The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.
If you want to know more about Suleimani, who may be the most feared man in the Middle East, read this long profile by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker which notes that in addition to directing Syria’s deadly offensive against rebel forces, “Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”
This, in short, is not someone the U.S. should knowingly be cooperating with even if we share an interest in rolling back ISIS advances in Iraq. The problem, even leaving moral qualms aside, is that Suleimani’s way of war is to employ indiscriminate violence to try to cow rebel forces into submission. In Iraq, such a strategy is likely to backfire by driving Sunnis deeper into ISIS’s camp.
The way to win in Iraq–to “degrade and destroy” ISIS as President Obama claims to be doing–is not to drop bombs in support of Suleimani’s thugs. The only way to truly roll back ISIS–to chase them to “the gates of hell,” wherever those may be found, as Joe Biden theatrically vows to do–is to ally with Sunni tribes who are chafing under ISIS’s heavyhanded rule but will stick with the terrorist group as long as it credibly postures as the defender of Sunnis against the “Persians,” as Anbari tribesmen refer to all Shiites. Normally to call Shiites “Persians” is an insult implying they’re not real Iraqis–but in the case of Suleimani the label fits because he really is Iranian, not Iraqi. Thus the more that resistance to ISIS is identified with Iranian interests, the less traction it will gain in Sunni areas.
The U.S. needs to tread carefully, supporting the Kurdish pesh merga, non-sectarian elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (which may mean principally the Iraqi Special Operations Forces), and Sunni tribes–not the murderous Shiite militias armed and directed by Suleimani. But in order to do that the U.S. needs more of an on-the-ground presence than we currently have: it’s impossible to accurately employ U.S. airpower in more than dribs and drabs without having more eyes on the ground than we currently possess.
I have been arguing for sending 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to act as Special Operations Forces and as advisers to the Iraqis and the Free Syrian Army–a view endorsed by no less than retired Marine General Tony Zinni, a widely revered former commandeer of Central Command (and a skeptic of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq).
Zinni is quoted as saying: “My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world. This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” Good question–and one that President Obama still needs to answer.