With the June 10 capture of the city of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a debate promptly reopened in the American media over America’s role in the fate of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Typifying one side of the debate was former President Bill Clinton, who on network television laid the blame for today’s problems squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration. “If they hadn’t gone to war in Iraq,” he said, “none of this would be happening.” On the other side, there are suggestions that President Obama’s neglect of Iraq has been at least as harmful as was the interventionism of his predecessor, if not more so.
But the Iraq war as we once knew it is no longer, and the debate over it leaves us mired unprofitably in the past. The rise of ISIS is a subset of a new conflict, one that stretches all the way from Baghdad to Beirut. That conflict has its own unique character. What is it about? Who are its primary participants? Where do America’s vital interests lie, and what should America’s strategy be?
The new war is, in brief, a struggle over the regional order. In the balance hangs the future shape of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—their political shape no less than their contours on a map. On the battlefield at any given moment, one can find a dizzying array of actors, but at the basic strategic level the conflict has three sides: Shiite Iran and its proxies; ISIS and likeminded Sunni extremists; and the traditional allies of the United States: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.
Which side is the United States on? Surprisingly, not the side of its traditional allies. Instead, Obama supports Iran. One can argue about whether this pro-Iran tilt is accidental or intentional, but one cannot deny its existence.
To see this picture clearly, we must ignore what the Obama administration says and focus on what it actually does. On Syria, for example, the White House continually repeats the tired line that we are working to convince President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and allow the opposition and the government to negotiate a caretaker authority. Yet who any longer gives any credence to this claim? It has long been clear that Washington wants and expects Assad to stay. Post-Mosul, the United States and its European allies even see the Syrian regime as a potential asset against ISIS.
What about the $500 million in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the administration has lately requested from Congress? Simply put, the purpose of that aid is to keep the beleaguered FSA on life support lest ISIS swallow it up. Even after having made the request, the administration has explicitly resisted providing the FSA with the kind of weapons and training it would need to change the local balance of power. Instead, the administration remains wedded to its policy of “preserving regime institutions”—a euphemism for Assad’s murder machine, which is thoroughly integrated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—and turns a blind eye to the deployment in Syria of Iraqi Shiite and Hizballah militiamen supported by Tehran.
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The upshot is that when the president says he opposes the presence of foreign fighters in Syria, he is referring exclusively to Sunni jihadis. He has given Shiites a pass.
This brings us to Iraq, where the alignment between Washington and Tehran is even more transparent. On June 16, President Obama sent up to 300 military advisers to Baghdad, while also increasing our intelligence operations; two weeks later, he augmented the force by nearly 200 soldiers, amid reports that they would fly Apache helicopters and deploy surveillance drones. Unfortunately, however, since the departure of American troops in 2011, the Shiite regime of Nouri al-Maliki has itself become a satellite of Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards have thoroughly penetrated Iraqi security services. For all intents and purposes, then, the American troopers dispatched to Iraq are working to harden Iranian defenses, since any intelligence that we share with Maliki’s security services will inevitably land on the desk in Tehran of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force.
Where Iraq is concerned, the United States and Iran now resemble two men walking single file down the street, repeating the same messages to everyone they encounter. Their silent coordination was recently on clear display in Kurdistan. After the fall of Mosul, the Iranian government urged Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, to fight ISIS and support the government in Baghdad. A few days later, John Kerry appeared in Erbil to deliver an identical message.
But the effort to build an anti-ISIS coalition with Iran will inevitably fail—and spectacularly so. There are many reasons why, but one deserves special attention: Iran is incapable of making it succeed. Consider: over the last three years, Obama gave Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq to counter Sunni jihadism. The result is a revitalized Iranian alliance system—and an al-Qaeda safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq to Aleppo in Syria.
Yet Tehran is less discomfited by that safe haven than the Obama administration appears to think. Lacking the capability to defeat ISIS militarily, it thinks instead of managing the conflict to its own advantage. Two benefits have already accrued. In the absence of a strong American effort to shape the new order, opponents of ISIS have almost nowhere to turn but Iran. At the same time, longstanding American hostility to Iranian regional adventures has all but evaporated.
On top of these obvious advantages, the Iranian leadership probably also calculates that, by pretending to be partners in counterterrorism with the West, it has magnified its leverage in the nuclear negotiations, which is Iran’s number one foreign-policy priority. This calculation may well be correct.
In any case, Iran and its allies lack not only the military capability to defeat Sunni jihadism but also the requisite political legitimacy. If the Iraq war taught us anything, it was that the defeat of al-Qaeda requires enlisting Sunni partners on our side. The best way to do that is to provide those civilian partners with a security regime they can trust. But today the non-jihadi Sunnis of Iraq and Syria fear both Maliki and Assad—who can blame them?—and have no reason to trust either America or Iran. In Iraq, the moment American troops departed, Maliki set to work shutting Sunnis out of the political system, without so much as a peep from Washington. In Syria, Assad has been savagely raping Sunni society. Iran, for its part, having directly aided both leaders in their respective sectarian projects, is toxic to Sunnis of all political stripes.
With counterterrorism partners like these, Obama has no chance of attracting reliable Sunni allies. Absent the positive vision of a future political order they would be willing to fight for, the FSA forces trained by the U.S. in Syria, who do not regard ISIS as their primary enemy, will melt away when confronted with opposition from that quarter. As for America’s traditional Muslim allies in the region—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey—they can be counted on for, at most, qualified support. Although ISIS poses a significant threat to their security, they will be reluctant to join a coalition destined to advance the interests of Iran and its allies.
For Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of war, identifying a conflict’s “center of gravity” is of key importance. Herein lies “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything [in war] depends.” Obama’s strategy ignores the center of gravity in today’s war, which is the struggle against the Iranian alliance system. The heart of the battle today is in Syria, where Assad, Iran’s closest ally, presents the alliance at its most brutal, if also its most vulnerable. Until Assad is gone, Syria will remain the region’s most powerful magnet of global jihad. So long as the jihadis enjoy a safe haven in Syria, they will continue to dominate the Sunni heartland of Iraq.
When a state misidentifies the center of gravity, writes Clausewitz, its blows, no matter how hard, strike only air. President Obama is now winding up to throw a big punch at ISIS, but it will never connect. Regardless of his intentions, the effect of his policies is to deliver large portions of Iraq and Syria to ISIS while simultaneously empowering Iran.
This outcome bodes ill for the United States. But it will be especially dangerous for those countries that the U.S. used to call allies: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, to name just three. Israel is in particular peril. American policy is partitioning Syria between Iran and the global jihadis—the two worst enemies of the Jewish state, now digging in right across its northern border. There can be no happy ending to this story.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.