Loose Canons

Caliphaking It in Iraq

Iran and Russia are having something to do with that.

By 7.7.14

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It’s more than a little pretentious for the jihadis of ISIS — the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” itself an aspirational title — to claim they have established a new Islamic caliphate. But so they did proclaim last week, and in his inauguration address Mr. Caliph Ibrahim — aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — told the assembled crowd that they should use the month of Ramadan to escalate their jihad against “the enemies of God,” according to a video posted online on Saturday.

The claim of a new caliphate is a power grab: a claim to have re-established an Islamic empire that hasn’t existed since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. By making that overtly religious claim, ISIS was asking that all Muslims — at least Sunni Muslims — join and fight for it. Even before the claim to a caliphate, ISIS had attracted many jihadis from Europe and some from the United States.

ISIS and al-Baghdadi are the biggest spillover of the war in Syria, now in its fourth year. Having been fought to a standstill in Syria by Syrian and Iranian forces (backed by Russia), the ISIS thugs have discovered a more receptive environment among Sunni Iraqis, and thanks to that reception — and the unwillingness of the Iraqi forces to fight for their government — they’ve managed to seize roughly one-third of Iraq in addition to the areas of Syria that they have been able to hold.

And now it appears that ISIS may be held to the gains it has made in Iraq not by Maliki’s forces but by those of Iran and possibly Russia as well. Yesterday’s Washington Post echoed a report by IRNA, the Iranian News Agency, that an Iranian pilot had been killed In Iraq. Late last month, both Russia and Belarus reportedly began delivering Su-27 fighter-bombers to Iraq. The Russians have denied that their pilots would be flying the aircraft in action for the Iraqis, but that denial rings false for two reasons. First, the Su-27 is a highly complex aircraft that Iraqi pilots would have to train to fly for months — both on the ground and in the air — before they could fly in combat. Second, we have to remember that Russian pilots flew MiG fighters for the North Vietnamese for the same reason: you can’t put inexperienced pilots in those aircraft and expect them to be able to even take off and land without major accidents.

So Iranian and probably Russian pilots are flying combat missions against ISIS in Iraq. That will mean that ISIS’s “caliphate” will be limited to the areas of Syria and Iraq they’ve already conquered, and some of their gains will be rolled back. ISIS, like its parent, al-Qaida, is funded in part by radical Sunni regimes (including Saudi Arabia) and has reportedly captured hundreds of millions of dollars in banks its forces have seized. They aren’t going to fade away.

This all adds up to a rolling stalemate in both Syria and Iraq. The Alewite regime of Bashar Assad — despite the enormous support it has received from Iran and Russia — hasn’t been able to defeat the insurgent forces backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. The Maliki regime won’t be able to do more, which in turn will draw more Iranian and Russian forces into the fight to ensure that Baghdad itself isn’t conquered. Neither Iran nor Russia wants to give up Iran’s ability to control the Maliki government and retain control of the southern Iraqi oil fields.

Those air forces will have the same problem that we would have in flying against ISIS. The ISIS fighters, as Hamas in Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon, will easily hide among innocent civilians, but the Russian and Iranian air forces will be a lot less discriminating than ours in striking civilian populations to kill the jihadis. That creates a Vietnam-like theater of battle for them, with the Sunni population of the ISIS-held portions of Iraq becoming more loyal to the Sunni forces of ISIS than to the Shiite forces of Maliki and Iran. The only remaining factor in the Iranian-Russian effort to defeat ISIS in both Syria and Iran is to what degree they are sufficiently ruthless to rout the ISIS forces regardless of civilian casualties. The Soviets tried that for a decade in Afghanistan from which they withdrew in defeat in 1989.

This is a recipe for the continuation of the religious war between Iraq and Iran that lasted from 1980-1988.

This is Obama’s Middle East. His policy has been a series of missed opportunities, bad decisions, and mistakes that will prevent any restoration of stability for many years. What could have been an Iranian revolution in 2009 was left to die on the streets of Tehran. By the time we withdrew abruptly from Iraq — President Bush’s experiment in nation-building having failed — the Maliki government was so closely tied to Iran that, to be fair, Obama had little choice other than to retreat.

But he did so without regard to the facts on the ground and left other American allies to fend for themselves. Obama disregarded those facts in making policy. Instead of tying us more closely to Jordan and Israel he left them to face the inevitable split of Iraq into the Sunni quasi-state and terrorist safe haven of the ISIS “caliphate,” the Kurdish state in the north, and the Iran-dominated Shiite quasi-state now ruled by Maliki. He is doing the same in Afghanistan, which will split into tribal regions alternately dominated by Iran and Pakistan. And Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran will ensure it becomes a nuclear power at its leisure after it finishes building sufficient air and ground defenses to prevent Israel or the United States from destroying its nuclear weapons-producing facilities.

Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya wasn’t justified by any U.S. national security interest there. That intervention didn’t, as it was planned to do, succeed in driving terrorists from that nation. Instead, Libya is another terrorist safe haven which, but for the geographical distance, could align itself with the ISIS faux-caliphate to create a larger and more dangerous terrorist power. We had no national security interest in toppling Assad’s terrorist regime in favor of the terrorist Syrian rebels. Then the Iranians and Russians came to Assad’s aid and made intervention entirely pointless. The Saudis were pleading for help in their effort to prevent an Iranian satellite being created in Syria. Obama declined, with the effect of driving the Saudis out of our orbit. After campaigning and being elected to a seat on the UN Security Council, they suddenly declined saying their action was a message to the United States, not the UN. Though the Saudis’ reliability as an ally has been highly questionable, Obama engineered another geopolitical defeat for America.

The Middle East will remain in flames for the foreseeable future with the fighting flowing over from Iraq and Syria into other countries. Israel and Jordan are especially vulnerable. Jordan shares borders with Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia so it is a logical tertiary battleground. Jordan and Iraq border Israel, which is now suffering what may be the beginning of another “intifada,” a well-organized and coordinated terrorist campaign. Its vulnerability is heightened considerably by Obama’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian policy. It is entirely logical for the Israelis to believe that ISIS forces would join a new Palestinian terror campaign.

To the degree ISIS forces are stalemated, they will seek other targets in those countries as well as in Europe and America. Without the stabilizing influence of America, which Obama has abandoned, there is no limit to the reach of this conflict or the slaughter in the Middle East.

In a White House event last month, Obama said, “The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the rest of his ilk would be out of business if any part of that bizarre self-delusion were true.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.