities sworn to the destruction of the central government.

In the coming realignment of the oil-rich Middle East, none of the outside patrons of this violence—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States—want to find that they are backing losers, or what the rock band America (not the superpower) called “a horse with no name.”

*   *   *

Although I have never read about it in the newspapers, I believe that there is a strong correlation between the rise of the Islamic State and the recent war in Gaza, and that it may have dictated Israel’s timetable in attacking Hamas.

Because Jerusalem misplayed its hand in thinking the U.S. was serious about taking out Assad, Israel’s existential fear now is that extremists will control large parts of Syria and Iraq, and that together with Gulf states’ billions they will turn their rage and violence against the Jewish state.

With Syria under the Assads (père et fils), Israel only had to fear the arming of Hezbollah in south Lebanon.  With the Islamic State in Damascus, however, it would be looking at a holy war coming over the Golan Heights.  (With a sense of history, Islamic State militants like to say, as they clear away border crossings:  “We’ve broken the Sykes-Picot Agreement.”)

Hence Israel may have decided to move against Hamas now so that it can turn more of its military preparations against any developments across the Syrian border.

Nor does the government of Benjamin Netanyahu have any confidence that President Obama has Israel’s interests at heart, even though the U.S. president turned a blind eye to the Gaza massacres, backed the military coup in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood, and let the C.I.A. go after Assad as if he were Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. As they say, “What have you done for me lately?”

*   *   *

The interests of other Middle Eastern powers with a stake in these great games have also contributed to the escalation of violence in Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among those Sunni states that have funded the rebels against Assad, hoping to remove his pro-Iranian, Shiite sympathizers from power.

Backing Assad, along with the Russians, are the Iranians, who look at Assad and Hezbollah the way the czars used to view warm-water ports.  Without their trigger men in Damascus or Beirut (and now with a corridor across Shiite southern Iraq), Iran could well be landlocked and squeezed.

And no one should dismiss the strategic ambitions of Turkey in this regional witches’ brew.

Modern Turkey is opposed to the creation of a Kurdish state, as it would claim strategic mountains in eastern Turkey. Nevertheless, given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, Turkey might support an independent Kurdistan (provided it is carved out of Syria, Iran and Iraq) as a buffer between Turkey and the extraordinary popular delusions of the Islamic State.

Egypt also has its markers in this great game.  Needing U.S. support for its stillborn economy and dubious legitimacy, the Egyptian government of quickly retired generals is content to let the Israelis “finish” with Hamas, if it pleases the Americans and gets the world to overlook the death sentences handed out en masse to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before this realigned Middle East, who would have thought that the U.S. would side with Iran in opposing the Islamic State, that Egypt would tolerate an Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, or that Turkey might look favorably on an independent Kurdistan?

*   *   *

Although, geographically, eastern Ukraine has no connection with the events across the Middle East, the Russian seizure of Crimea and its saber-rattling around the People’s Republic of Donetsk have much to do with American policies in Iraq.

From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the invasion of Iraq (historically a Soviet client), American-Russian relations were absent many Cold War tensions.

That era of good feeling changed when the Americans and British unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003 and dispatched Saddam with the hangman’s noose.

Next came the no-fly zone over Libya, ostensibly to protect innocent civilians, but which was used to consign Colonel Gaddafi to his sewage-canal execution.  The Russians signed off on the mission, thinking they were protecting civilians, not approving a NATO coup de main.

After Libya, despite all the president’s high-blown rhetoric about the Arab Spring and the rights of man, Washington backed the Egyptian generals over the Brotherhood—yet another former Russian ally—and aimed its daggers at Russia’s satrap in Damascus.

A man schooled in KGB intrigue, President Putin figured it was time to push back against the expansionist American administrations, and he chose Ukraine, beginning in Crimea, as the place to move ahead with the Soviet Risorgimento.

Ukraine has the advantage of being on Russia’s doorstep, with the bonus of a muddled history and a weak, often corrupt government.  Furthermore, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, Putin doesn’t have much respect for the Obama administration.  Game on.

*  *  *

In looking for winners in the current chaos, I would choose the Islamic State, Vladimir Putin, and the Kurds.

The jihadis, clearly, are on a roll, and they have Gulf money, American arms (lots of them), and a deep bench of martyrs.  Its commanders are not squeamish about shedding blood, and its recruiting posters include small boys holding aloft severed heads.

Although Putin looks defeated in eastern Ukraine—his rebel proxies have run out of ammunition and gas—my guess is that he will deploy his relief columns across the border under the guise of “humanitarianism,” perhaps quoting from the same press releases that the U.S. has issued on Mount Sinjar.

Will it lead to war with Ukraine?  It might, but Putin established his predilection for border wars in Georgia in 2008.  With the U.S. distracted in Iraq—if not with tricky lies at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs—my guess is that he will accept further sanctions (levied against his clique) for a freer hand in eastern Ukraine.

The Kurds are also winners in the current Iraq fighting because they can finally make a case for independence in front of the international community, and perhaps overcome the opposition of the Turks.  Already the U.S. is directly supplying them with weapons.

Without Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the Islamic State would be hoisting its Jolly Roger in the autonomous region’s capital, Erbil, and with it, laying claim to billions of dollars in oil revenue, all of which can be invested in expanding the caliphate and underwriting its death sentences.

*   *   *

The country with the least return on its investments in the Middle East is the United States, which has dumped $2 trillion and thousands of lives fighting from Libya to Afghanistan in what Rudyard Kipling in The White Man’s Burden calls “the savage wars of peace.”

For now all it has to show for these efforts are cancelled checks to groups that feel more like enemies than friends.  As Kipling adds: “And when your goal is nearest/The end for others sought/Watch sloth and heathen Folly/Bring all your hopes to nought.”

Even the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is himself a mid-2000 graduate of the American detention system in Iraq (and continuing education for the nurturing and development of radical fundamentalism?).  A father (abu) of Ghraib, indeed.

Can the news get any worse for the U.S.?  In the last several weeks, as the Islamic State has approached the outskirts of Baghdad, American diplomats have withdrawn from Libya, Afghanistan has showed little enthusiasm for its American-brokered presidential election, and U.S. weaponry, in the hands of Israeli soldiers, has been used to slaughter Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In Iraq, the U.S. nominee for prime minister to replace Maliki, Haider al-Abadi, got a welcoming shout-out from the Iranians, while in the Syrian civil war, even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—herself the architect of many of its policies—decided to break with the Obama administration over its failure to support the struggles for freedom. (Conversely, in defending the Gaza atrocities, the dissing also allowed her to curry favor with Israel.)

In response, the Obama administration went on vacation or took to the road. President Obama went to Martha’s Vineyard and Vice President Joe Biden is in the Hamptons while Secretary of State John Kerry was on a diplomatic junket to Burma and Australia.  Each packed into their luggage enough soundbites to make it appear that the U.S. could still control world events from the beach.

From Sydney, Secretary Kerry warned the outgoing Maliki government: “There should be no use of force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq,” while at the same time, from his seaside lectern, President Obama was dispatching American bombers and troops, to prolong Iraq’s “moment of democracy” at least for a few more weeks or, better yet, through the U.S. fall elections.

*   *   *

The problems of the Obama administration are not, simply, that its senior officials get on airplanes the way normal people head to the mall, or that they have the self-absorption of talk-show hosts; the bigger problem is that no one—not even the articulate president—can explain why and for what the U.S. has been fighting a string of permanent wars in the Middle East since 1982, if not before.

In recent years American troops or missiles have been deployed in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali, Kuwait, and Libya, not to mention the entangling alliance with Israel.  This week its bombers were dispatched to northern Iraq.  Next week?

Are these wars to protect Israel from destruction?  Are they to guard the oil supply lines? Are they to spread democracy, with the zeal that once had those onward Christian soldiers marching as to war?  Are they to kill terrorists on location?

Just one of these goals would be more than full-time job for most countries or empires, but the U.S. has all of them as its concurrent war aims, and this leads to confusion, blunders, and endless rounds of violence.

In northern Iraq, for example, the U.S., along with Iran, opposes the Islamic State and its patrons in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while in its oil businesses, the U.S. is one with the Saudis and Qataris, who are among its biggest suppliers. Maybe when IS gets Iraq’s oil, they will slash prices as they do pickpockets’ hands?

In Kabul and Baghdad, the U.S. recites the homilies of democracy (President Obama said this week from the Vineyard: “Today, Iraq took a promising step forward in this critical effort…”), although when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza won elections, the U.S. refused to recognize the winners and has even helped to marginalize them.

Just as confusing, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have used American money and arms in their rise to power. If you have any doubts, watch the excellent online reporting of VICE News on the Islamic State in control of Raqqa, Syria. With its American weaponry, the caliphate has the look of a Pentagon client state.

Maybe when the Islamic State takes Baghdad, and American diplomats crowd the rooftop of the $750 million U.S. embassy in the Green Zone to await helicopter evacuation, the entering rebels will carry aloft banners of Gen. David Petraeus.  The Sunnis certainly owe him one for their subsidized Awakening.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His new book, Whistle-Stopping America, was recently published. His next book has the working title Railroad Man, and it is about the politics along many famous train lines, including the Trans-Siberian.