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Jun 25, 2014

The United States Has Unfinished Business in Ukraine and Iraq

 
 
  "The United States Has Unfinished Business in Ukraine and Iraq is republished with permission of Stratfor."

By George Friedman
In recent weeks, some of the international system's unfinished business has revealed itself. We have seen that Ukraine's fate is not yet settled, and with that, neither is Russia's relationship with the European Peninsula. In Iraq we learned that the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the creation of a new Iraqi political system did not answer the question of how the three parts of Iraq can live together. Geopolitical situations rarely resolve themselves neatly or permanently.
These events, in the end, pose a difficult question for the United States. For the past 13 years, the United States has been engaged in extensive, multidivisional warfare in two major theaters -- and several minor ones -- in the Islamic world. The United States is large and powerful enough to endure such extended conflicts, but given that neither conflict ended satisfactorily, the desire to raise the threshold for military involvement makes logical sense.
U.S. President Barack Obama's speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point sought to raise the bar for military action. However, it was not clear in the speech what Obama meant in practical terms when he said:
"Here's my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will. The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary -- component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
Given events in Ukraine and Iraq, the president's definition of a "nail" in relation to the U.S. military "hammer" becomes important. Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.

The Ongoing Ukraine Crisis

In Ukraine, a pro-Russian president was replaced by a pro-Western one. The Russians took formal control of Crimea, where they had always had overwhelming military power by treaty with Ukraine. Pro-Russian groups, apparently supported by Russians, still fight for control in Ukraine's two easternmost provinces. On the surface, the Russians have suffered a reversal in Ukraine. Whether this is truly a reversal will depend on whether the authorities in Kiev are able to rule Ukraine, which means not only forming a coherent government but also enforcing its will. The Russian strategy is to use energy, finance and overt and covert relationships to undermine the Ukrainian government and usurp its power.
It is in the interest of the United States that a pro-Western Ukraine emerges, but that interest is not overwhelming enough to warrant a U.S. military intervention. There is no alliance structure in place to support such an intervention, no military bases where forces have accumulated to carry this out, and no matter how weakened Russia is, the United States would be advancing into a vast country whose occupation and administration -- even if possible -- would be an overwhelming task. The Americans would be fighting far from home, but the Russians would be fighting in their backyard.
Ukraine is not a nail to be hammered. First, its fate is not of fundamental American interest. Second, it cannot be driven into the board. The United States must adopt an indirect strategy. What happens in Ukraine will happen. The place where the United States can act to influence events is in the countries bordering Ukraine -- most notably Poland and Romania. They care far more about Ukraine's fate than the United States does and, having lost their sovereignty to Russia once in the last century, will be forced to resist Russia again. Providing them support with minimal exposure makes sense for the United States.

The Complexities of Iraq

Iraq consists of three major groups: Shia, Sunnis and Kurds. The United States left Iraq in the hands of the Shiite-dominated government, which failed to integrate the Kurds or the Sunnis. The Kurdish strategy was to create and maintain an autonomous region. The Sunnis' was to build strength in their region and wait for an opportune moment. That moment came when, after the recent election, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki failed to quickly form a new government and seemed intent on re-creating the failed government of the past.
The Sunnis did not so much invade as arise, taking control of Sunni areas and to some extent coordinating activities throughout the region. They did not attack the Kurdish region or predominantly Shiite areas. Indeed, the Shia began to mobilize to resist the Sunnis. What has happened is the failure of the central government and the assertion of regional power. There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together -- thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense.
As in Ukraine, it is not clear that the United States has an overriding interest in Iraq. The 2003 invasion was more than a decade ago, and whatever decisions were made then belong to historians. The Sunni uprising brings with it the risk of increased terrorism and obviously gives terrorists a base from which to conduct attacks against the United States. By that logic, the United States ought to intervene on behalf of the Kurds and Shia.
The problem is that the Shia are linked to the Iranians, and while the United States and Iran are currently wrapped up in increasingly complex but promising negotiations, the focus is on interests and not friendship. The 2003 invasion was predicated on the assumption that the Shia, liberated from Saddam Hussein, would welcome the United States and allow it to reshape Iraq as it desired. It was quickly discovered, however, that the Iraqi Shia, along with their Iranian allies, had very different plans. The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.
That, of course, leaves the possibility of an increased threat of terrorism. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and some of them are prepared to engage in terrorist activity. It is extremely difficult, however, to figure out which are inclined to do so. It is also impossible to conquer 1.6 billion people so as to eliminate the threat of terrorism. Given the vast territory of the Islamic world, Iraq may be a convenience, but occupying it would not prevent Sunni or Shiite terrorism from arising elsewhere. Defeating an enemy army is much easier than occupying a country whose only mode of resistance is the terrorism that you intend to stop. Terrorism can be defended against to some extent -- mitigated, observed perhaps -- but in the end, whether the Sunni regions of Iraq are autonomous or under extremist rule does little to reduce the threat.
The Kurds, Sunnis and Shia are hostile to each other. Saddam controlled the country through the secular institutional apparatus of the Baath Party. Absent that, the three communities continue to be hostile to each other, just as the Sunni community in Syria is hostile to the Alawites. The United States is left with a single viable strategy: to accept what exists -- a tripartite Iraq -- and allow internal hostilities to focus the factions on each other rather than on the United States. In other words, allow an internal balance of power to emerge.

The Limited Use of the U.S. "Hammer"

When we consider Ukraine and Iraq, they are of course radically different, but they have a single thing in common: To the extent that the United States has any interest in the regions, it cannot act with direct force. Instead, it must act with indirect force by using the interests and hostilities of the parties on the ground to serve as the first line of containment. If the United States intervenes at all, it will do so by supporting factions that are of interest to Washington. In Ukraine, this would mean supporting the former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe. In Iraq, it would mean applying sufficient force to prevent the annihilation of any of the country's three major groups, but not enough force to attempt to resolve the conflict.
Americans like to have a moral foundation for their policy; in the cases of Ukraine and Iraq, the foundation is simply a necessity. It is not possible for the United States to use direct force to impose a solution on Ukraine or Iraq. This is not because war cannot be a solution to evil, as World War II was. It is because the cost, the time of preparation and the bloodshed of effective war can be staggering. At times it must be undertaken, but those times are rare. Constant warfare with insufficient forces to impose political solutions in countries where the United States has secondary interests is a prescription for the worst of both worlds: a war that ends in defeat.
Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars. It substitutes a much more complex, but no less realist and active, approach to the world. Underwriting nations that find themselves in a position of having to act in a way that supports American interests is one step. Another is creating economic bonds with nations that will shape their behavior. There are other tools besides war.
The simultaneous fighting in Ukraine and Iraq proves two things. First, the United States cannot avoid global involvement because in the end, the globe will involve itself with the United States. Becoming involved earlier is cheaper. Second, global involvement and large-scale warfare are not the same thing. The situation in Ukraine will play itself out, as will the one in Iraq. It will give the United States enough time to determine whether and how much it cares about the outcome. It can then slowly begin asserting itself, minimizing risks and maximizing rewards.
This is not a new strategy for the United States, which has vacillated from pretending it is immune from the world to believing it can reshape it. Dwight Eisenhower was an example of a U.S. president who avoided both of those views and managed to avoid involvement in any major war, which many would have thought unlikely. He was far from a pacifist and far from passive. He acted when he needed to, using all means necessary. But as a general, he understood that while the threat of war was essential to credibility, there were many other tools that allowed Washington to avoid war and preserve the republic.
Eisenhower was a subtle and experienced man. It is one thing to want to avoid war; it is another to know how to do it. Eisenhower did not refuse to act, but instead acted decisively and with minimal risk. Obama's speech at West Point indicated hesitancy toward war. It will be interesting to see whether he has mastered the other tools he will need in dealing with Ukraine and Iraq. It helps to have been a warrior to know how to avoid war.
I once wrote that the United States, stunned in 1991 to discover it was the world's only superpower, emerged into a natural period of adolescence, swinging from a belief in its omnipotence to a sense of worthlessness. I argued that this was a necessary passing phase that ultimately forced the United States toward a coherent path. Today, it is not yet on that path, but it is beginning to find its way. Eisenhower should be borne in mind.

Jun 18, 2014

The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq's Jihadist Uprising

"The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq's Jihadist Uprising is republished with permission of Stratfor."

By Reva Bhalla
Events in Iraq over the past week were perhaps best crystallized in a series of photos produced by the jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Sensationally called The Destruction of Sykes-Picot, the pictures confirmed the group's intent to upend nearly a century of history in the Middle East.
In a series of pictures set to a purring jihadist chant, the mouth of a bulldozer is shown bursting through an earthen berm forming Iraq's northern border with Syria. Keffiyeh-wrapped rebels, drained by the hot sun, peer around the edges of the barrier to observe the results of their work. The breach they carved was just wide enough for the U.S.-made, Iraqi army-owned and now jihadist-purloined Humvees to pass through in single file. While a charter outlining an antiquated interpretation of Sharia was being disseminated in Mosul, #SykesPicotOver trended on jihadist Twitter feeds. From the point of view of Iraq's jihadist celebrities, the 1916 borders drawn in secret by British and French imperialists represented by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot to divide up Mesopotamia are not only irrelevant, they are destructible.
Today, the most ardent defenders of those colonial borders sit in Baghdad, Damascus, Ankara, Tehran and Riyadh while the Europeans and Americans, already fatigued by a decade of war in this part of the world, are desperately trying to sit this crisis out. The burden is on the regional players to prevent a jihadist mini-emirate from forming, and beneath that common purpose lies ample room for intrigue.

Turkey Searches for a Strategy

With the jihadist threat fanning out from Syria to Iraq, Turkey is struggling to insulate itself from the violence and to follow a strategic agenda in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has forged an alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in a direct challenge to Baghdad's authority. With the consent of Turkey's energy minister and to the outrage of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, two tankers carrying a few million barrels of Kurdish crude left the Turkish port of Ceyhan in search of a buyer just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was ratcheting up its offensive. Upping the ante, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced June 16 that a third tanker would be loaded within the week. With al-Maliki now relying on Kurdish peshmerga support to fend off jihadists in the north, Ankara and Arbil have gained some leverage in their ongoing dispute with Baghdad over the distribution of energy revenue. But Turkey's support for Iraqi Kurds also has limits.
Ankara had planned to use a tighter relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government to exploit northern Iraq's energy reserves and to manage Kurdish unrest within its own boundaries. However, Turkey never intended to underwrite Kurdish independence. And with Kirkuk now in Kurdish hands as a result of the jihadist surge, the largest oil field in northern Iraq stands ready to fuel Kurdish secessionist tendencies. Much to Turkey's dismay, Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party and the People's Protection Units are already reinforcing peshmerga positions in northern Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its jihadist affiliates are holding 80 Turkish citizens hostage.
Turkey will thus enlarge its footprint in Mesopotamia, but not necessarily on its own terms. Some 1,500 to 2,000 Turkish forces have maintained a quiet presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. That force will likely expand now that Turkey has an array of threats to justify such a presence and a growing need to temper Kurdish ambitions. Iraq's Kurdish leadership will be reminded of their deep distrust for Turkey but will also be overwhelmed by its own challenges, not least of which is Turkey's main regional competitor, Iran.

Iran on the Defensive

Unnerved by Turkey's increasingly assertive Kurdish policy and possibly in anticipation of the expanding jihadist threat sweeping Iraq's Sunni belt, Iran over the past several months has been expanding its military presence along its northern border with Iraq. Tehran now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to reinforce its Shiite allies in Iraq militarily. Though Iran has perhaps the most sophisticated and extensive militant proxy network in the region to do the job, this strategy carries enormous risks.
Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Tehran was never wedded to al-Maliki in particular, but it did need to maintain a strong enough foothold in Baghdad to manage Iraq's naturally fractious Shiite landscape. Employing Shiite militias enables Iran to reinforce the Iraqi army in a time of urgent need but risks undermining Iran's long-term strategy to manage Iraq through a firm hand in Baghdad. The more empowered the militias and the weaker Baghdad becomes, the harder Iran will have to work to keep a lid on separatist moves in Iraq's Shiite south.
The militants rampaging through Iraq's core Sunni territories will embrace deeper Iranian involvement in the conflict. There is no better motivation for Arab Sunni fighters of various ideological stripes than a call to arms against their historical Persian foes and their Arab Shiite allies. An outpouring of sectarian blood feuds will also make it all the more difficult for Iraq's Shiite government to recruit enough allies among Iraq's Sunni population to fight against the jihadists. Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would not have been able to mount its lightning surge across Iraq had it not been for the substantial support it has received from local Sunni tribes who in turn receive substantial support and guidance from sponsors in the Persian Gulf. Our attention thus turns to the Saudi royals sitting quietly in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia Stirs the Pot

This has not been a good year for the Saudis. A Persian-American rapprochement is a living nightmare for the Sunni kingdom, as is the prospect of the United States becoming more self-sufficient in energy production. Saudi Arabia has little means to directly sabotage U.S.-Iranian negotiations. In fact, as we anticipated, the Saudis have had to swallow a bitter pill and open up their own dialogue with Iran. But the Saudis are also not without options to make life more difficult for Iran, and if Riyadh is going to be forced into a negotiation with Tehran, it will try to enter talks on its own terms.
Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia -- both the government and private citizens -- has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. There is no love lost between the Saudis and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.
But the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is also not the only group participating in the current offensive. Former Baathist fighters from the Naqshabandiyya Way along with Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah are also playing a substantial role in the fighting. Most of the Sunni militias and the growing number of Awakening Council (Sunni fighters recruited by the United States to battle al Qaeda in Iraq) defectors joining these militias coordinate directly with the Majlis Thuwar al Anbar (Anbar insurgents' council), which in turn coordinates with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant on a selective basis. Saudi Arabia's acting intelligence chief, Yousef bin Ali al Idrisis, is believed to be in direct communication with the Majlis Thuwar al Anbar, affording Riyadh the opportunity to influence the shape of the battlefield -- and thereby to aggravate Iran in a highly sensitive spot.
As a bonus for Saudi Arabia, even as the Sunni uprising is largely confined to Iraq's Sunni belt and thus unlikely to seriously upset Iraq's production and exports from the Shiite south, the price of Brent crude has climbed to $113 a barrel for the first time this year. Saudi Arabia is not the only one that welcomes this bump in the price of oil; Russia is quite pleased with the outcome in Iraq as well.

Revisiting a Mysterious Meeting in Sochi

Just days before the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-led offensive in Iraq, a quiet meeting took place at Russian President Vladimir Putin's vacation spot in Sochi on June 3. Putin invited Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to see him and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who cut short an engagement in Moscow to get there on time. Details on the meeting are scarce. Our attempt to obtain information about the gathering from Russian and Saudi contacts resulted in scripted and strangely identical responses that claimed that Saudi Arabia and Russia were discussing a power-sharing resolution for Syria. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency then reported June 10 that Lavrov and al-Faisal had a follow-up phone conversation to discuss a Syrian settlement. Syria may well have been on the agenda, and Russia has an interest in protecting its influence in Damascus through a deal that keeps Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power, but we suspect there was more to these engagements.
Both Saudi Arabia and Russia share two key interests: undermining the U.S.-Iranian negotiating track and ensuring oil prices remain at a comfortable level, i.e., above $100 a barrel. There is little either can do to keep Iran and the United States from negotiating a settlement. In fact, the jihadist threat in Iraq creates another layer of cooperation between Iran and the United States. That said, Washington is now facing another major Middle Eastern maelstrom at the same time it has been anxiously trying to prove to itself and everyone else that the United States has bigger issues to deal with in other parts of the world, namely, in Russia's backyard. Moreover, the United States and Turkey are not of one mind on how to manage Iraq at a time when Washington needs Ankara's cooperation against Russia. If an Iraq-sized distraction buys Moscow time to manage its own periphery with limited U.S. interference, all the better for Putin. Meanwhile, if Saudi Arabia can weaken Iran and test U.S.-Iranian cooperation, it might well be worth the risk for Riyadh to try -- at least for the time being.

A Lesson from History

Whether by mere coincidence, strategic design or a blend of the two, there are as many winners as there are losers in the Iraq game. Russia knows this game well. The United States, the heir to the Sykes-Picot map, will be forced to learn it fast.
When the French and British were colluding over the post-Ottoman map in 1916, czarist Russia quietly acquiesced as Paris and London divided up the territories. Just a year later, in 1917, the Soviets threw a strategic spanner into the Western agenda by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement, planting the seeds for Arab insurrection and thus ensuring that Europe's imperialist rule over the Middle East would be anything but easy. The U.S. administration recognizes the trap that has been laid. But more mindful of the region's history this time around, Washington will likely leave it to the regional players to absorb most of the risk.
Editor's Note: Writing in George Friedman's stead this week is Reva Bhalla, vice president of Global Analysis.

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