If we are going to win in the Middle East, we have to get the context right. As I wrote in The War Against the Terror Masters, long before the invasion of Iraq, we cannot just “do” a country like Iraq, or today, Syria, and then move on. That’s one of the strategic mistakes Bush, Rice, Hadley, Cheney and Rumsfeld made. They viewed Iraq in isolation. They thought they could just “do Iraq,” and then consider their options. We then belatedly discovered (even though our enemies publicly announced what they were going to do) that Iraq and Afghanistan could not have decent security so long as Syria and Iran actively supported terrorists in those countries. American soldiers and countless Iraqi and Afghan civilians have paid a terrible price for our failure of vision.Perhaps Obama's foreign policy team led by Hillary Clinton is understanding that. And is changing strategy to protect the US.
The regional war has expanded, but we still look at each battle field in isolation, rather than seeing the war whole:
•Israel has been invaded, and is under constant rocket attack;
•The shooting war in Libya, where American pilots and trainers conducted operations, and others trained and helped organize the anti-Qadaffi campaign;
•We have declared diplomatic and economic war on the Assad regime in Syria, just as we began with Qadaffi’s regime in Libya;
•The war against the Kurds: Turkey now routinely bombs and invades PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, while Iran shells and invades the same region. We are directly involved on this battlefield; we’ve been providing intelligence to the Turks on the Kurds since at least 2007;
•The violence against our troops, and against our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is relentlessly increasing.
To date, insofar as we have had a regional strategy, it has largely been based on wishful thinking, even when applied to more than one problem at a time. The administration hoped that Syria would choose friendship with us rather than strategic alliance with Tehran, that Tehran would accept our “outstretched hand” rather than continue to wage its 32-year old terror war against us, that Turkey would be our proxy ambassador to Syria and Iran, helping us to “peel off’ Assad from the mullahs and to convince Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to be reasonable about nukes, and that Obaman diplomacy would bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. None of it worked.
Ledeen highlights a report by Stephen Hayes and Tom Jocelyn in the Weekly Standard that may be indicative of such a change:
On July 28, the Treasury Department designated six al Qaeda operatives involved in shipping money and men from the Persian Gulf to senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The move targets a node of the global terror network that is critical to its overall strength, freezing any of its financial assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting any transactions with the operatives. Of the many conduits for al Qaeda funds and personnel across the world, the U.S. government believes this one is the most important.Indeed it does, provided it follows up on this action. The first step in correcting a mistake is to admit that you have made a mistake in the first palce. The Obama foreign policy establishment might be quietly doing just that. For which it should be applauded.
“This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives,” according to Treasury. “Without this network, al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and collect funds would be severely damaged,” an Obama administration official involved in the designations tells The Weekly Standard.
The centrality of this network to al Qaeda’s day-to-day operations makes the Obama administration’s move significant. What makes it extraordinary is the network’s partner: Iran.
“There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate,” Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen told The Weekly Standard in an interview last week. “There’s no dispute in the intelligence community on this.”
Two of the al Qaeda leaders named by Treasury are especially important. Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian, has operated in Iran since 2005 “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Khalil “moves money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan for the benefit of al -Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.” According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s safe house show Rahman was planning a terrorist attack to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Treasury says Rahman was “appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.”
The Iranian regime is helping al Qaeda in other ways, too. The U.S. campaign of drone attacks in -Pakistan over the past three years has taken out many key al Qaeda planners, leaving holes in the group’s hierarchy. “Al Qaeda is desperate for midlevel capacity and senior level managers,” says a senior administration official. “The most ready cadre of those types of al Qaeda personnel—operative types and senior-level managers—are in Tehran.”
Those are remarkable claims. They carry extra significance because they come from an administration that has spent more than two years attempting to engage the Iranian regime on its nuclear weapons program and saying very little about its support for jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration deserves credit for this new willingness to confront Iran.
Read the entire Weekly Standard piece. It goes substantially into the history of cooperation between Iran and al Qaida. I've been amazed over the years at the conviction of foreign affairs analysts that Sunni and Shi'ite groups never mix. As in, ever. The reality is that they work together when they feel it suits their interests to do so.
So, where do we go from here? Ledeen has some thoughts:
The short march to the best available outcome right now runs through Damascus to Tehran. Regime change in Syria and Iran would be a godsend for our travails in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for the increasingly irrelevant peace process. Unlike Libya, we should not resort to military means to bring down Assad and Khamenei; in addition to sanctions, we need to support political revolution in both countries. And while we’re at it, American support for the Kurds is long overdo. They are critical components of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Despite ongoing spats, they have long cooperated in a regional strategy aimed at gaining autonomy in all four countries, pending the opportunity to test the possibility of a Kurdish state. They are very well informed, and they are good fighters (ask the Turks and the Iranians, both of whom are badly bloodied when they venture into Kurdish territory). The Kurds should be part of our political strategy.Once again, he has it exactly right.
When Obama says that the future of Iran and Syria will be determined by the people of those countries, he never says what we all know to be true: those people have already decided what they want, and we should help them achieve it. Our successful support of dissident democratic groups in the Soviet Empire provides many of the guidelines: build strike funds for Syrian and Iranian workers; find ways to help the dissidents communicate with one another to organize more effective protests and confrontations; make their cause a daily talking point for all our national security officials, civilian and military, both in their statements to media reporters and via our national radio and tv stations from VOA to Farda.
As we do that, we need to have a serious conversation with the Saudis. King Abdullah was one of the first national leaders to yank his ambassador from Damascus, demonstrating his disgust with Assad, and it may well have been a turning point for others as well. But the kingdom remains the major financier of radical Islamic mosques and schools (and a forthcoming book in England revives suspicions of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 operation), which are an assembly line—not the only one, but certainly the biggest–for the next generation of terrorists. That has to stop, and we need to make them stop it. That demarche, and whatever actions necessary to accomplish its goals, must be high on our strategic to-do list.
Yes, it’s a lot to do. But it’s a big war. And we’re a big country. It’s a challenge worthy of us, and we should embrace it.