Observations on the Plan for Iraq and Syria

This afternoon I spent an hour and fifteen minutes on a conference call with three “senior administration officials” who gave me a preview of Obama’s speech and strategy. I spent most of the time on the call pulling my hair out.

I am very concerned about the decision to escalate and in particular to get involved in Syria. Very concerned.

But, first, let me give you the good news. The good news is that this policy has been set by some very, very smart well-intentioned people who are not bullshitting to deceive the country into supporting their plan. They have been deliberate and methodical, and the steps they have taken so far have made a lot of sense and have saved a lot of lives.

Here’s what they are getting right. First, they couldn’t do anything in Iraq until Prime Minister Maliki was gone because they would have been perceived as the Shia’s air force. They forced him out and they did it in consultation and with the consent of both Sunni powers and Iran. There are important Sunnis in Iraq, like the governor of Anbar Province, who are eager to work with us and with the new government in Baghdad. As a result of vigorous efforts in recent weeks, for the first time in a long time the regional powers are coming together rather than plotting to destroy each other. The people they are sending to Iraq and the strikes they are carrying out are being done at the request and with the blessing of the Iraqi government and with the consent of the regional powers. And their involvement in Syria is calibrated in a way that it has at least the potential to destroy ISIS without simultaneously helping the Assad regime gain ground or cause the Sunni powers to turn against the effort.

Now, the bad news. It may be difficult to get the Iraqi army and the Kurds’ peshmerga to become an effective fighting force even with American air power. We saw how effective this kind of arrangement can be when the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban, so don’t totally discount it, but the Northern Alliance was a more united armed force that was able to hold things together for a time after victory. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces are as likely to fight each other as ISIS.

Next there is the problem with Assad. The civil war will not end until Assad is gone. The administration doesn’t want to talk about a post-Assad Syria. They don’t have a plan for what to do with Syria anymore than Bush had a plan for what to do with Iraq.

We can train and equip so-called moderate opponents of Assad, but we’re going to run into problems with our relations with both Russia and Iran if we try to send them into Damascus. The administration doesn’t want to talk about that. What they did assure me is that they’ve spent the last two years working with so-called moderates and now they have a comfort level and the intelligence to feel like they know who they’re dealing with. They think they have opened the pipelines into Syria to where they can get the weapons into the correct hands. I’m glad they didn’t spend the last two years arming ISIS, but the fall of Mosul shows what can happen even with the best vetting in the world.

Here’s my problem. This plan is not bad by any means. It’s close to as good as I could come up with on my own. But it’s a very difficult plan to execute that relies on the American people being very patient. And I don’t believe that the American people are going to be patient. I worry that they will not get the time they need to make this work. I am not even sure any plan can work.

On the upside, the coalition they are putting together has the potential to end the sectarian warfare and improve relations between nations, and it could ultimately save many lives. I am really torn about this. I’m definitely feeling like Hamlet tonight.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.