On a cold night in February 1943, people from around the United States gathered around the radio, with a map of the world spread out on their table, waiting for President Roosevelt’s weekly fireside chat. “This war is a new kind of war,” he stated. “It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography. That is the reason why I have asked you to take out and spread before you a map of the whole earth, and to follow with me the references which I shall make to the world-encircling battle lines of this war.”
Today too, we begin a new war with the Islamic State (IS). In this “bootless war” it is even more important for us to understand the geography of the fighting; not only the physical geography, but also the political and cultural geography of our allies and our enemies in the region.
Who’s Pushing the Buttons?
The beheading of two US journalists was seen as a provocation. But I am suggesting that it was a planned provocation, with calculated results. IS knew the US would react but would not send ground troops to the Middle East again. They are getting what they wanted; a fight within “their” countries. A fight they feel confident they can win. A fight that could in their minds credibly justify their expansion in the region and help them achieve their ultimate goal – an Islamic state that encompasses Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
Is Middle East Policy on Auto-Pilot?
One of the reasons for this confidence lies in widespread mistrust of US Policy in the MENA region. Our refusal to strongly and decisively support emerging democracies has led many MENA populations to lose hope in the democratic process; making them vulnerable to IS’s propaganda. The US-led war in Iraq based on false WMD evidence, the delayed backing of the Tunisian democratic process, the acceptance of the military coup in Egypt following democratic elections, the intervention in Libya, and the reluctance to intervene in Syria all express Washington’s shifting foreign policy and suggest that policy-makers there do not have a clear understanding of the complex relationships that exist among important groups in any particular MENA country, such as the military, the ruling elite, religious organizations, the population, and the country’s regional allies. The complexity lies in the fact that each country has a unique set of circumstances so there is no model to follow, the only navigational device that can steer us is historical, political, and cultural knowledge of the region.
"The complexity lies in the fact that each country has a unique set of circumstances"
IS is a result of the water balloon phenomenon; squeeze one side and you inflate the other one. While our (US) policies are national interest driven, these interests are in jeopardy as soon as we become part of the problem. After two years of tireless, but vain efforts to clean up Syria from Assad’s regime, we naively turned to his most radical opponents to expedite the mission.
The security vacuum in Syria helped criminal organizations to mushroom in the region. The Baghdad administration’s sectarian and clannish behavior further exacerbated the situation. Today, people in the Middle East believe that it was our policy with the complicity of Gulf monarchies that have led to detrimental second third order effects (unwanted outcomes) that now includes the Islamic State.
However, for the first time since the US has been militarily involved in the region, all the local players irrespective of their background or agenda including organized governments, civil societies, military factions and perhaps even Al Qaeda seem to agree on the elimination of IS, partly through the military role played by the US in fighting that group. But do not be misled, this consensus exists only because each element believes 1) that their interests are at risk and 2) that the US’s initial intervention created this situation and so is obligated to clean up the mess. Any hope of creating new alliances with old enemies should be dismissed; as soon as the mission is accomplished each of these entities will return to business as usual.
Recalculating - The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
Experts in Washington D.C., London, and Paris are advocating for intense and surgical strikes. However, unlike the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, IS is a well-equipped and multinational “government”. It also knows the worst-case scenario: that the US and its western allies will bomb the areas they control, but with no boots on the ground.
IS has become a common enemy to all the ruling regimes in the region. However, due to numerous conflicts of interest including borders, religious/sect differences, economic interests and overall distrust of each other, it is difficult to determine if defeating IS is their top priority and if they can agree on whom to support in this effort.
The chart below identifies some of the conflicts of interests that exist between the Arab nations with whom we are relying on for military, financial, and humanitarian assistance. For example Saudi Arabia continues to interfere in Yemeni domestic matters, intervenes militarily to save the minority Al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain, supports el-Sisi’s adventure in Egypt and finances some fighting groups in Syria. Likewise, Qatar supports other groups in Syria and tries to counter any Saudi initiative. Meanwhile Egypt and UAE have recently bombed targeted fighter groups in Libya. The list continues on and on. As of yet, not one of them has acted against the Islamic State. If we are still counting on ground operational support from friendly fighting groups inside Syria, they are all busy struggling to keep their gain. As of Sept 9, 2014, the Syrian free fighter leader has been assassinated by either one of the other opposing groups or IS.
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Theoretically we all learn from history and previous mistakes, thus it is extremely risky to place our bets on the success of a joint Arab military ground force, which has either no history or a bad history. Since gaining their independence from the French and British occupations in the early 1950s and 1960s, Arab nation states have never been successful in their military adventures, except maybe Egypt (Suez Canal 1956). Indeed, Arab coalitions failed to defeat Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. For eight years Saddam’s military struggled to resist Iran, even with US and the Gulf States’ financial support. Their best records are in putting down unarmed popular riots and in military coups within the same country. Other weaknesses include:
* No practical conventional or irregular battle-space experience, except as UN peacekeeping forces or US allies in the rear battle-space support (maybe except Iraqi soldiers in Iraq).
* Their political and military doctrines do not provide a decisive orientation toward fighting outside their borders.
* Indecision on which country will lead the joint military venture.
* No JTF (Joint Task Force).
Full Commitment and Combat Motivation
A final concern that must be considered is the will to fight among the various Arab militaries. When asked about the intelligence community’s success in gathering “anticipatory intelligence” on IS, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence commented, “what we didn’t do was predict the will to fight that’s always a problem … we underestimated (IS) and overestimated the capability of the Iraqi army … it boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”
I disagree with this observation that the IS fighters’ will to fight is imponderable. With the knowledge and experience of al-Qaeda’s commitment and determination to fight, IS’s fighters could only be more committed due to the fact that IS detached itself from the former because it considered them too soft to carry on the long fight. In addition, most of its leadership is composed of young men living in the West who already gave up materialistic privileges they were enjoying in Europe and Australia.
"We underestimated (IS) and overestimated the capability of the Iraqi army"
US Marine trainers can tell us a lot about Middle Eastern military capabilities and skills since they have been training them for the last decade, particularly in Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, UAE, and Egypt. However, I wonder about the commitment of soldiers from these potentially allied countries, and how strongly they believe in the fight against IS. Belief carries the fight farther than training and force. Recent IS successes in Iraq and Syria have created a great momentum among their fighters combined with their absolute commitment to fight to death.
History is repeating itself. However, this time we don’t have a map that we can spread out on the table to help us navigate the conflicts in the region. The cultural, political and historical geography of the Middle East is too complex to be represented in a two dimensional map. For guidance we must look to the collective knowledge of both cultural specialists and our military personnel that have been actively involved in the region for the last decade. We must fight IS not with the disjointed brawn of our Middle East allies, but with wit.
Just as houses are made of stones, so armies are made of soldiers. But a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of soldiers is not necessarily an army. Leading from behind is not a failure or sign of weakness. The development community refers to it as ‘finding local solutions for local problems’. In the shaping and coming phases of this war, we must empower our Middle East allies not with weapons but with confidence in our support in their emerging democracies. In belief that we are serious about supporting good governance, economic reform, fair share of resources and education on the culture of democracy. If not, we once again run the risk of winning tactically, but losing strategically.