August 26, 2014
August 23, 2014
August 20, 2014
August 13, 2014

Islamic State: Miracle Worker

From Gary Sick

Since everyone loves lists, here is a list of things that until recently seemed unlikely to the point of impossibility:

  1.  Nuri al-Maliki would virtually give up his claim as prime minister of Iraq without an armed struggle.
  2.  Ayatollah Sistani would abandon his well known quietism to intervene directly in Iraqi politics.
  3.  In Baghdad, large numbers of  Sunnis, together with most of the Shia parties and Kurds would begin to come together in support of a Shia prime minister.
  4.  The leader of Iran’s Qods Force would sit down with Kurdish leaders to discuss military cooperation — at the same time that the US CIA was apparently doing the same thing.
  5.  Iran and Saudi Arabia would find themselves in broad agreement about the direction of Iraqi politics.
  6. The Kurds would decide that — at least for the moment — they would be better off inside the Iraqi government instead of declaring independence.
  7.  The US would resume combat operations in Iraq — with the approval of virtually all regional powers, and even most of the US Congress.


All of these things and more have happened, within the space of only a few days.

Only one thing could have produced these extraordinary events: the Islamic State.

Regional and external states and political leaders are so terrified at the prospect of an Islamic State takeover that they are willing to suspend their usual hatred and distrust of each other to confront the common enemy.

Remember the old dictum that the only thing that could get the nations of the world to cooperate would be an alien invasion? Well, there is an alien invasion going on, and everyone seems to be behaving as predicted.

The aliens in this case look a lot like regional earthlings — in fact they may be more closely related than some would like to acknowledge; in fact they may even turn out to be the illegitimate offspring of earlier ideological dalliances — but they have morphed into monsters that threaten to devour even their parents.

I mention all of this to return to the subject I raised a few days ago (see text immediately below). For those not lucky enough to be off at the beach or spending their days in a hammock with a good trashy novel, I’ll remind you that my modest proposal was as follows:

A feasible strategy for the US is to act as a facilitator or potentially even a coordinator of these disparate groups who often are as distrustful of each other as they are of the Islamic State. The US has its own problems with many of these actors, but on this issue it can probably get a hearing.

The US could, for example, actively encourage the Saudis to intervene with money and support to the tribes in Anbar, as part of a second Awakening. In the absence of an effective government in Baghdad, some interaction with the Shia militias could be valuable, and Iran has a unique channel. Turkey could be strongly encouraged to seal the northern border of the Islamic State to inhibit the flow of new recruits and military equipment into Islamic State territory. All parties could be urged to refuse purchase of any oil or other goods produced in IS territory… . Call it containment.


As a matter of fact, this is what seems to be happening. As I mentioned earlier, this strategy is wholly compatible with the Obama Doctrine of multilateral diplomacy.

Without rehearsing that argument in greater detail, this does seem to be a magic moment. Perhaps the policy decisions will take themselves, with no need for outside involvement, as regional parties act on their own perceived interests in the face of a threat. But there will probably never be a more perfect opportunity for the kind of strategic light touch that the Obama administration favors.

As  the late Robin Williams might have said (in a very different context):

Carpe diem!

Gary Sick

August 11, 2014

The Islamic State and the Obama Doctrine: A Proposal

From Gary Sick

How does the existing strategic situation appear when viewed from within the rough boundaries of the new, self-proclaimed Islamic State occupying parts of Syria and Iraq?

The Islamic State is bounded by hostile states/factions on every side: Turkey, Kurds, Iraqi government, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia/GCC, Jordan, and all elements of the Syrian civil war. Nearby entities have a similar direct stake: Iran, Lebanon + Hezbollah, and possibly even Israel.

In my view, a feasible strategy for the US in those circumstances is to act as a facilitator or potentially even a coordinator of these disparate groups who often are as distrustful of each other as they are of the Islamic State. The US has its own problems with many of these actors, but on this issue it can probably get a hearing.

The US could, for example, actively encourage the Saudis to intervene with money and support to the tribes in Anbar, as part of a second Awakening. In the absence of an effective government in Baghdad, some interaction with the Shia militias could be valuable, and Iran has a unique channel. Turkey could be strongly encouraged to seal the northern border of the Islamic State to inhibit the flow of new recruits and military equipment into Islamic State territory. All parties could be urged to refuse purchase of any oil or other goods produced in IS territory. Etc. Some parties might be more willing to act if they had some quiet assurance that others — even their enemies or rivals — were contributing to a common purpose.

Call it containment. At least initially, the amoeba-like expansion of the Islamic State boundaries must be halted. If containment is
effective, the Islamic State is not likely to endure. It is landlocked, with very few resources, and its internal contradictions, which are legion, are probably the greatest threat to its long-term well being. But those contradictions can be further stimulated, and this strategy would be intended to do exactly that. It is not a frontal assault but rather promotion of a dissolution from within.

This strategy, bolstered no doubt by timely delivery of military and/or non-military assistance from the US to the various parties, has the added advantage of being totally consistent with the Obama Doctrine. It acknowledges some direct US interests, but relies primarily on a multilateral approach. It also does not require an immediate solution to the Maliki problem in Iraq, and it might even be handled in such a way as to increase leverage on all Iraqis to accelerate their efforts to sort out their political differences in the interest of survival.

The recent US air strikes could be seen as demonstrating that the US has some skin in this game, thus enhancing its diplomatic leverage.

This strategy does require a major power with enough diplomatic, military and economic clout to address the many moving parts, but it does not necessarily require a formal — or even informal — coalition. It also does not require perfect adherence or coordination of all the parts. Increasing pressure on all sides is the objective, and if it begins to take hold, stragglers — including even the Assad regime –
are likely to find it in their interest to participate at some level.

Finally, it does not require a full-fledged policy declaration. Instead, the strategy can be handled primarily on a bilateral basis behind the scenes, thus avoiding some of the obvious dilemmas of dealing publicly with such radical outliers as Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. It does require some cold blooded realist calculations about relative interests. But the Obama Doctrine promised nothing less. Sometimes a strategy does not need to be advertised in neon lights to be effective.

Although the Obama administration would be certain to come under attack from those who think of “strategy” only as unilateral military action, that refrain is so familiar that it scarcely deserves comment.

The most serious problem is that it is diplomatic, messy, doesn’t make a good bumper sticker, and takes some time. The up side is that it maximizes our strengths, draws others into the game instead of waging a new unilateral war, and potentially shuts down the Islamic State by leveraging its weaknesses.

I predict it would not take as long as it took for the USSR to fall. But the concept is the same.

Gary Sick

July 23, 2014
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