US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter recently told a Washington committee that the military was falling far short of its training goals in Iraq.
“Our training efforts in Iraq have thus far been slowed by a lack of trainees,” Carter said a week after President Barack Obama announced that he’d be sending more advisers there to train forces to fight Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh).
“We simply haven’t received enough recruits.”
Meanwhile, the US training program for Syrian to counter ISIS has not yet produced a single fighter.
The training failures highlight a massive contradiction that is crippling Obama’s strategy to combat Sunni extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
While the president insists that Sunnis are a crucial part of the plan to defeat ISIS, the administration is achieving little as the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad slaughters Sunnis in droves and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad avoids arming and training Sunnis out of fear that they might one day rise up against Baghdad.
At the heart of this growing contradiction is Iran. Tehran, which is Syria’s primary ally in the Middle East and close to the powers that be in Iraq, is actively opposed to Sunni involvement.
Consequently, the US finds itself stifled in the fight against ISIS at the same time officials are engaging in negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal.
‘Emboldened Tehran and exacerbated regional tensions’
While loathe to empower Sunnis, Iran is contributing Shia militias to the ground fight in Iraq and Syria while pulling strings in Baghdad and Damascus.
“Iran and its proxies in Baghdad will never voluntarily allow the Sunnis to be armed and trained because [the Sunnis] are perceived by the former as a strategic threat,” Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, told Business Insider in an interview.
“If Baghdad continues to drag its feet, then this whole effort is doomed,” Khedery said. “You can never have peace if Baghdad doesn’t want the Sunnis and the Kurds fully integrated as first-class citizens.”
Khedery said the US needs a broader regional strategy in the Middle East because Iraq doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“You need to confront and contain Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and other radical militant Islamists, you need to embrace the Gulf countries and Turkey so that they stop supporting some of the radical Sunni groups because they feel like they have no alternative to defend themselves against Iran, and you need to stop dealing with the Middle East in half-measures,” Khedery said.
“You need to deal with it as if it were a sucking chest wound in a very important part of the world.”
But the president’s desire for a successful nuclear deal with Iran is likely getting in the way of a broad US strategy in the Middle East.
“Obama, because of the dramatic failures in every meaningful other part of his foreign policy, views the Iran deal as his ‘Nixon goes to China moment,’ his big legacy item,” Khedery said. “So he and his team have been unwilling to do anything that would remotely upset the Iranians. This has emboldened Tehran and exacerbated regional tensions.”
The dire need to train Sunnis
Owen West, who was on a team of advisers training soldiers in Iraq in 2006, wrote an editorial this week for The New York Times predicting that Obama’s strategy would fail.
“Even with a thousand American advisers, Shiite soldiers today won’t fight for desolate Sunni lands,” West wrote. “If we’re committed to a yearslong effort, money should flow directly to the end recipient of our choosing — whether that be the Iraqi Army, Kurds or Sunni tribesmen. Our current half-strategy opposes one enemy — the Islamic State — but benefits a much bigger threat, Iran.”
West also pointed out that the US didn’t train a single Sunni last year, which experts have said is a major problem.
“Baghdad is deciding who gets trained by the Americans,” Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq, told Business Insider last week. “You can send more American advisers, but until they’re training Sunnis they’re not going to make a difference in the fight against ISIS.”
Meanwhile, Baghdad has been allowing Iran’s Shia militias to effectively lead the ground fight against ISIS in Iraq. These militias have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians, which could help turn Sunni public opinion toward ISIS as the group markets itself as the only effective protector of Sunnis in the Middle East.
“The political solution is to have a unified, stable, neutral Iraqi central government that represents the interests of the people,” Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Business Insider last week. “If we have a Shia militia inside Iraq that is loyal to Tehran, that is not helping achieve the political outcome. From a military perspective, the Shia militias are a good thing. From a political perspective, it’s destabilizing.”
David Ignatius of The Washington Post pointed out that Sunni tribal leaders don’t trust Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, and say they won’t fight with Baghdad until the government checks the power of the Shia militias.
Sheik Zaydan al-Jibouri, a tribal leader from Ramadi, told Ignatius that the US needs to give Iraqi Sunnis more political power as ISIS wages a campaign to “win hearts and minds” and grow its base of support.
‘The Assad regime’s extraordinary brutality remains one of ISIS’s most effective recruitment tools’
In Syria, the lack of coherent US policy is even more clear.
Earlier this month, the official Twitter account of the US embassy in Syria fired off a string of tweets condemning Assad’s bombing of civilians and noting that his regime was likely conducting airstrikes in tandem with ISIS’ advance on Aleppo
Assad claims to be fighting ISIS, but he is also facilitating ISIS militants in areas where ISIS is fighting nationalist rebels who are a more immediate threat to Assad’s regime.
The US hasn’t acted on these suspicions, despite publicly condemning both ISIS and the Syrian regime.
“The president feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said recently.
The reluctance seems to go back to the Obama administration’s relationship with Iran. In addition to the nuclear deal on the table, the US is reportedly concerned that Iran-backed Shia militias could pose a threat to US forces in Iraq if tensions rise in Syria.
“The Syrian-American community asked the Obama administration for airstrikes on ISIS near Marea [in northern Syria] many months ago,” Mohammed al-Ghanem, the senior political adviser for the Syrian American Council, told The Daily Beast recently. “We were rebuffed for the astounding reason that aiding the rebels in Aleppo would hurt Assad, which would anger the Iranians, who might then turn up the heat on US troops in Iraq.”
Even the Syrian rebels whom the US is training are told not to fight the brutal dictator they took up arms against. ISIS, however, does let its fighters take on the Assad regime when it’s opportune, and the group’s propaganda is quick to take credit for attacks on regime troops.
Charles Lister, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, noted in an analysis published this week that “the Assad regime’s extraordinary brutality remains one of ISIS’s most effective recruitment tools.”
“The United States has consistently failed to resolutely confront the Assad regime,” Lister wrote. “Such indecision serves only to further embolden the jihadi view that the West cares little for the Sunni Muslim world.”
So as ISIS settles into Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration’s Sunni-centric strategy to combat the group fails to gain traction as Iran dictates the ISIS fight.