A Libyan civilian watches as a car from the Ansar al-Shariah Brigades burns. Hundreds of Libyans raided the Brigades’ base in Benghazi on September 21, 2012, fueled by the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans 10 days earlier.
The speed and breadth of upheaval in the Middle East caught much of the world off guard and has been met with varied approaches from U.S. policymakers. America’s military intervention to support rebels and halt atrocities in Libya starkly contrasted with its hands-off approach to the even bloodier revolution in Syria, as well as the primarily rhetorical, cautious support of more peaceful revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The U.S. response to these events appeared contradictory and lacking in direction, a drift characterized by unclear definitions of American interests.
To be fair, much of this divergence can be attributed to the unique circumstances of each revolution. But the examples of Libya and Syria particularly demonstrate the dramatic inconsistency of American responses to similar situations. In both examples, America has an interest in stopping a humanitarian crisis and a realpolitikal interest in preventing each country from becoming a staging ground for al-Qaeda and its various jihadi-Salafist offshoots.
This confused policy exists despite America’s stated values of promoting democracy and freedom, despite a clear humanitarian interest, and despite the lessons from more than a decade of fighting extremism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons learned from the latter two theaters that apply to recent unrest in the Middle East are surprisingly few. With war fatigue, an economic downturn, and the uncertain but dubious conclusions of those conflicts, broad intervention resembling a nation-building effort is certainly off the table, and the remaining options afford the U.S. much more limited influence. But within these narrower parameters, America still has the ability to influence outcomes in the region. And a few simple lessons from the war in Iraq stand out.
Identify Your Partners
Sorting friend from foe in the kaleidoscope of Middle East politics is always a tricky proposition. In the chaos of Anbar province circa 2007, Chicago cop and reservist Marine Warrant Officer-5 Jim Roussell used to simplify things for young Marines with a pithy lesson on the difference between “Bad Bad Guys” and “Good Bad Guys.” Bad Bad Guys were the hard and fast enemy, the dead-enders—those who would never reconcile with the Iraqi government or work with or tolerate American forces. In the context of Anbar province circa 2007, the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and several affiliated radical insurgent organizations fit this bill. In contrast, Roussell considered Good Bad Guys the individuals who might not embrace Western forces, values, or democracy—and some of them had even fought Americans in the past—but they could cut a deal. Their interests aligned with U.S. interests, and the resulting partnership, which came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening,” rapidly improved security in Iraq.
Applied to Syria and Libya, the Marine’s practical but cynical conceptual framework requires expansion: both recent uprisings include some genuinely “Good Good Guys.” The formation of secular opposition groups and the recent outpouring of regret after radical Islamists attacked the U.S. consulate and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens demonstrate that there are pro-Western, even secular elements to the Libyan and Syrian rebellions that support the establishment of a representative democracy engaged with the West. There are also many individuals who remain skeptical of America, and who will likely never embrace Western pluralism or democracy. But among this group, there remains a respect for Western power and influence, and a more immediate worry about many of the radical Islamist groups that are grasping to fill the power vacuum of broken regimes.
Know Your Enemies
In America’s frame of reference, the dead-enders, or the Bad Bad Guys, are easy to identify: religious radicals affiliated with al-Qaeda and all of their jihadi-Salafist offshoots. Jihadi-Salafism is a virulent strain of the Islamist movement characterized by the principle of takfir—a belief that the entire world, including most Muslims, is living in a state of apostasy to “true” Islam—and by an adherence to the doctrine of offensive jihad, which demands that puritanical Islam be restored to dominance through violence. In the chaos of both Syria and Libya, much like the anarchy of Iraq circa 2003-2007, al-Qaeda and other jihadi-Salafists have aggressively asserted themselves in the resulting power vacuum. But unlike the situation in Iraq, there is no massive U.S. military presence in Libya and Syria to help check the growth of jihadi-Salafist cells, which makes it a national security imperative for the U.S. to properly identify and engage with secular elements of both the nascent Libyan government and the raging Syrian rebellion.
In Libya, al-Qaeda has sought to keep a low profile by shunning the use of its brand name, though it has strengthened its Libyan network with elements of al-Qaeda central, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the indigenous Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Libya has long provided a deep well of manpower for al-Qaeda in Iraq, as revealed by the organization’s personnel records captured in the Iraqi town of Sinjar near the Syrian border in 2007. Of the total number of jihadists imported to fight in Iraq via Syrian ratlines, 18.8 percent were from Libya, second only to manpower derived from Saudi Arabia. Further, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which played a role in the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, has close ties to al-Qaeda, and was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in December 2004.
Al-Qaeda has also been coy about publicizing its presence in Syria, and has sought to rebrand itself through affiliated front groups, most notably the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, a rebel group that has claimed responsibility for most of the high-profile suicide bombings against the Syrian military and related targets. But make no mistake: most of these jihadi-Salafist movements are closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, and to the extent they are separate, their goals are indistinguishable: the global domination of puritanical Islam through the means of violent jihad. The growth of this noxious movement is most readily seen in the emerging ubiquity of black flags inscribed with Arabic script “No God, but Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger,” and the white or yellow orb that represents Muhammad’s seal. These “black banners of the Khorasan” (a reference to a hadith popular with jihadists) emulate the battle flag specifically announced by al-Qaeda in Iraq in a 2007 press release, and have been prominently sighted in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.
The Vacuum of Weak U.S. Engagement
In Libya, a successful rebellion has devolved into an uncertain, chaotic aftermath. A pro-Western but weak government is attempting to assert itself while radical Islamist militias parade in the streets of some cities and destroy ancient shrines considered heretical. Public U.S. involvement has been present but tepid, a weakness exemplified by a consulate in Benghazi denied the resources to protect itself from a foreseeable attack on the eleventh anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. In Syria, rebel groups locked in a life-or-death struggle with regime forces have vocally requested the type of Western assistance given to the Libyans, while candidly stating that they are being driven into the arms of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups because of the need for the jihadists’ valuable resources and tactical proficiency. In both countries, America must take steps to distinguish and ally with reformers who will be empowered to reject radical Islamists.
This is no easy task. In Iraq, despite possessing an incredible range of intelligence assets and averaging more than 140,000 troops on the ground between 2004-2007, the U.S. still had trouble identifying and supporting effective partners. Millions of dollars wound up padding the pockets of “fake sheikhs” who claimed local authority to ingratiate themselves with eager, rich American benefactors. Even worse, a significant portion of U.S. financial support wound up being funneled through corrupt and intimidated contractors to the coffers of the insurgents themselves. Radical jihad against American soldiers was funded with American money, a troubling misdirection that has been repeated in Afghanistan. Thus, while intervention to support secular, or at-least naturally anti-al-Qaeda, elements in Syria and Libya is a vital national security interest, it must be preceded and accompanied by effective intelligence networks that can minimize the amount of resources that paradoxically wind up empowering America’s enemies.
Once Engaged, Stay Strongly Engaged
The security turnaround in Iraq during 2007-2008 was remarkable in its breadth and rapidity, and only became possible through the pivotal alliance with Sunni sheikhs who dedicated their manpower and local intelligence networks to the fight against al-Qaeda. But now, six years after those pivotal alliances were formed, and four years after then-candidate Barack Obama met with Anbari sheikhs, almost all trace of American influence in Anbar is gone. According to reporting by Eli Lake in The Daily Beast, Sheikh Ahmad Abu-Risha, the most prominent figure in the Awakening political movement, bemoans the fact that he has not met with a U.S. diplomat or other official in the year since America’s withdrawal. This abandonment of Iraq’s Sunni power bloc, after alliances painfully forged in blood and mutual interest, is inexplicable in light of the Anbari sheikhs’ natural desire to check both a resurgent al-Qaeda and an ascendant Iran. Additionally, the U.S. is shunning what amounts to an invaluable intelligence network that extends beyond Iraq, via tribal affiliations, into Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan.
On a countrywide scale, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has left all the players—Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds, and secular politicians of many stripes—without an honest broker to help maintain progress toward a stable political environment. When the U.S. military left, it was reasonable to speculate that the suddenness and completeness of the withdrawal was primarily due to a Trojan horse strategy employed by the dominant Shia political bloc aligned with Iran. Their refusal to allow U.S. personnel continued immunity, and inevitable U.S. demands to the contrary, resulted in the failure to negotiate a new Status of Forces agreement (SOFA). Given that the U.S. would never agree to leave its people to the mercy of an Iraqi court, Iraqi demands for this condition seemed to be a calculated plan of Shia politicians who needed America out of the way in order to finally advance Iranian hegemony in Iraq. But recent reporting by The New York Times’ Michael Gordon paints a more complicated picture of U.S. incompetence and disengagement. Most notably, the Obama administration’s insistence that any Status of Forces Agreement be ratified by Iraq’s parliament set the stage for the inevitable failure of any agreement.
Simply put, while a number of Iraqi political leaders may have privately wished for continued American involvement to serve as a buffer and broker between both domestic rivals and neighboring regimes, far fewer were willing to support this position in a public, contentious debate. No one wants to be regarded as an American stooge in the prideful arena of Iraqi politics. Backing parliamentarians into a corner by demanding public ratification doomed a new SOFA to failure. The Obama administration’s refusal to exercise aggressive influence—which some officials have characterized as “ambivalence”—has undermined almost all remaining U.S. leverage in Iraq. Even America’s trump card of long term sales of vital military equipment and training expertise has lost much of its power, and further, this influence has actually been reversed—the Iraqis are now threatening to obtain material from Russia and China if U.S. equipment is not received in a timely manner. This loss of influence in Iraq, and apparent abandonment of key allies desirous of U.S. engagement, sends troubling signals to America’s remaining and potential partners in the region. Why would any rational entity tie its fate to such a fickle, disengaged superpower?
The circumstances of each upheaval in the Middle East are unique, and America’s response to each crisis should be accordingly nimble, humble, and practical. Thus, some perception of inconsistency is inevitable. But there are simple lessons from American involvement in Iraq that apply to nearly every situation: 1) aggressively apply influence to advance U.S. interests at every feasible opportunity; 2) establish effective intelligence networks that properly identify partners with shared interests, treat them with respect, and enable these partners to arrive at locally acceptable solutions; 3) identify and isolate intractable enemies in the jihadi-Salafist movement, and work to extinguish them through all means possible; and, perhaps most importantly 4) once engaged on a course of action, remain engaged—support allies and hunt enemies until achieving critical momentum.
Thus far, the Obama administration’s policies have failed these tests. Timid Iraq engagement has diminished that country’s chances of achieving truly representative democracy or even political stability, and left a power vacuum that is being filled by Iran. A successful Libyan revolution that deposed a murderous dictator and saw the rise of a pro-Western, secular government is now imperiled by a rising tide of rampaging jihadi-Salafists. And Syria is becoming another central staging ground for al-Qaeda, as hard-pressed rebels make the devil’s bargain of welcoming resourceful and tactically proficient jihadists to assist their existential struggle with the Syrian regime. America should reverse course and aggressively assert its interests—quickly, practically, and with precision.
Bill Ardolino is an Associate Editor of The Long War Journal who was embedded with U.S., Iraqi, and Afghan security forces in Fallujah, Habbaniyah, and Baghdad, Iraq, and Helmand and Khost provinces in Afghanistan. His forthcoming book, Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheiks and the Battle Against Al Qaeda will be published by Naval Institute Press in early 2013.