The Quiet on the Middle Eastern Front

In recent months, US casualties and Iraqi deaths have dropped markedly. Americans and Iraqis welcome the news but are perplexed by it as well. This is especially so in the US Congress, where confusion and indecision have deepened, and opposition to the war is even more tepid and incoherent than a year ago. The administration and the military have cautiously claimed progress; sympathetic figures in Congress and the media have incautiously trumpeted it. They advance a readily understood explanation with an intuitive plausibility that a war-weary public is willing to accept. But momentous shifts rarely have simple causes.

Sunni Arabs

The most common explanation is that the Surge, the US counterinsurgency program designed and implemented by Gen. Petraeus, is working very well. Based on counterinsurgency doctrines developed late in the colonial era, the Surge used US troops to drive out insurgents from an area and hold it. Iraqi troops and officials were then to win popular support by providing services and inducements. The process was to be repeated in contiguous areas, gradually spreading government control across the country, as an oil spot would spread across water. Whatever success the Surge has thus far enjoyed in Baghdad, it has not spread out from the capital–largely because of the ineptitude or insouciance in the Iraqi military and state, both of which are Shi’a-dominated and hostile to Sunnis. Services and inducements are more often provided by the Americans than by the national government–hardly in keeping with counterinsurgency doctrine.

Violence has declined for several other reasons, many of which might be reckoned more important than the Surge. Sunni-Shi’a violence, which spiraled out of control following the Samarra mosque bombing in early 2006, has eased. This has not been due to any reconciliation between the sects, but rather because sectarian violence over the last two and a half years has turned most of Baghdad and a few other major cities into homogeneous semi-fortified enclaves. Mixed neighborhoods have all but disappeared. Furthermore, 2 million or so Sunnis have fled to foreign countries. With so much forced dislocation, the opportunity for sectarian violence is down.

Bruited along with the good news of the Surge–and mistakenly or disingenuously lumped together with it–have been the changes in Anbar and Diyali provinces around Baghdad–once insurgent and al Qaeda havens. Over the last year or so, tribes there have solicited and received US assistance to fight al Qaeda, which had incurred the wrath of the tribes because of its disrespect for local authorities, customs, and women. Tribal forces and GIs now work together to finish off al Qaeda. Former insurgents even draw pay from American coffers. And Anbar and Diyali have seen remarkable declines in US casualties. Proximity to Baghdad invites inference that this resulted from the spreading oil spot of the Surge–an inference that US officials are unlikely to discourage. However, the tribal volte-face preceded the Surge’s operationalization; the potential for turning the Sunnis was recognized and exploited by local field commanders (and foreign powers), not by the Surge’s directors in the Green Zone; and there has been little if any follow-up into the areas by the Iraqi state.

Changes in Sunni Arab provinces might be best considered in two contexts. First, since the country’s inception following the First World War, the Sunni Arabs were a minority of the population, yet they controlled the state, army, and oil revenue. This suddenly and irreversibly ended when the US-led coalition ousted Saddam and regarded the Shi’as as natural allies, the Sunnis as defeated enemies harboring varying degrees of hostility. During years of insurgency and sectarian fighting, Americans troops and Shi’a militias, separately and without coordination, inflicted hundreds of thousand casualties on the Sunni Arabs and helped drive many into nearby Sunni countries, reducing their population from 18% to about 13%. Without some sort of political change, the Sunni Arabs faced marginalization, if not extermination. The Shi’a-dominated state was hardly amenable to a deal with their former oppressors, but by late 2006 the Americans, mired in a vicious and domestically unsustainable insurgency, were amenable to a deal. And so US commanders and tribal councils forged working arrangements. The Americans got reduced casualties, the Sunni Arabs a protector. Historians might well ask someday, who turned whom?

International dynamics constitute a second context. Sunni states around Iraq were wary of ousting Saddam. He had been a useful counter to the Shi’a revival begun by revolutionary Iran in 1979, and so they financed his long war with Iran in the eighties. Since then, Sunni states have continued to beware Iran and have looked upon domestic Shi’as as potential fifth columns. Following Saddam’s ouster, the region braced as the Shi’a of Iraq and Iran filled the vacuum. Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, established or strengthened ties with tribal leaders in the Sunni regions of Iraq. Their diplomatic and intelligence services, whose practical knowledge of tribal politics in and out of their lands greatly exceeds the ken of American counterparts, were almost certainly critical in effecting the volte-face in Anbar, Diyali, and elsewhere in Iraq. Again, who turned whom?


Shi’a Arabs and Iran

Violence in Shi’a areas has been based on militias fighting US and British forces and on the militias fighting each other, most notably Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Hakim’s Badr Brigades. Both forms of violence are down sharply. Shi’a efforts to marginalize or drive out the Sunni Arabs have dwindled as the latter sidled up to the US. Skirmishes between Shi’a militias and US and British troops have also dwindled. Until recently, US forces had been hammering Shi’a militias in Baghdad, wreaking havoc on their neighborhoods, suggesting to many Shi’as that the US now saw the Sunnis as natural allies. Shi’as saw the fearsome specter of renewed Sunni power in a truncated but nonetheless dangerous state, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, and one day enriched by recent oil finds in Anbar. Sobered by this, Sadr and Hakim recently inked an agreement to end fighting between their forces, fighting that a few months ago seemed about to engulf the south as the British withdrew.

Iranian pressure might have brought about the agreement. Many of the key Shi’a parties and militias were formed under Iranian tutelage and continue to receive money and advice from their co-religionists, so Iranian influence has naturally if covertly shaped recent events. Iran has been seeking a golden mean in Iraq: to inflict enough casualties on the US to bring about an eventual pullout, leaving a coherent Shi’a majority there; but to avoid inflicting so many casualties as to bring on harsh economic sanctions or devastating air strikes. Supplies to Shi’a militias over the years have never been very high–Iran wishes to demonstrate that it has supply lines into Iraq, and it can expand them, raising US casualties to domestically intolerable levels. In other words, Iran has considerable control over American casualties.

But Iran’s policy is in disarray. Israel’s air strike in September 2007 on a possible nuclear facility in Syria weighs heavily on Iran. It implied Israeli and American willingness to attack Iran, but more importantly it demonstrated their ability to defeat the best Russian-made air defense systems, upon which Iran has based much of its national security. In other words, Iran is virtually defenseless.

Heretofore, the US feared the loss of too many aircraft and planned to strike with only cruise missiles. But its aircraft can almost certainly penetrate Iranian air defenses, devastate nuclear facilities and military bases and economic infrastructure, and return to their carriers and bases with relatively few casualties. Iran could retaliate in several ways: send its special forces into Iraq to attack American troops and supply lines from Kuwait; encourage Hizbullah to launch strikes across the Middle East; and press the Shi’a factions in Iraq to order the US out or at least squeeze supplies. Some analysts suspect that Iran has Russian-made missiles capable of inflicting grave damage on American aircraft carriers, two of which patrol just outside Iranian waters.

Iran has no desire to suffer the devastation the Israeli air force visited upon Lebanon in 2006, which American airpower can now easily repeat. It would rally the nation, but the economic damage would be frightful. And so Iran might have blinked recently. US generals have reported a decline in Iranian arms entering Iraq. Iran realizes that these supplies, limited though they are, constitute a rationale for the US to launch protracted air strikes across it–several thousand targets according to some sources. And although US policy toward Iran is probably independent of Iran’s actions in Iraq, it sees no point in helping the US contrive a casus belli.


Stability and Instability

The absence of political compromise between the sects is oft-noted, leading some to conclude that stability in the region is not in the offing and that recent developments have no lasting meaning. However, another form of stability is possible, one based on the US abandoning mediation between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq and aligning with the Sunnis in and out of Iraq. The region might be headed for a standoff between the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni Arabs of Iraq opposed to Iran and the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq and elsewhere. A new cold war, with uneasy frontiers stretching from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south, might be falling into place. This standoff would necessitate stationing a considerable portion of the US’s available combat divisions in the region for an unfathomable amount of time, possibly making the duration of its antecedent in Central Europe seem ephemeral.

For better or worse, there might be too many instabilities for this standoff to come about. One source of instability lies in the make-up of Iraqi tribes. The tribes of Anbar and Diyali are confederations comprising numerous tribes, hence they are subject to fissures along tribal, clan, and personal lines. Tribal leaders cooperating, or to some collaborating, with Americans and receiving emoluments from them can worsen these fissures. Related to this, al Qaeda, though ostensibly on the run in Iraq, has enjoyed considerable success in recent weeks in assassinating tribal leaders working with the US. Chastened by its blunders, it might learn to exacerbate fissures and find allies. And increased use of air strikes to keep American casualties down has predictably led to many inadvertent deaths of civilians and friendly forces that could worsen uneasiness regarding cooperation with the US.

The Shi’a tribes also have serious fissures. Saddam played one off against the other and prevented the Shi’a majority from coalescing into a threat to his regime. Presently, Shi’a leaders nominally command militias and even some regular army formations, but they rely on traditional and charismatic appeals, making mutiny and infighting by lieutenants disaffected by recent events far more likely than in militaries based on rational-legal authority. A further source of instability lies in the recent return of many Sunni Arabs. As middle-class Sunnis who fled to Syria and Jordan return, they will politically and financially strengthen the old oppressors of the Shi’as. Many Shi’as will find this ominous and demand preemptive action. Most Shi’a have never heard of Santayana, but they know his famous message from long experience.

The showdown over Iran’s nuclear program is perhaps the most critical source of instability. A formidable group within the US government, centered on the vice president, is pressing for air strikes on Iran, regardless of its actions in Iraq. There is of course an opposing group, centered on the secretary of state, stressing negotiations and international pressures, which has the upper hand for now. But the correlation of forces within the administration remains opaque to most observers. Iran’s president or the supreme leader, neither of whom seems well acquainted with the norms of world politics, could take action that would alter politics in Washington. However, against expectation, the supreme leader has recently rebuked the president for his sharp denunciation of domestic figures who oppose the nation’s nuclear program–perhaps another blink.

The decline in violence in Iraq rests uneasily on several unrelated and loosely related processes. The Surge is certainly one of them, but it is not foremost –maybe not even in Baghdad where it began. The number of these processes and their fragility do not inspire confidence that the decline in violence can continue, let alone help to promote desirable political development. Nor are they likely to allow the US to leave Iraq gracefully in the foreseeable future.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:




Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)