Viewpoint

A new strategy for Iraq and Syria

Iraqi soldiers have faced strong criticism for failing to fight the Islamic State.
Iraqi soldiers have faced strong criticism for failing to fight the Islamic State. WASHINGTON POST

It’s time for a new strategy in Iraq and Syria. It begins by admitting that the old borders are gone, that a unified Syria or Iraq will never be reconstituted, that the Sykes-Picot map is defunct.

We may not want to enunciate that policy officially. After all, it does contradict the principle that colonial borders be maintained no matter how insanely drawn, the alternative being almost universally worse. Nonetheless, in Mesopotamia, balkanization is the only way to go.

Because it has already happened and will not be reversed. In Iraq, for example, we are reaping one disaster after another by pretending that the Baghdad government – deeply sectarian, divisive and beholden to Iran – should be the center of our policy and the conduit for all military aid.

Look at Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi. The Iraqi army is a farce. It sees the enemy and flees, leaving its weapons behind. Our own secretary of defense admitted that the “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”

We can train them forever. The problem is one of will. They don’t want to fight. And why should they? They are led by commanders who are corrupt, sectarian and incompetent.

What to do? Redirect our efforts to friendly forces deeply committed to the fight, beginning with the Kurds, who have the will, the skill and have demonstrated considerable success. This year alone, they have taken back more than 500 Christian and Kurdish towns from the Islamic State. Unlike the Iraqi army, however, they are starved for weapons because, absurdly, we send them through Baghdad, which sends along only a trickle.

More good news comes from another battle line. Last week, the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front, backed by and trained in Jordan, drove the Syrian government out of its last major base in eastern Daraa province, less than 60 miles from Damascus.

These successes suggest a new U.S. strategy. Abandon our anachronistic fealty to the central Iraqi government and begin supplying the Iraqi Kurds in a direct, 24-hour Berlin-style airlift. And in Syria, intensify our training, equipping and air support for the now-developing Kurdish safe zone. Similarly, through Jordan, for the FSA Southern Front.

In theory, we should be giving similar direct aid to friendly Sunni tribesmen in Iraq whose Anbar Awakening, brilliantly joined by Gen. David Petraeus’ surge, utterly defeated the Islamic State progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006-07. The problem is, having been abandoned by us once, when Obama liquidated our presence in 2011, why should the Sunnis ever trust us again?

As for the Iraqi army, we can go through the motions, but the best we can hope for is wobbly containment, ultimately guaranteed by Iranian proxies. Not a happy prospect, but the best that we can do having forfeited our dominant position in Iraq in 2011.

Our objective right now is to defeat the Islamic State and to ensure the fall of the Assad regime. That does not require an American invasion. It does require recognizing reality and massively supporting our few genuine allies on the ground.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testified that we won’t quite meet our objective of training 24,000 Iraqi troops by this fall. Why? A recruitment problem. Iraqis don’t seem to want to join. We are 17,000 short.

Charles Krauthammer’s email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

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