In the 13 years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. has fought two land wars, suffered 6,000 combat deaths and expended $4-6 trillion. The costly effort has produced an Afghan government that remains shaky, one beset by corruption and managerial problems. Iraq’s experiment with democracy, begun with great fanfare in 2006, was almost ruined due to former Prime Minister Maliki’s centralization of power and mismanagement. His actions negated much of what the Americans had accomplished. Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haydar al-Abbadi, is attempting to put together a government, one that will have to make the needed political repairs or else watch the Iraqi state disintegrate.
The fighting that began in Syria in the spring of 2011 has, according to UN estimates, resulted in over 190,000 deaths and a massive population dislocation. As a consequence of the stalemated warfare between the government of Bashar al-Assad and a mixed bag of rebel groups, the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been able to take over large swaths of territory. As the horrendous behavior of ISIS attracted world attention, the U.S. began putting together a coalition to suppress it. The 27- country coalition faces a daunting task in smashing the heavily armed and motivated ISIS fighters.
If ISIS is pushed out of Iraq, it will still have its base in Syria. With the ability to fade into the general population, ISIS fighters are unlikely to lay down their arms or surrender. With no U.S. forces on the ground, it will be up to the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish units and the wobbly Iraqi Amy to destroy them with the help of coalition logistics and air support. In this unpredictable situation, a way still has to be found to facilitate a change of government in Syria. U.S. air power also has to avoid becoming involved in unrelated reprisal actions for the Kurds and Shias against the Sunni Arabs.
ISIS is an enemy of the Shias and other minority sects. It wants to recreate an idealized Islamic Caliphate, a society that may have existed long ago. Its dreamy aspiration does attract disaffected Sunnis. ISIS is comprised of militias, terrorists, religious fanatics and savvy extortionists who know how to manage occupied enterprises, instill fear and extort money. It controls a desolate, sparsely populated region stretching from central Syria to western Iraq. For all its ferocity, ISIS is not strong enough at this time to invade neighboring countries.
Americans tend to view the regime run by the Ayatollahs in Iran as being opposed to Sunni jihadist movements such as ISIS. Despite the hostility, Iran has often been willing to ignore the actions of the jihadists as long as Iran was not the target. At other times, they have fought, Iran battled the Taliban and al-Qaeda from 1994-2001. In 2001, Iran adopted a gentler approach to the jihadist matter. Iran’s anti-jihadist strategy has been fashioned by events, its regional aspirations and its own interests.
Iran has become worried about possible ISIS involvement with Iran’s minorities. The government is watching things closely, especially Iran’s Sunnis. Although Iran has influence with Iraq’s Shias and Kurds and supports the al-Assad government in Syria, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has announced that Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. It has, however, arrested Afghan and Pakistani nationals passing through Iran on their way to join ISIS. There is a possibility that Iran may provide covert help in controlling the ISIS threat.
Iran and the P5+1 UN negotiators are currently wrangling over how many centrifuges Iran can keep in operation. The current deadline for reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran is in November. In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has conservative opponents who think a nuclear settlement will open the door to other reforms that might weaken their hold on power. Polls taken in Iran show that 70% of the population will support dismantling around half of the centrifuges while 75% oppose limits on research activity.
The poll results indicate that the suspicion promoted by Iran’s conservatives still has a fair amount of support among Iran’s population. The conservatives argue that the West is the problem. It wants to keep Iran weak and dependent by blocking the country’s access to advanced science. The UN negotiators want to ensure Iran will be unable to build a nuclear bomb. Rouhani needs an agreement that he can sell at home and get a reluctant Ayatollah Khamenei to approve. Hopefully, if an agreement is reached, it will be one in which the incentives to comply can easily overcome the desire to cheat.
When the Camp David Accords were successfully negotiated in September 1978 by Carter, Begin and Sadat, it was regarded as a big step forward on the road to peace. Over the years, other peace attempts have flopped. The region’s zero sum politics, regional rivalries, sectarian tensions and economic issues have played a part. Despite past attempts, the vexing Israel-Palestinian issue has remained unresolved. In a region where problems seem to change as fast as viruses mutate, the campaign to go after ISIS will be grueling, bringing with it more unanticipated consequences.