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Locals Won’t Fight America’s War

In the many strategies proposed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by presidential candidates, policymakers, and media pundits alike across the American political spectrum, one common element stands out: someone else should really do it. The United States will send in planes, advisers, and special ops guys, but it would be best—and this varies depending on which pseudo-strategist you cite—if the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, and/or Shias would please step in soon and get America off the hook.

The idea of seeing other-than-American boots on the ground, like Washington’s recently deep-sixed [1] scheme to create some “moderate” Syrian rebels out of whole cloth, is attractive on paper. Let someone else fight America’s wars for American goals. Put an Arab face on the conflict, or if not that at least a Kurdish one (since, though they may not be Arabs, they’re close enough in an American calculus). Let the U.S. focus on its “bloodless” use of air power and covert ops. Somebody else, Washington’s top brains repeatedly suggest, should put their feet on the embattled, contested ground of Syria and Iraq. Why, the U.S. might even gift them with nice, new boots as a thank-you.

Is this, however, a realistic strategy for winning America’s war(s) in the Middle East?

The Great Champions of the Grand Strategy


Recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [2] openly called [3] for the U.S. to round up some Arab allies, Kurds, and Iraqi Sunnis to drive the Islamic State’s fighters out of Iraq and Syria. On the same day that Clinton made her proposal, Bernie Sanders [4] called for “destroying” the Islamic State, but suggested that it “must be done primarily by Muslim nations.” It’s doubtful he meant Indonesia or Malaysia.

Among the Republican contenders, Marco Rubio [5] proposed that the U.S. “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.” Ted Cruz [6] threw his support behind arming the Kurds, while Donald Trump [7] appeared to favor more violence in the region by whoever might be willing to jump in.

The Pentagon has long been in favor of arming [8] both the Kurds and whatever Sunni tribal groups it could round up in Iraq or Syria. Various [9] pundits [10] across the political spectrum say much the same.

They may all mean well, but their plans are guaranteed to fail. Here’s why, group by group.

The Gulf Arabs

Much of what the candidates demand is based one premise: that “the Arabs” see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.

It’s a position that, at first glance, would seem to make obvious sense. After all, while American politicians are fretting about whether patient IS assault teams can wind their way through this country’s two-year [11] refugee screening process, countries like Saudi Arabia have them at their doorstep. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to lend a helping hand, including some planes and soldiers, to the task of destroying that outfit? “The Arabs,” by which the U.S. generally means a handful of Persian Gulf states and Jordan, should logically be demanding the chance to be deeply engaged in the fight.

That was certainly one of the early themes the Obama administration promoted [12] after it kicked off its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq back in 2014. In reality, the Arab contribution to that “coalition” effort to date has been stunningly limited. Actual numbers can be slippery, but we know that American warplanes have carried out something like 90 percent [13] of the air strikes against IS. Of those strikes that are not all-American, parsing out how many have been from Arab nations is beyond even Google search’s ability. The answer clearly seems to be not many.

Keep in mind as well that the realities of the region seldom seem to play much of a part in Washington’s thinking. For the Gulf Arabs, all predominantly Sunni nations, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked Sunni ilk are little more than a distraction from what they fear most, the rise of Shia power in places like Iraq and the growing regional strength [14] of Iran.

In this context, imagining such Arab nations as a significant future anti-IS force is absurd. In fact, Sunni terror groups like IS and al-Qaeda have in part been funded by states like Saudi Arabia or at least rich supporters living in them. Direct funding links are often difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to publicly prove them. This is especially so because the money that flows into such terror outfits often comes from individual donors, not directly from national treasuries, or may even be routed through legitimate charitable organizations and front companies.

However, one person concerned [15] in an off-the-record way with such Saudi funding for terror groups was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009. In a classified warning message (now posted on WikiLeaks), she suggested in blunt terms that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant [16] source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

One who thinks the Saudis and other Gulf countries may be funding rather than fighting IS and is ready to say so is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the recent G20 meeting, he announced [17] that he had shared intelligence information revealing that 40 countries, including some belonging to the G20 itself, finance the majority of the Islamic State’s activities. Though Putin’s list of supposed funders was not made public, on the G20 side Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely candidates than South Korea and Japan.

Most recently, the German vice chancellor has explicitly accused [18] the Saudis of funding Sunni radical groups.

Expecting the Gulf Arab states to fight IS also ignores the complex political relationship between those nations and Islamic fundamentalism generally. The situation is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where the secular royal family holds power only with the shadowy permission [19] of Wahhabist religious leaders. The latter provide the former with legitimacy at the price of promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad. From the royals’ point of view, abroad is the best place for it to be, as they fear an Islamic revolution at home. In a very real way, Saudi Arabia is supporting an ideology that threatens its own survival.

The Kurds

At the top of the list of groups included in the American dream of someone else fighting IS are the Kurds. And indeed, the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are actually on the battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria, using American-supplied weapons and supported by American air power and advisers in their efforts to kill Islamic State fighters.

But looks can be deceiving. While a Venn diagram would show an overlap between some U.S. and Kurdish aims, it’s important not to ignore the rest of the picture. The Kurds are fighting primarily for a homeland, parts of which are, for the time being, full of Islamic State fighters in need of killing. The Kurds may indeed destroy them, but only within the boundaries of what they imagine to be a future Kurdistan, not in the heartlands of the Syrian and Iraqi regions that IS now controls.

Not only will the Kurds not fight America’s battles in parts of the region, no matter how we arm and advise them, but it seems unlikely that, once in control of extended swaths of northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they will simply abandon their designs on territory that is now a part of Turkey. It’s a dangerous American illusion to imagine that Washington can turn Kurdish nationalism on and off [20] as needed.

The Kurds, now well armed and battle-tested, are just one of the genies Washington released from that Middle Eastern bottle in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Now, whatever hopes the U.S. might still have for future stability in the region shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Using the Kurds to fight IS is a devil’s bargain.

The Turks

And talking about devil’s bargains, don’t forget about Turkey. The Obama administration reached a deal to fly combat missions [21] in its intensifying air war against the Islamic State from two bases in Turkey. In return, Washington essentially looked the other way while Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-launched a war against internal Kurdish rebels at least in part to rally nationalistic supporters and win an election. Similarly, the U.S. has supported Turkey’s recent shoot-down [22] of a Russian aircraft.

When it comes to the Islamic State, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Turks to lend a serious military hand. That country’s government has, at the very least, probably been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms [23] into Syria for IS, and is clearly a conduit for smuggling [24] its oil out onto world markets [25]. American politicians seem to feel that, for now, it’s best to leave the Turks off to the side and simply be grateful to them for slapping the Russians down and opening their air space to American aircraft.

That gratitude may be misplaced. Some 150 Turkish troops, supported by 20 to 25 tanks, have recently entered [26] northern Iraq, prompting one Iraqi parliamentarian to label the action “switching out alien (IS) rule for other alien rule.” The Turks claim that they have had military trainers in the area for some time and that they are working with local Kurds to fight IS. It may also be that the Turks are simply taking a bite from a splintering Iraq. As with so many situations in the region, the details are murky, but the bottom line is the same: the Turks’ aims are their own and they are likely to contribute little either to regional stability or American war aims.

The Sunnis

Of the many sub-strategies proposed to deal with the Islamic State, the idea of recruiting and arming “the Sunnis” is among the most fantastical. It offers a striking illustration of the curious, somewhat delusional mindset that Washington policymakers, including undoubtedly the next president [27], live in.

As a start, the thought that the U.S. can effectively fulfill its own goals by recruiting local Sunnis to take up arms against IS is based on a myth: that “the surge” during America’s previous Iraq War brought us a victory later squandered by the locals. With this goes a belief, demonstrably false, in the shallowness of the relationship between many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and the Islamic State.

According to the Washington mythology that has grown up around that so-called surge of 2007-2008, the U.S. military used money, weapons, and clever persuasion to convince Iraq’s Sunni tribes to break with Iraq’s local al-Qaeda organization. The Sunnis were then energized to join the coalition government the U.S. had created. In this way, so the story goes, the U.S. arrived at a true “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington still believe that the surge, led by General David Petraeus, swept to success by promoting and arming a “Sunni Awakening Movement,” only to see American plans thwarted by a too-speedy Obama administration withdrawal from the country and the intra-Iraqi squabbling that followed. So the question now is: why not “awaken” the Sunnis again?

In reality, the surge involved almost 200,000 American soldiers, who put themselves temporarily between Sunni and Shia militias. It also involved untold millions of dollars of “payments”—what in another situation would be called bribes [28]—that brought about temporary alliances between the U.S. and the Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi central government never signed onto the deal, which began to fall apart [29] well before the American occupation ended. The replacement of al-Qaeda in Iraq by a newly birthed Islamic State movement was, of course, part and parcel [30] of that falling-apart process.

After the Iraqi government stopped making the payments to Sunni tribal groups first instituted by the Americans, those tribes felt betrayed. Still occupying Iraq, those Americans did nothing to help the Sunnis. History suggests that much of Sunni thinking in the region since then has been built around the motto of “won’t get fooled again.”

So it is unlikely in the extreme that local Sunnis will buy into basically the same deal that gave them so little of lasting value the previous time around. This is especially so since there will be no new massive U.S. force to act as a buffer against resurgent Shia militias. Add to this mix a deep Sunni conviction that American commitments are never for the long term, at least when it comes to them. What, then, would be in it for the Sunnis if they were to again throw in their lot with the Americans? Another chance to be part [31] of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that seeks to marginalize or destroy them, a government now strengthened by Iranian support, or a Syria whose chaos could easily yield a leadership with similar aims?

In addition, a program to rally Sunnis to take up arms against the Islamic State presumes that significant numbers of them don’t support that movement, especially given their need for protection from the depredations of Shia militias. Add in religious and ethnic sentiments, anti-Western feelings, tribal affiliations, and economic advantage—it is believed that IS kicks back a share of its oil revenues [29] to compliant Sunni tribal leaders—and what exactly would motivate a large-scale Sunni transformation into an effective anti-Islamic State boots-on-the-ground force?


Not that they get mentioned all that often, being closely associated with acts of brutality against Sunnis and heavily supported by Iran, but Iraq’s Shia militias are quietly seen by some in Washington as a potent anti-IS force. They have, in Washington’s mindset, picked up the slack left after the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled [32] the Islamic State’s fighters in northern Iraq in June 2014, and again in the Sunni city of Ramadi [33] in May 2015.

Yet even the militia strategy seems to be coming undone. Several powerful Shia militias recently announced, for instance, their opposition to any further deployment of U.S. forces to their country. This was after the U.S. Secretary of Defense unilaterally announced [34] that an elite special operations unit would be sent to Iraq to combat the Islamic State. The militias just don’t trust [35] Washington to have their long-term interests at heart (and in this they are in good company in the region). “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq,” said [36] one militia spokesman. “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting.”

Refusing to Recognize Reality

The Obama/Clinton/Sanders/Cruz/Rubio/Pentagon/et al. solution—let someone else fight the ground war against IS—is based on what can only be called a delusion: that regional forces there believe in American goals (some variant of secular rule, disposing of evil dictators, perhaps some enduring U.S. military presence) enough to ignore their own varied, conflicting, aggrandizing, and often fluid interests. In this way, Washington continues to convince [37] itself that local political goals are not in conflict with America’s strategic goals. This is a delusion.

In fact, Washington’s goals in this whole process are unnervingly far-fetched. Overblown fears about the supposedly dire threats of the Islamic State to “the homeland” aside, the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there—not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia—is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.

Unworkable national boundaries were drawn up after World War I without regard for ethnic, sectarian, or tribal realities and dictatorships were then imposed or supported past their due dates. The Western answer [2] that only secular governments are acceptable makes sad light of the power of Islam in a region that often sees little or no separation between church and state.

Secretary of State John Kerry can join the calls [38] for the use of “indigenous forces” as often as he wants, but the reality is clear: Washington’s policy in Syria and Iraq is bound to fail, no matter who does the fighting.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People [39]. A TomDispatch [40] regular, he writes about current events at We Meant Well [41]. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent [42]. His next work will be a novel, Hooper’s War [43].

Copyright 2015 Peter Van Buren

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Locals Won’t Fight America’s War"

#1 Comment By bacon On December 10, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

The longer the mess in the Middle East goes on, the less I see how we have an interest in any particular outcome. I suppose one could say we mostly created, or at least midwifed, the situation and have some obligation to help with a resolution, but everything we’ve done so far has only made it worse and there seems little reason to think we will do any better if we keep at it. Our long term interests there are supporting Israel and insuring free flow of oil to keep prices under control. Israel can take care of itself, altho like everyone else they would like us to bear that burden, and oil prices are in danger of getting too low to sustain exploration and new drilling. No candidate from either party would agree, but we would be better off if we could find a way to disengage and wait for whatever comes.

#2 Comment By Mightypeon On December 10, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

Now, what may be possible is a Lebanonization of Syria. Legitimate loyalist, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish interests would be taken into account by a Lebanon like system (f.e. head of state is a Sunni, head of the army is an Alawi, foreign minister is a Kurd etc. particulars have to be negotiated and will depend on who controls what when negotiations start) with a joint US-Russian agreement to come down quite mightily on those who violate that deal from within. ISIS gets shafted, the Kurds in Syria get an extra serving of autonomy on top.

Why this could work:
1: Syrian Loyalists increasingly view the Kurds as a buffer against Turkish pretensions. Erdogans “Turkmen” in particular are right next to the Alawi heartland, and the loyalists are theoretically in favor of getting the Kurds into their “ruling minority coalition”. The Kurds of course are probably a stronger minority overall then the Alawis, and kind of have their own “minority coalition”. Given enough autonomy and a good deal of jointly shed blood, some “mega minority coalition” could well happen.
Alawi hopes of appeasing Turkey are very much dead, and that a strong “protokurdistan” protects against Turkey is something Loyalists can agree with.

2: For non Alawi minorities, anything is better then Genocide.

3: For the Sunnis, a sizeable segment of loyalist Sunnis exists, and a lot of “Sunnis” see themselfs as “Syrian” first and “Sunni” second. This agreement still means that their political situation would improve a bit.

4: The Alawis of course would lose compared to what they had before. Their leadership of Syrias minority coalition would be contested by the Kurds, and the Sunna would have an improved strength. However, the original islamist goal, outright genocide of the Alawis, will have been fought off, the same would be true for Sunni attempts to put the Alawis back into the “untouchable like” social position that Alawis had before Hafez al Assad.

From a loyalist pov., they were attacked by a vast coalition bent on their very extinction, and they not only survived but maintained some political and military power.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 10, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

But Peter, isn’t it not just the putative claque of unreliable allies and subversive satrapies that’s mendacious about Mideast war aims, but the Prime Mover, itself?

For recent reports have the stepped-up American presence sent to ostensibly bash ISIS, instead attacking Syrian government forces. Ash Carter let it slip two weeks ago, singing that same old song, ISIS isn’t a threat, the Russians are. It was convenient to allow ISIS to fight Assad with captured U.S. weaponry, ignore the satellite evidence of the oil exports to Turkey they used to finance their war with Assad, and now convenient to pretend to the public that escalation of direct involvement is to fight ISIS. Roll out the barrel bomb trope – Assad must go! The neocon list of nations to count coup against is still American policy, no matter the domestic PR bobbing, weaving and ducking.

#4 Comment By Nelson On December 10, 2015 @ 9:40 pm

Sounds like Shia is the way to go. They don’t want us there… we don’t want to be there. Mutually beneficial arrangement.

#5 Comment By Neal On December 11, 2015 @ 5:23 am

Since this “Put an Arab face on the conflict” strategy is so transparently silly, why has our wonderful political media not challenged the candidates on this point? They all have the same strategy and we all know it is nonsense. Yet somehow these two ideas are never discussed together in a debate or an interview. What’s up with that?

#6 Comment By Clint On December 11, 2015 @ 7:40 am

Rand Paul,
“If we are to eradicate ISIS once and for all, it’s time to take a hard look at what is fueling its growth: money.”

Follow The Money Trail.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 11, 2015 @ 8:06 am

Peter Van Buren makes a convincing case that neither Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, or Shias “see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.”

Van Buren writes: “The stark reality is that no one there — not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia — is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.”

If ISIS controls parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria and neither Iraq, nor Syria, nor the Gulf States, nor the Kurds, nor the Turks, nor “the Sunnis,” nor “the Shias,” are willing to fight to take those parts back (for Syria and for Iraq), then why should the US be fighting to take those parts back?

The US has no national interest in who controls western Iraq and eastern Syria.

Examined objectively, the US has no national interest in fighting ISIS.

The US should therefore stop bombing ISIS and bring the US troops home.

#8 Comment By Mightypeon On December 11, 2015 @ 8:28 am

Well, IS proudly declares itself to be the chief enemy of all things western, so in theory some national interest in crushing them exists.

Of course, the wests “efforts” have been a net positive for ISIS since they give them “anti-crusader props” without actually doing much damage.