In Ramadi, protesters raised black jihadi flags, representing the extremist Al Qaeda offshoot that had dominated the city during the American occupation. “We are a group called Al Qaeda!” a man shouted from a stage in the protesters’ camp. “We will cut off heads and bring justice!” The crowd cheered.And so, after so much by so many - that is where we find ourselves in mid-2014 in Iraq.
She looked at me with tired eyes. “We are going into—how do you say it?” she said.
“The abyss?” a colleague offered.
“Yes—the abyss,” Edwar said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
For this post at least, let's not look back at where we were, what was, and would-could have been - no - let's look at where we are. Facts on the ground have changed, leadership has changed, and the mood of the American people is at a different place.
A few basics first:
1. The Obama Administration has no desire to engage the US military in any foreign entanglements of significant size and duration. This is not a pacifist Presidency - it is a disentanglement one. It will avoid, retreat, and turn away. It does not care to think long term, and indeed, the true believers are ideologically incapable of seeing any long term positive outcome from foreign use of American military power in a decisive manner. It is as foreign to them as a fish is to beat-box.
2. Even if we had a President who decided to lead, it is too late for all that. The American people will not follow. If there is another large scale attack on the USA. the American people will only have time for the most punitive of expeditions - one that is exceptionally nasty, brutish, and short. This Administration will not have its name - we are talking about Obama & Kerry mind you - associated with something so kinetic as this. What would they do? Hard to say, but I doubt anything on order of what the American people would stomach. As a result, a few drone strikes perhaps, combined with a good squirt of ink and a swoosh away.
3. No one wants to die for lines drawn on a map by Brits and French over a century ago, not any more. It is their nature.
What was once the Most Dangerous Course-Of-Action just a decade ago - one that thousands of Americans and her allies died to avoid - has now become the most likely COA. What is that? Regional sectarian conflict starting with an Iraqi civil war including direct Iranian intervention from the Levant, to the Gulf States, eastern Saudi Arabia, down through to the Bab-el-Mandeb - with a few ethnic conflicts thrown in for good measure as it probably grows beyond a pure Sunni-Shia war. For Iraq - the once laughable Biden option of breaking the nation in to three parts seems inevitable. It isn't that Biden was right; at the time he was wrong - it is just that the calculus and facts on the ground have changed. With time, even Biden can be right.
In summary - everything that is being done on the ground right now makes the project of a united Iraq only an excuse for civil war. There will be a war if you want united Iraq or to break it in to parts - perhaps we should let them work it out for themselves as nations have done for thousands of years.
Europe has been at relative peace for decades largely for two reasons - it fought itself out in the 20th Century, and after round two, there was a massive amount of ethnic cleansing to finish out the years of blood letting. After the major migrations in Central Europe, there have been minor ones here and there as the process of dis-aggregation continues.
There are no longer Sudeten Germans. Polish towns now have Ukrainian names, and so on. In 2003, Serbs represented 95% Srebrenica's population.
We tried modern methods in the Middle East to create peace, perhaps it is best to let the old ways work themselves out. It is, after all, a local solution. This is not a radical concept;
... there’s a very good chance that a Middle East that was more politically segregated by ethnicity and faith might become a more stable and harmonious region in the long run.If we do not have the desire to deploy hundreds of thousands of American men and women for force our will on a people who do not want it - then what can we do?
Such segregation is an underappreciated part of Europe’s 20th-century transformation into a continent at peace. As Jerry Muller argued in Foreign Affairs in 2008, the brutal ethnic cleansing and forced migrations that accompanied and followed the two world wars ensured that “for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality,” which in turn sapped away some of the “ethnonational aspirations and aggression” that had contributed to imperialism, fascism and Hitler’s rise.
But this happened after the brutal ethnic cleansing that accompanied and followed two world wars. There’s no good reason to imagine that a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders could happen much more peacefully. Which is why American policy makers, quite sensibly, have preferred the problematic stability of current arrangements to the long-term promise of a Free Kurdistan or Baluchistan, a Greater Syria or Jordan, a Wahhabistan or Tripolitania.
If this is our path - to let go - yet still try to spin things a desired way in the broadest sense, then here are some things to consider. Yes, it will cost blood, but it will be their blood by the barrel and ours by the thimble. It won't turn out perfect ... but when does it ever?
1. Kurds: Release the Kurdish people. Let them carve out their state in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. They deserve it, and will do more with it than anyone else. If they can take and hold Mosul, Kirkut, and Arbil from ISIS and afterwords kick all Arab Sunni out of the area as the Poles did with Germans in East Pomerania, then so be it. Let them draw their own lines. Let the Shia and Sunni of Iraq fight over the rest. If Iran moves in, so be it as well. It won't be long until the Arab v. Persian animosity breaks that in to bits once the holy cities are secure.
2. Israel: Let them do what they must. Anyone that even hints that the Golan is not part of Israel proper should be laughed at. They deserve defendable borders. The Palestinian Arabs have had decades to be helpful they are not. Which leads us to ...
3. Palestinians: They had their chance and they lost. After the bloodbath of the Great Sunni-Shia war, there will be plenty of places in Arab Muslim lands for them to live. If all Gaza is for them only a place to kill Jews from - then they don't deserve it. If the West Bank is just a Gaza-lite, then most of them need to be removed. Give them walking money and a map. There are approximately 4-million Palestinians in the Gaza and West Bank. Since WWII, about 1-million Jews were kicked out of Muslim countries, and even more Christians. They have found lives elsewhere, so can you. Heck, my ancestors were mostly kicked out of their nations of their birth ... so get on with it, you've got lots of company. If Sunni can do it to Shia, Arab to Kurd, Muslim to everyone - then the Jews can too.
4. Jordan: We should do what we can to help protect this nation that has tried more than others to survive and be left alone with bad neighbors. With few resources or holy sites, she might have a chance. As a logical place for expelled Palestinians to go, it may not survive the chaos. Sad. I like their king.
5. Afghanistan: If there is a Shia-Sunni war, it will come to AFG in spades. There you have Shia in the body of the persecuted Hazara. All bets off. Get out of the way and let them fight it out, again.
6. Refugees: Under no circumstances let tens of thousands of refugees from the Shia-Sunni war come to the USA. Help refugee camps in other nations - but keep them out of here. You want that war to come here? Bring them here.
7. Gulf States: Many, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, have significant Shia populations. Others like UAE and Qatar are mostly populated by foreign nationals. What happens when things go sideways? Who knows. Let them work it out.
8: Saudi Arabia: The oil rich parts of Saudi Arabia is also the home of the persecuted Shia tribes. Along with the Gulf States, don't expect it be be a solid anti-Persian block.
There are your eight ponderables. Ugly and nasty? Yes, but when the power that kept much of the post-WWII structure in place decides to retreat from its role - that is what happens.
You either are a global superpower that bends other to its will, or you are not. If not, then events will bend in different directions.
The above is bad enough? How can it get worse?
1. Suez Canal to Indus River: That should be the east and west boundaries of the major areas of the Sunni-Shia war. If it bleeds over either border, you can more than double the death toll - especially the Indus. That could quickly turn in to a Indo-Pak war ... one that in the stress of a broader conflict has a good chance to go nuclear. At that point, it just becomes a general war; Sunni-Shia was just the entering argument.
2. Central Asia: Start with a return to a fighting Chechnya and expand from there. From Turkmenistan to East Turkestan ... do they continue their slumber, or will a leader emerge to add them to the bearded army from Khurasan?
3. Turkey: Will they be happy with a Kurdish state? Will they try to move forces in? Will the Turkish Kurds decide to take advantage ... or more likely, will the Turks act thinking they may?
There are wildcards:
1. China: What will they do when Americans are not willing to expend blood and treasure to ensure the free flow of their oil at market prices?
2. Russia: While they move to nibble on the western fringes of the old Russian/Soviet Empire - what will they do if the Sunni-Shia chaos moves radicalized Islam further north?
3. India: See the Indus River. It isn't like they and Pakistan aren't ready for another round ... and with well over a hundred million Muslims inside their borders, the tinder is there is the heat from outside is enough to light it off.
Where we are looking better:
1. Fracking: True, our larger economy would be significantly impacted from the global economic cratering that would result from such a war, but we have enough North American petroleum that we would not have to rely on the Middle East for fuel.
2. Not Europe: Europe does not have our resources, and has open border to a huge wave of people escaping the carnage such a war would unleash. The Western European nations are already stressed by the millions of non-productive and non-assimilated Muslims already in their nations - the younger generations radicalized and violent in ways their parents and grandparents never were. Add a few million with thousands already radicalized on the sectarian battlefields? 2nd and 3rd order effects for European politics could lose many of the demons that Continent has kept locked away.
Where we are weakest:
1. Economics: It didn't stop WWI, but our global economy would react in unknown ways to such a disruption to the Middle East. In nations that still have not recovered from 2008, there is little room to absorb impact.
2. Debt: The USA and most Western nations are so saddled with debt that even if they managed to find the political will to change course, there is not enough treasure and time to rebuild and reorient. Who would lend the money?
3. Political leadership: If I were wanting to smash and grab on a global scale - now is the time to do it. The USA has signaled weakness for years now - there is no reason to expect an Obama Administration to become a Bush43 or even Truman any time soon. Each crisis emphasizes this fact. Europe is no better, and there are no other players on the globe with the appetite, ability, or institutional culture to do anything but try to keep the beast from breaking in their own front door.
There you go. One morning's pondering on where this Sunni-Shia conflict from Syria and Iraq can potentially bring us.
The above is the Miss Mary Darkcloud thinking. What is the best case? Best case, Syria and Iraq contain their conflicts to their own borders. Besides a few special operations forces in the holy cities in southern Iraq, the Iranians stick to being a meddler. The Shia in the Gulf Stated, Saudi Arabia, and other places follow old habits and do nothing more than march now and then - place a small bomb here and there. Turkey demurs as is her nature; Russia gets lucky; China keeps thinking about the Pacific and growing old.
The USA? We manage to get through this all without getting too many people killed.
All we sacrificed for last decade? That milk was spilled and what should have been won't be. It is what the American people wanted. It is what we got. As we old-line Southerners can tell you - it is no good to go around whistling Dixie.