If There Are U.S. Air Strikes, They Should Not Be For the Purpose of Propping Up the Failed Iraqi State

As the Obama administration seeks to move forward in its policy of dutiful re-engagement with an Iraq in dire crisis, it's important to realize that the devolution and dismemberment of the long defined Iraqi state has already largely occurred. So Secretary of State John Kerry, about to meet with European and other international allies to help bolster Iraq is engaging in, well, not the fool's errand that was his long gestating and predictably disastrous Middle East peace initiative, but also not something that is likely to succeed.

For ISIS (the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the former Al Qaeda outfit that has been rampaging across what has been known as Iraq and Syria, has achieved its aim of shattering the Iraq and Syria borders established as part of the then secret Sykes-Picot Agreement -- known officially if dismissively as the "Asia Minor Agreement" -- in 1916 in furtherance of the British and French plan to divide up the Ottoman Empire, which had been run for nearly 500 years from what is now Istanbul, one of the world's most fascinating cities, after World War I. The likely real question is whether or not it will continue to expand, both in geography and in influence, as it looks to what is now Jordan and Lebanon. And if it does continue to expand, will it pose a threat to America?

The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which betrayed Arab aspirations in World War I in secretly carving up the falling Ottoman Empire for future European domination, is revealed in David Lean's 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia. ISIS is in the process of at last dissolving the Sykes-Picot borders.

After discussing the latest developments, I'll get into what should happen next.

President Barack Obama can talk all he wants, as he did on Thursday, about demanding that pro-Iranian Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki halt his gross favoritism toward his fellow Shias and forge a national unity government with Sunnis and Kurds alike. (If in fact Maliki stays in office at all.) But while the Iraqi military, with some help from Iran and the U.S., may be able to hold on to what is left within its purview, it's hard to see it reclaiming much territory without major foreign interventions. Which could easily backfire, both for Tehran and Washington, the only capitals which might be involved.

Obama says there will be no U.S. ground combat troops. Air strikes? None for now, though air options are being assembled and Navy F-18 Super Hornet fighter-bombers, flying off USS George H.W. Bush just over the horizon after the aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf, are, as the saying goes, announcing their presence with authority to ISIS in surveillance flights. Obama has dispatched 275 additional troops to secure the U.S. embassy in Bagdhad, which you may recall is the largest American embassy in the world, fit for the regional proconsulship that the Bush/Cheney Administration imagined in the heady days after its 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Obama says he will dispatch another 300 troops, presumably mostly special forces, as trainers and advisors for the Iraqi army. Some of the special forces teams could also serve as spotters for air strikes if and when they are ordered.

This followed a Wednesday of many meetings and big developments in the renewed Iraq crisis.

As top U.S. defense officials warned Congress of major risks and gaps of intelligence in any U.S. air strike scenarios, ISIS forces either captured outright or seized most of the vast Baiji oil refinery, Iraq's largest. And the Maliki government, aggressively criticized in congressional testimony and other statements by U.S. officials for its pronounced pro-Shia/anti-Sunni tilt, is asking for US air strikes.

The defenses of Iraq's Shia-dominated central government have stiffened notably since the arrival in Baghdad nearly a week ago of General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, a combination special forces/intelligence outfit that works directly under Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Suleimani, memorably depicted in this flavorful New Yorker profile last year, is one of the most important strategists and power brokers of a Middle East in turmoil.

Though Obama has sent additional U.S. troops to buttress Marine and diplomatic security at the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the storied capital city appears significantly more secure now than it did last week. Yet Iraqi government forces are losing the fight at the big oil refinery, if indeed they have not already lost.

As this goes on, Kurdish forces are consolidating their new hold over the northern oil city of Kirkuk, which can give them at last the economic basis for a new state of Kurdistan.

Obama, who is holding a variety of meetings with the National Security Council and its individual members, met at length Wednesday afternoon with Congressional leaders of both parties to discuss the crisis. The Democrats seem notably more skeptical about any U.S. intervention, even the various air options that are under development/discussion at the Pentagon and White House, than are the Republicans.

Perhaps Republicans, especially their neoconservative warhawk faction, which is still getting booked on talk shows despite their ruinously stupid counsel on invading Iraq in the first place, think that they can stick the overall defeat for announced American purposes in Iraq on Obama's doorstep if the final deal goes down on his watch.

But what is actually happening is that the Maliki government installed by the Bush/Cheney Administration has shown its true pro-Iranian and anti-Sunni colors, prompting support for any pro-Sunni uprising, such as that initiated by ISIS and now joined by others, and the collapse of much of the army, which had many Sunni members.

Maliki is finished as the leader of anything approaching a unified Iraqi state, something which was always a post-World War I/post-colonial artifact held together by Saddam Hussein's brutal and politically astute dictatorship. With that regime destroyed by U.S. forces, unconsciously following a script with a pro-Iranian slant, what is important here is what comes next in the region.

Which is not to say that U.S. air power might not be constructively applied, just not to try to put the old Bush/Cheney-Sykes/Picot toothpaste back in an already discarded wrapping.

There is risk here, of course, as there is risk in doing anything. There is, for example, a chance that ISIS might not intend to turn its attentions to the U.S. once it has finished establishing the rump radical Islamist state it has so stunningly already put together. Though I doubt they are that benign, at least with regard to us, since they are anything but benign in their brutal brand of Sharia law, it's not impossible that they have no further transnational designs. Intelligence can answer that question. Still, this is a situation that must be rigorously assessed and re-assessed at each decision point.

ISIS fighters point to the melting away of the border between Iraq and Syria.

In any event, we turn our attentions away from the fool's errand of propping up an Iraqi state that has already failed to dealing with that which is busy being born. That birthing process, which involves the destruction of the Sykes-Picot Treaty lines of 1916 -- one of the most important express purposes of ISIS -- is already in its final stages.

And what we are seeing emerge is something not at all unlike what then Senator Joe Biden called for in 2007, a de facto partition of the Iraqi state essentially created by the secret World War I deal by France and Britain to dismember the Ottoman Empire and create new imperial spoils in the Middle East.

What does that partition consist of? A portion for the Shia, a portion for the Sunni, and a portion for the Kurds.

So what should we do going forward?

1. Make very clear that the Maliki government has gone in the opposite direction from the steps needed to fairly knit an Iraqi state together. Having pushed aside a potential residual U.S. force that would have advocated more fairness for the Sunni population, Maliki's crowd denied Sunni rights and persecuted the Sunni political class, setting the stage both for the embrace of the radical fundamentalist ISIS by a desperate population and the collapses we have seen in the Iraqi army.

Will this lead to Iraqi government forces winning back the vast swathes of territory lost to ISIS? Probably not. But it might help prevent further losses.

2. Avoid civilian casualties by avoiding air strikes in urban environments and
by avoiding close-in U.S. air support for ground troops except in more isolated surroundings.

3. Conduct major strikes only against ISIS bases and against ISIS formations moving across relatively open terrain toward only the most high-value targets. Since ISIS is not a true guerrilla force living among the people, following a pattern of striking and fading back, but instead a collection of battle-hardened radicals operating as motorized infantry out to seize and hold defined territory, these opportunities present themselves.

4. Avoid any open alliance with Iranian forces and most if not all covert cooperation, except that necessary to avoid unnecessary casualties. A U.S./Iran alliance would be spun up by Sunni radicals as evidence that the U.S. is against legitimate Sunni aspirations. The Shia/Sunni divide has created a tinderbox across the the entire region. We want to stay out of a religious civil war.

5. Make diplomatic overtures to more moderate Sunni groups and leaders, and avoid where possible the causing of non-ISIS casualties, even among groups participating with ISIS in military offensives.

6. Support the Kurds. The likely new Kurdish state in the north can be a very pro-American place, something very helpful to our longtime goal of suppressing transnational jihadist terrorism. We can also play a role in easing relations between Turkey, an important American ally in the Islamic world and longtime NATO member, and the new Kurdistan.

7. Concentrate efforts on high-value targets, defined as the defense of Baghdad (the fall of which would simply be too humiliating for Washington on the global stage) and the defense of economic assets -- including, most obviously, oil fields, refineries, and pipelines -- a that would further enrich ISIS. It is already arguably the richest jihadist outfit around thanks to its successes in the Syrian civil war, which gained it oil assets, and against Maliki regime forces.

8. Urge our Gulf Arab allies to halt their dangerous game of funding radical Islamist outfits. Yes, it has been a safety valve helping stave off radical confrontations at home, but it is also destabilizing the greater region. As is the practice of backing authoritarian regimes against more moderate Islamists participating in elections such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Overthrowing the democratically elected Morsi government in Egypt, in a suspiciously ginned-up popular uprising replete with sudden shortages and central casting front men, has of course led to the reimposition of a military dictatorship, notwithstanding the wishes of some ever gullible folks on the Western left.

9. Accelerate efforts for both immediate U.S. energy independence and the environmentally necessary transition to a renewable energy future.

We have been dealing with this nonsense, much of it spun up by our own cupidity and stupidity, in the Middle East, for about as long as I can remember. Yet we have clung to backward energy policies throughout.