Last night the United States launched a commando raid into al-Amr in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. According to the White House statement, Abu Sayyaf (real name: Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi), a senior Islamic State (ISIS) commander “overseeing … illicit oil and gas operations,” was killed, and his wife, Umm Sayyaf, was taken into American custody and is being held in Iraq. The Sayyaf couple had been holding a young Yazidi woman as a slave and she has now been freed.
Unfortunately, this American raid is a tactical success amid a strategic failure—and a tactical success likely to be used to obscure the strategic failure of the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign. Even in the narrowest humanitarian terms: if the freedom of this one Yazidi girl is used to perpetuate a policy that leaves many more Yazidi girls in bondage then it is a failure.
ISIS were largely driven out of Tikrit in the first week of April after a month-long operation, and this was hailed by the Obama administration as a major success in the anti-ISIS campaign, a template indeed, with Iran-backed ground assets and American air support. But there is no reason to be sanguine about what happened in Tikrit.
Iran planned the Tikrit offensive without reference to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. One of Iran’s proxy militias, Kataib Hizballah, a U.S.-registered terrorist organisation, threatened American planes with anti-aircraft weapons because in Iran’s telling America supports ISIS. But still the American air support was given to these militias and proved decisive. A 30,000-man force, overwhelmingly made up of Hashd al-Shabi, which is mostly composed of Iran’s proxy militias, suffered terrible casualties, up to 6,000 dead, before the U.S. airstrikes began, against a force of 400-750 ISIS jihadists.
The Hashd committed obscene atrocities as it drove into Tikrit, and in the aftermath inter alia lynched a man they said was an ISIS member in front of the international press and chased the Reuters journalist, Ned Parker, who reported on it, out of Iraq. Iran’s militias now rule over a ghost town in Tikrit. Not an ideal outcome, and not a surprise either.
In August 2014, America provided airstrikes in support of Iran’s most powerful proxy militia, the Badr Corp, as it drove ISIS out of Amerli, a Shi’a Turkoman town. After Badr took over Amerli, it rampaged: emptying the town of Sunni inhabitants and razing surrounding villages in an attempt to alter the demographic balance, complete with abductions and the torture of children.
Above all of this is the problem that America’s alignment with Iran in Iraq is self-defeating: it was the sectarian persecution by the Iran-aligned government in Baghdad that put the Sunni insurgency back online and made ISIS an acceptable vanguard to many Sunnis who had rejected it only a couple of years before. As Iran’s power grows in Iraq, so does ISIS’.
Still, it might be argued, at least in Tikrit ISIS was being defeated. Mark the sequel. In a horrible echo of Operation PHANTOM FURY, when America finally drove ISIS’ predecessor out of Fallujah in November 2004 at great cost only to find that the group had ceded it in the early days of the fight and relocated to Mosul, it was found that ISIS had left a skeleton crew to keep the Hashd busy in Tikrit while it planned its next offensive in al-Anbar. By April 10, before Tikrit was completely secured, Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, was under threat, and large areas of Anbar Province had fallen to ISIS.
The Obama administration’s reaction was extraordinary. “[Ramadi] is not symbolic in any way, it’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand or central to the future of Iraq. I’d much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall,” said General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on April 16. “Baiji is a more strategic target and that’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji.”
The relative merits of which towns America doesn’t mind falling to ISIS became moot yesterday when Ramadi did fall, and Baiji, a major oil refinery that was an on-again-off-again source of income for ISIS in the mid-2000s, was reeling.
The Obama administration’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS has been described as “Iraq-first”. This never made any sense. “The most valuable and sustainable” territory ISIS holds is in Syria, Charles Lister has noted. ISIS deliberately formed a beachhead in Syria to launch the invasion of Iraq last summer, and its fighters retreat to Syria when the pressure is applied in Iraq, making any gains in Iraq illusory. Thus, the fact that by this spring, “ISIS has compensated for its 10 percent territorial losses in Iraq by gaining 4 percent in Syria,” meant that the anti-ISIS strategy was failing. But now it is failing even on the Obama administration’s own terms.
The American anti-ISIS strategy desperately needs to divest itself of the view that Iran is a partner. Take a look at the map (borrowed from Michael Pregent) below:
In Iraq, Iran is consolidating control of the Basra port and perhaps soon its oil field—the lifeblood of Iraq—with control over Baghdad, Diyala along Iran’s border, and areas of Saladin Province that have religious significance. Iran also has friendly relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria, Iran has control of the western corridor where most of the population is, and even if Aleppo falls to the rebellion it does not present an existential threat to Iran’s position. And Lebanon is also, in all important senses, under Iranian control.
With this Islamist Imperium, Iran has the unthreatening, “weak, decentralized” neighbours, with the political systems under Iran’s sway and the security sectors entirely under Iran’s control, plus the pipeline to Hizballah to provide deterrence against the Israelis and organize global terrorism, which is what Iran always wanted.
Northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq mean nothing to Iran: it doesn’t have the power to rule over all those Sunnis anyway. Moreover, the Takfiri Caliphate is very helpful in keeping those Alawis and Shi’ites in Damascus and Baghdad who object to the Iranian colonization of their countries quiet. Put simply: ISIS’ perpetuation is in Iran’s interests; the chaos and menace provided by ISIS allows Iran to pose as a shield for the minorities and gives Iran legitimacy locally and internationally for the expansion of its power. Without the war with ISIS, Iran couldn’t advance its power so easily.
In Syria, the Obama administration has provided a de facto security guarantee to the Assad tyranny, which is at this point almost totally under Iran’s control. The U.S. is launching airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, allowing Assad/Iran to crush the moderates and complete the provocation. The U.S. is training a Syrian rebel army that is only allowed to fight ISIS—which is why the program has virtually no volunteers and some of those it does have are going home—and Obama won’t even say if he’ll protect this army from Assad. Iran has even been allowed to orchestrate a Shi’a jihad to rescue Assad, but still Obama remains focussed on Sunni militancy.
This would all be bad enough since Islamic Republic of Iran has waged a global war against the West since its inception, but it is also, just as in Iraq, an active hindrance to the anti-ISIS policy, and in Syria this is even more important for the reasons outlined above. And this doesn’t even mention the active assistance Iran has given to al-Qaeda in Syria, ISIS predecessors in Iraq, and the accusations of Iranian help to ISIS in Syria as part of the strategic messaging to make Syria a binary choice between Assad and ISIS.
To combat ISIS in its heartlands the West needs Sunni allies, and that cannot happen if the U.S. is perceived as tilting toward Iran. The key to correcting the policy is Syria: to have allies to defeat ISIS, obviating the need for a massive, unilateral U.S. invasion, the U.S. has to commit to a regime-change policy in Syria—which is the official American policy already.
The Syrian rebellion has inflicted the most lasting defeats on ISIS in northern Syria in early 2014, many of which were rolled back after the rebels received no Western support. The Sunni tribes in eastern Syria and western Iraq—the latter, the Sahwa (Awakening), being key to defeating ISIS in the last decade—remain chronically underutilized in the anti-ISIS strategy. There are real concerns about supporting the Syrian Kurds, who have connections with the PKK (and, at least at one point, the Assad regime), but the Iraqi Kurds have no such problems. Yet the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Sunni Arabs are being made a hostage to an Iranian veto by the U.S. policy of sending resources through Baghdad—a rough statement of the problem to begin with.
Since the U.S. is effectively partnering with Assad in Syria, ISIS is blaming America for the murderous barrel and chemical bombings Assad is using against Syrian civilians, overwhelmingly Sunnis, and this is finding an audience, who are being convinced that ISIS is their only protection against this American-Iranian anti-Sunni scheme. To put a no-fly zone over Syria, so that only America could use airstrikes in Syria, would remove a chief ISIS propaganda point.
As President Obama looks to conclude his deal with Iran that leaves Tehran on the threshold of nuclear weapons and with hegemony over the Middle East, America’s traditional allies—namely the Gulf States and Turkey—have begun to push back: intervening in Yemen to reverse the march of Iranian assets that overthrew the Yemeni government, arming Syrian insurgents, including extremists, to damage Iran in Syria, and perhaps planning a more direct intervention against Assad. Not prepared to take the wrath Israel has, the Gulf States do not speak against Obama in public, but by leaving Obama near-friendless at Camp David this week they made their point.
Obama’s pro-Iran tilt has alienated America’s allies, empowered a viciously anti-American hegemonic power, set the stage for regional proliferation, and strengthened ISIS. Obama’s strategic policy, his détente with Iran, is the question before us; raids into the Syrian desert are only a distraction.