Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2012

Meanwhile, back in Iraq. As Syria’s civil war worsens and the U.S. watches mostly from the sidelines, violence is escalating again in another Middle East country from which President Obama has disengaged.

At least 115 Iraqis died on Monday in terrorist strikes on military and police posts and Shiite civilians. The al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq on Saturday all but announced what was coming, but Iraqi security forces were unable to stop some 40 coordinated and deadly attacks. Monday was the bloodiest day of the year, and June the second deadliest month since U.S. forces left in December.

Though al Qaeda is clearly making a comeback, Iraq isn’t yet close to the vicious sectarian bloodshed of five years ago. There’s no broad Sunni insurgency, and al Qaeda commands no territory and little popular support. The immediate insurgent goal seems to be to embarrass Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and promote more sectarian strife.

Mr. Maliki hasn’t helped his own cause. In the worst days of the 2007 civil war, Mr. Maliki was a strong partner for the U.S. who contributed to the defeat of the insurgency. But for the past seven months—almost to the day of the complete American military withdrawal—he has been in a power struggle with just about everyone.

The Prime Minister, a Shiite who holds a thin majority in parliament, started by going on the offensive against Sunni political competitors. In December, the government issued an arrest warrant on terrorist charges for the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled to the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan. The move rekindled Sunni fears of a Shiite takeover.

Baghdad and the Kurds, meantime, are battling for control of oil fields in the north. The dispute tars the one bright economic spot in Iraq, the oil industry. With production falling in the north, exports will be down for the third straight month in July, after hitting a postwar record of 2.5 million barrels per day in April.

The U.S. abdication in Iraq has compounded those fissiparous tendencies. The Obama Administration last year made little serious effort to keep a smaller contingent of noncombat troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline. An American presence had calmed sectarian fevers and gave Mr. Maliki more confidence to share power.

But the White House priority was a total withdrawal it could point to as a promise kept to the political left as the re-election campaign neared. Now the U.S. has little leverage as the factions compete for power and self-preservation in a region where Iran now counts for more than America does.…Mr. Obama took the U.S. out of [Iraq] cold turkey and has since shown no interest in a crucial Middle East country where so much American blood was shed. The last U.S. ambassador left Baghdad in early June, and the Administration has no replacement on deck.

The abandonment of Iraq is consistent with the Administration’s response to the 17-month conflict in Syria. President Obama says “the tide of war is receding,” but you wouldn’t know it from the arc of instability that is forming from Lebanon, through Syria, Iraq and into the Persian Gulf.

Thomas Joscelyn

Weekly Standard, July 24, 2012

In a web video released Monday, the Obama campaign celebrated the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. “As your commander in chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I’m proud to finally say these two words, and I know your families agree—welcome home. Welcome home,” Obama says in a clip from a speech he gave at Fort Bragg in December. The president repeats that phrase again for dramatic effect, “Welcome home.”

Also on Monday, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) launched a lethal series of attacks—the largest coordinated assault by the group in some time.… AQI is gaining ground once again, both in Iraq and in Syria, where a new front for jihad has opened up for al Qaeda and affiliated parties.

And that highlights the basic problem with President Obama’s political argument. For months, the president has argued that he “responsibly” ended the war in Iraq.…But what does that mean? Is it responsible to oversee the withdrawal of all of America’s combat forces regardless of on the ground realities? Apparently so.

It is understandable that a sizable number of Americans want to see U.S. forces come home. But that doesn’t mean our enemies are going home. They fight on, as the head of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) reminded everyone in a video released this past weekend. “Our war with you has only begun, so wait,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the ISI said in a message. It was a taunt clearly aimed at the U.S. as al Baghdadi…promised: “The mujahideen have launched after your armies, and have swore to make you taste something harder than what Osama [bin Laden] had made you taste.  You will see them in your home, Allah permitting.”

AQI doesn’t have to launch attacks against the U.S. in order to cause major headaches for the international community. For instance, the Obama administration has argued that AQI’s push into Syria (where it had a sizable logistical network even before the rebellion against Assad began) means that America cannot arm any of the anti-Assad rebels.

“We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, echoed Clapper’s testimony during an interview on CNN. “There’s indications that al Qaeda is involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition,” Gen. Martin Dempsey argued. “There’s a number of players…   and until we’re a lot clearer about…who they are I think it would be premature to talk about arming them.…”

Of course, there are actors other than al Qaeda fighting the wounded Syrian regime. The rebellion was not started by al Qaeda. But al Qaeda still has decent cards to play in Syria and Iraq whereas America’s hand is undoubtedly much weaker now. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, the simple fact of the matter is that without some U.S. combat forces on the ground America has no ability to fight AQI and affiliated groups directly.

Victor Davis Hanson

National Review, July 26, 2012

Amid all the stories about the ongoing violence in Syria, the most disturbing is the possibility that President Bashar Assad could either deploy the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons that his government claims it has, or provide it to terrorists.

There are suggestions that at least some of Assad’s supposed stockpile may have come from Saddam Hussein’s frantic, eleventh-hour efforts in 2002 to hide his own arsenals of weapons of mass destruction in neighboring Syria. Various retired Iraqi military officers have alleged as much. Although the story was met with general neglect or scorn from the American media, the present U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, long ago asserted his belief in such a weapons transfer.…

Another staple story of the last decade was the inept management of the reconstruction of Iraq. Many Americans understandably questioned how civilian and military leaders allowed a brilliant three-week victory over Saddam to degenerate into a disastrous five-year war before the surge finally salvaged Iraq.…The press…charge[d] that the singular incompetence or malfeasance of Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld led to the unnecessary costs in American blood and treasure.

But perhaps that scenario needs an update as well. Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is a blistering critique of the Obama administration’s three-year conduct of the Afghanistan war.…Chandrasekaran chronicles stupid decisions, petty infighting, arrogance, and naïveté.…

So was the know-it-all reporter right.… And will the media revise their earlier criticism and concede that George W. Bush’s problems in conducting difficult wars in the Middle East were inherent in the vast differences between cultures—fault lines that likewise have baffled even Barack Hussein Obama, the acclaimed internationalist and Nobel laureate who was supposed to be singularly sensitive to customs in that part of the world?

In 2008, we were told that Predator drone attacks, renditions, preventive detentions, military tribunals, the Guantanamo detention center, and the surging of troops into difficult wars were all emblematic of Bush’s disdain for the Constitution and his overall ineptness as commander-in-chief. In 2012, these same continuing protocols are no such thing, but instead valuable anti-terrorism tools, and seen as such by President Obama.…

The moral of the story is that history cannot be written as it unfolds. In the case of Iraq, we still don’t know the full story of Saddam’s WMD, the grand strategic effects of the Iraq War, the ripples from the creation of the Iraqi republic, or the relative degree of incompetence of any American administration at war in the Middle East—and we won’t for many years to come.

Aymenn Al Tamimi

National, July 23, 2012

Developments in Syria and Iraq have led some to speculate that the birth of an independent Kurdish state might be at hand. A closer analysis shows that a united Kurdistan is still unlikely, although a separate semiautonomous Kurdish community in Syria, with some parallels to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, is a growing possibility.

In Syria, Kurds are sitting on the sidelines of the uprising against the Damascus regime. Indeed, the Free Syrian Army has accused members of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of hindering its operations in some areas against the Assad regime, according to the Kurdish website Rudaw.net. Leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the PKK, have made it clear that they will not tolerate the spread of Syria’s conflict into the Kurdish-dominated areas of Syria.

The PYD stands separate from the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of 11 Kurdish parties in Syria that has ties to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. But leaders of the Kurdish National Council have also indicated to Rudaw that they are aiming to keep Kurdish areas free from fighting between the regime and the rebels.

The Kurdish groups are far from united on most issues—the KNC has in the past clashed with the PYD, but since Syria’s unrest began last year, the two factions have “signed an agreement sponsored by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to prevent intra-Kurdish tensions”, according to Jonathan Spyer, an analyst at the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center.

This, Mr Spyer writes in the Jerusalem Post, ensures “de facto Kurdish control of a large swathe of Syria’s north-east and the placing of this area off limits to the insurgency against the Assad regime for the foreseeable future”.

Syria’s Kurds are not, by and large, supporters of President Bashar Al Assad, but their scepticism about the Syrian opposition is understandable. For one thing, rebel fighters in Syria have the support of Ankara, which has a bad reputation regarding Turkish Kurds in matters of civil and cultural rights.

In addition, whenever Kurdish groups have tried to engage the Syrian opposition about the shape of a post-Assad Syria, talks have always broken down. The main issue is that the opposition refuses to drop the identification of Syria as an Arab nation (as evinced in the country’s official name: “Syrian Arab Republic”) and accept that Kurds are a distinct people. Thus ended the recent Cairo meeting of anti-Assad groups, attended by the KNC.

With Syrian Kurds declining to choose between Mr Al Assad and the opposition, the idea of a de facto Kurdish autonomous area in the Al Jazira area of north-east Syria becomes a possibility.…

It does not follow, however, that the Syrian Kurds will join with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government to form an independent Kurdish state straddling the northern part of today’s Iraq-Syria border.

Evidently, Iraq’s Kurdish leadership would like to win independence from Baghdad eventually, although that is rarely stated explicitly. But economic independence is a prerequisite, and Syria’s Kurdish areas would have little to offer the Iraqi Kurds in that regard.

Most of Syria’s remaining oil reserves are located in the Sunni Arab tribal areas around Deir Ezzor. Nor does Syria’s Kurdish region have access to ports that could allow Iraq’s Kurds to set up an independent pipeline to transport petroleum to the international market.

There was considerable media coverage of an agreement signed in May between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, covering two pipelines that carry oil and gas from the Kirkuk area to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Numerous reports portrayed this deal as incurring the disapproval of the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The implication was that Turkey and the KRG had agreed, without Baghdad’s permission, to set up these pipelines.

Some commentators saw the deal as part of a Turkish strategy to deepen economic ties with Iraqi Kurds. This was seen as a sign that the Turkish government had warmed to the idea of potential Kurdish independence.

However, as the analyst Joel Wing of the blog Musings on Iraq noted, this analysis gets the basic facts wrong. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines are under the control of the oil ministry in Baghdad, and so the KRG agreement with Turkey must have had central government approval to some degree. After all, Baghdad provides 95 per cent of the KRG’s annual budget.

Note that the Kurdish areas of Turkey constitute at least 50 per cent of the dreamed of Kurdistan. Ankara would not welcome an independent Kurdish state just south of its border, believing that such a state would increase the possibility of a Kurdish revolt in Turkey’s south-east. One of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipelines was shut down on Saturday after an explosion that Ankara blamed on Kurdish rebels. That fraught relationship does not appear to be improving any time soon.

As long as Turkey remains opposed to Kurdish independence and the KRG lacks opportunities to break its financial reliance on Baghdad, an independent Kurdistan will remain a remote prospect.