Iran and Syria move in on Iraq

After noting that Iranian weapons and military advisers are flooding into Iraq, while Syrian warplanes conduct air raids into Iraqi territory in the north, Fox News describes the “smart power” response of the utterly helpless Obama Administration:

The apparent involvement, however, of Iran as well as Syria is raising red flags in the Obama administration, with top officials voicing concern that their involvement could create a “flashpoint” that deepens sectarian tensions in the country. A senior U.S. official also confirmed to Fox News earlier this week that there are indications Syrian aircraft launched airstrikes against Sunni militant targets in Iraq on Monday.

Asked about these developments on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry warned about actions “that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension.”

He added: “It’s very important that nothing takes place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flashpoint with respect to the sectarian divide,” Kerry said, speaking in Brussels in the middle of a multi-country tour aimed at easing the Iraq crisis.

Kerry, noting reports of Iran and Syria intervention, stressed the need for a new Iraqi government, so it can make decisions without “outside forces moving to fill a vacuum.”

Speaking in Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also said that the solution to the Iraq crisis does not involve militias or the “murderous Assad regime” in Syria.

You forgot to tell Iran and Syria they were on “the wrong side of history,” Josh.  That’s the kind of high-megaton verbiage that usually makes brutal dictatorships forget all about their ambitions!

I’m not the biggest fan of the current Iraqi government, but John Kerry is demonstrating his usual loose grip on reality by thinking that a new face or two in Baghdad will push Iran and Syria out of the country, to say nothing of the ISIS terrorist invaders.  The “vacuum” they’re all rushing forward to fill is the howling void left by Barack Obama and John Kerry’s “leadership.”  It’s the space where American influence used to be, and since Obama’s ideology and domestic political concerns blinded him to the importance of making a modest investment in preserving that influence, it’s probably gone forever.

Human Rights Watch says it just uncovered two mass graves near Tikrit, filled with Iraqi police, soldiers, and civilians.  When you’re facing an existential threat from people like that, it’s not hard to choose between John Kerry droning on about how nothing should take place to contribute to extremism and sectarian divides… and the Shiite totalitarians dropping bombs on your head-chopping enemies.  Three hundred American advisers are setting up a command post in Baghdad, but they’re trying to play catch-up in a very bad situation, and if they never leave Baghdad, the Iraqis could be forgiven that their primary purpose has more to do with protecting the American embassy during an evacuation.  (If it comes to that, we can all unite in hoping that the embassy receives such protection.  But the point is that we cannot afford to let it come to that.)

If you’re Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki or one of his Shiite colleagues, you can see Syria and Iran acting on the basis of far more reliable interests than whatever United Nations pamphlet the U.S. Secretary of State happens to be reading out of today.  Assad’s already at war with ISIS.  Barack Obama came within one weekend of providing them with an air force.  Tehran has been trying to erase the American vision of Iraq since Day One.  A partnership with them might provide a fighting chance of expelling ISIS, wiping out the Saddam dead-enders who crawled out from under their rocks to throw in with the black-flag crew, and cracking down on uppity Sunnis.  Barack Obama, on the other hand, is primarily good for speeches explaining how none of this is his fault.

The Fox report concludes with some more White House tongue-clucking about how Syria and Iran totally stink as geopolitical allies, no matter how many of your enemies they’re prepared to kill:

The White House said intervention by Syria was not the way to stem the insurgents, who have taken control of several cities in northern and western Iraq.

“The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed [ISIS] to thrive in the first place,” said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman. “The solution to Iraq’s security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime, but the strengthening of the Iraqi security forces to combat threats.”

“Strengthening the Iraq security forces to combat threats?”  ISIS has occupied several cities.  They’re a bit more than a “threat,” wouldn’t you say?  This isn’t like calling in the mall cops to eject a couple of troublemakers from the food court.

For those who say it’s all just a rotten mess of foreign garbage we should stay clear of – let Syria and Iran knock themselves out dealing with it! – there’s the long-term problem of a realigned Middle East in which the United States has no influence at all.  If you’re happy with the idea of losing the struggle Jimmy Carter tried to lose four decades ago, you’re not thinking far enough ahead.  (There’s a huge gathering of Iranian resistance figures in Paris this weekend, and they’re confident the mullahs will soon be overthrown.  That might be optimistic, but wouldn’t it be nice if America was sitting in a strong and secure Iraq, and helping to destabilize the theocracy before it gets nuclear weapons, rather than the other way around?)

But if you don’t want to plan moves in the long game – and every foreign-policy team should be thinking that way – there’s plenty of near-term horror to worry about.  Even the witless Obama Administration, fresh off a closed-door meeting with the Senate in which they admitted they didn’t have a clue these ISIS chaps might be trouble, is now warning that the decidedly non-decimated al-Qaeda threat might be a contagion that spreads into Jordan and Israel.  From Eli Lake at the Daily Beast:

The terror group that???s taken over major portions of Iraq and Syria won???t be content with roiling those two countries, senior Obama administration officials told Senators in a classified briefing this week. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) also has its eyes on Jordan; in fact, its jihadists are already Tweeting out photos and messages claiming a key southern town in Jordan already belongs to them.

An ISIS attack on Jordan could make an already complex conflict nightmarishly tangled, the officials added in their briefing. If the Jordanians are seriously threatened by ISIS, they would almost certainly try to enlist Israel and the United States into the war now engulfing the Middle East.

???The concern was that Jordan could not repel a full assault from ISIS on its own at this point,??? said one senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another Senate staff member said the U.S. officials who briefed the members responded to the question of what Jordan???s leaders would do if they faced a military onslaught from ISIS by saying: ???They will ask Israel and the United States for as much help as they can get.???

In a matter of months, while the Obama State Department was telling everyone the great foreign-policy issue of the age is global warming, the situation degenerated into this:

If ISIS were to draw Israel into the regional conflict it would make the region???s strange politics even stranger. In Iraq and Syria, Israel???s arch nemesis, Iran, is fighting ISIS. Israel, on the other hand, has used its air force from time to time to bomb Hezbollah positions in Syria and Lebanon, the Lebanese militia aligned with Iran. If Israel were to fight against ISIS in Jordan, it would become a de facto ally of Iran, a regime dedicated to its destruction.

But Jordan is also an important ally for Israel. It is one of two countries (along with Egypt) to have a peace treaty with the Jewish state. Jordanian security forces help patrol the east bank of the Jordan River that borders Israel and both countries share intelligence about terrorist groups in the region.

For now the one thing Iran and Israel do agree on is that U.S. intervention in Iraq is risky. Khamenei has told Obama to just stay out. Netanyahu was more subtle, warning that Obama should not promise Iran anything in the nuclear negotiations that might entice its cooperation in Iraq. His advice was for Obama to weaken both sides.

But behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats have told their American counterparts that Israel would be prepared to take military action to save the Hashemite Kingdom.

The contagion could easily spread far beyond the Middle East, too.  Someone claiming to be aligned with ISIS has taken to posting photos of suicide vests on Twitter and urging the group’s followers – many of whom have Western passports – to “enter U.S. cities and marketplaces with these vests and detonate them, killing American citizens,” or if self-detonation isn’t your bag, maybe just poison the American water supply.  Sure, this could all just be a bunch of big talk from some random hothead, but serious analysts have been warning that ISIS has both means and desire to launch attacks on Western soil.  (It’s an open question whether the group’s leadership is sane enough to realize such provocations would be counter-productive at the moment.)

This is why you can’t make up foreign policy on a day-to-day basis, or premise your strategy on the assumption that a debonair President can fix everything with a couple of speeches.  We should never have let ourselves be maneuvered into a position where all of our options are this bad.  Among other things, friends and allies with long memories will remember this happened, and make their plans on the safe assumption that it could happen again.  A year ago, Barack Obama was boasting that al-Qaeda was decimated and on the run.  Today, we’re making last-ditch plans to save Jordan from their clutches.

Update: Guess who else is capitalizing on the American leadership vacuum to get a piece of the action in Iraq?  In a BBC interview, Iraqi PM Maliki said air strikes could have halted ISIS’ advance across the Syrian border, but not only did the Obama Administration refuse requests for assistance, they wouldn’t even sell the Iraqis their own planes… so he’s getting them from other sources, including Russia.

He said that the process of buying US jets had been “long-winded” and that the militants’ advance could have been avoided if air cover had been in place.

Isis and its Sunni Muslim allies seized large parts of Iraq this month.

Mr Maliki was speaking to the BBC’s Arabic service in his first interview for an international broadcaster since Isis – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – began its major offensive.

“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract [with the US],” Mr Maliki said.

“We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian to secure the air cover for our forces; if we had air cover we would have averted what had happened,” he went on.

He said Iraq was acquiring second-hand jet fighters from Russia and Belarus “that should arrive in Iraq in two or three days”.

He also said Iraq “welcomed” the air strikes from Syria: “They carry out their strikes and we carry out ours, and the final winners are our two countries.”  No prizes for guessing who the final loser will be.