In the Middle East, No Permanent Friends. Only Permanent Interests.

President Obama may have indeed dropped the ball in Iraq by not forcing a status of forces agreement and departing too soon, leaving a vacuum.  He also dropped the ball in Syria by not quickly supporting the (non-terrorist) opposition to Assad.  Now competing interests in the Middle East are providing opportunities and pitfalls for the Obama administration’s effort or non-effort to salvage U.S. interests or at least not take any severe further losses there.

Several cross currents are working in the Middle East.  One is the Egyptian and Saudi push to marginalize or eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood (aka Hamas).  This creates an unusual de facto alliance between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on the one hand and Turkey, and Qatar, as supporters of The Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas on the other.  Turkey's and Qatar’s interests align with the Saudi group, however, when it comes to the Assad regime in Syria.  Turkey is interested in helping almost anyone fight Assad. ISIS (aka ISIL) is sensationally added to the mix by their military activities in Syria against Assad, in Lebanon against Hezb'allah, their rapid penetration into Iraq and their threat to Baghdad and the interests of Iran.

ISIS number some 10,000 to 30,000 fighters, including some foreign to any of the countries in the area.  They have had some effect against the Assad regime and some other interests in Syria and have moved rapidly in Iraq due to very poor performance of the Iraqi Army.  ISIS has also threatened territory in Jordan and Lebanon.  The ISIS personnel are not very nice guys and have ideas a lot like the Taliban in Afghanistan – but even more extreme.  They could also turn out to be friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas.  However, ISIS are also contributing to the interests of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey vs. Iran and Iran’s clients, Assad in Syria, and Hezb'allah in Lebanon, in the very old and possibly most important contest: Sunni vs. Shia.  The outcome probably desired by the Saudi group is that all of the ISIS gains in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq might provide a line, as far east as possible, somewhere in Iraq where everything to the west of that line will be Sunni and to the east Shiite.  In addition, the Saudi group would like to see defeat of the Alawite in Syria (Assad’s supporters) and their compatriots, Hezb'allah of Lebanon, both of whom are “clients” of Shiite Iran.  The Saudis must think they can control the remnants of ISIS along with the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood when the smoke clears.

Yet another position may be developing here.  Officials of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey have announced that Turkey will no longer oppose the creation of an independent Kurdistan.  At the same time, the Kurds, acting as an autonomous province of Iraq, are asking for and getting some air support from Iraqi and U.S. air assets in their attempt to keep ISIS out of their province.  The Kurds are also asking the U.S. for arms and ammunition so that they can provide the manpower on the ground to fight ISIS.  The Kurds have a long border to defend from ISIS.

Our long-term interests may well rest generally with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Kurdistan (if it emerges).  However, it may be very painful for us to realize that after working so hard to build up Iraq, we had to watch the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and loss of influence there.  Whereupon Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki purged his armed forces and government of capable Sunni leadership and threw in his lot with Iran and Shiite sectarian favoritism.  Iraq is now trying to retreat at least a little from this by giving Sunni and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad more visibility.  This may well be too little, too late for the Sunnis of Iraq.

We will now have to watch the cross-currents of  struggle intently and chose our own moves carefully to achieve a solution that might be more stable than the one we tried to install in Iraq, blinded as we were by considerations of unitary democracy and lines drawn after WWI.

The right solution for Iraq may well have been a loose federation.  Such a solution may still be possible.  Otherwise, we are likely to see a rump Iraq dominated by Iran, an enlarged Syria, an independent Kurdistan, and maybe even another Sunni country between Syria and Baghdad.  The political border drawings of post-WWI may now be revised as dictated by historical sectarian imperatives and divisions. 

We can take some lessons from all of this.  First, the drawing of borders and artificial creation of countries as was done after WWI is really only a guarantee of future problems. 

Second, we have erred in trying to enforce the misguided post-WWI borders and artificial states.  But we have erred even more by replacing power centers in the area with our own and then withdrawing and creating a power vacuum. 

Third, the current attempt to rectify the post-WWI folly involves force and the participation of some very unsavory players.  We have to quickly find a way to control or mitigate the activities of these players, or to assist someone in the area (like the Saudis or the Turks) to do that. 

Fourth, we must also realize that all of the players in the area (and some outside it) have interests, and we must therefore choose our actions carefully and with good knowledge of whose interests will be aided or opposed by such action.  We must decide which interests of ours coincide with or oppose the interests of other players and carefully time our actions so that we can serially achieve our goals.  Even if we have to support something we don’t like to get to a point where we can fix that, too.  We don’t have to get everything in the first bite or go directly to the endpoint.

Fifth, it may be essential to get more equipment to the Kurds and support them more from the air.  Who else in the area would be interested in this?  Suppose the Kurds were to agree to go on the defensive in the east and the offensive in the Kurdish areas of Syria adjacent to Turkey.  Would Turkey be interested in helping with this?

We have enough wherewithal to adequately support the Kurds, Israelis, and Jordanians without many, if any, of our fighters on the ground.  But at this point, timing might be everything in snatching victory from defeat in the Middle East.

Jeff Scribner is a retired Army officer and president of ASI Enterprises, Inc., an investment bank serving small- and medium-sized businesses.  He can be reached at jscribner@asienterprises.com.