IRAQ: THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS NOT MY FRIEND
By Anthony H. Cordesman
16 Jul 14. The proverb that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not an Arab proverb, it is a Sanskrit proverb that predates the Prophet Muhammad by roughly 1,000 years. It is also a proverb with a dismal history in practice. In case after case, the “enemy of my enemy” has actually proven to have been an enemy at the time or turned into one in the future. The Mongols did not save Europe from the Turks, and the Soviet Union was scarcely an ally after the end of World War II.
ISIS/ISIL and the “Islamic State” are Vital Threats to Our National Security, But…
The United States needs to remember this as it considers military action in Iraq and reshaping its military role in Syria. It needs to remember this as it reshapes its security partnerships with proven friends like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. There is no question that the rise of ISIS/ISIL and the creation of an “Islamic State” that overlaps Eastern Syria and much of Western Iraq poses a major security threat in the Middle East.
It threatens to divide Syria indefinitely into the future, put Iraqi Sunnis under a Jihadist regime, become a massive breeding ground for extremist and terrorism, worsen tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, act as a Jihadist challenge to every modern Muslim regime around it, and potentially threaten the flow of energy exports to the global economy. ISIS/ISIL is an enemy of the United States and a security threat to our regional allies and our vital strategic interests.
We Face at Least Three Enemies and Not One
We do, however, need to be extremely careful about how we intervene. ISIS/ISIL and the “Islamic State” did not arise because of some spontaneous popular support for Islamic extremism, or because of outside support for Sunni fighters. It is the product of a failed Assad regime, and his choice of violent repression over reform. It is the product of Maliki’s steady build-up of a new authoritarian regime within the cloak of democracy in Iraq, and his steady increase and violent repression of Sunnis since the 2010 election.
We also face challenges from both Iran and now from Russia. Whatever may emerge out of the P5+1 negotiations and what seems to be a more “moderate” Rouhani presidency in Iran, the Iranian presence in Iraq is dominated by hardline officers and ex-officers in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that have strong ties to Maliki and those around him.
The wrong kind of U.S. support for Iraq is any support to Maliki that would further alienate Iraq’s Sunnis and give Maliki major new leverage over the Kurds. Any such developments would both further empower a corrupt, autocratic thug and give Iran major new influence in Iraq. Any such support will only make the United States a partner in the Shi’ite side of the civil war that Maliki has done much to provoke over the last three years.
At best, the United States will only be a temporary presence with limited access to the country and the field. Iran is on the ground, and will stay on the ground. While Iranian moderates may have a different view of the risks involved, it seems all too likely that the IRGC and Khamenei will feel Iran can afford to exploit a future in which both Assad and Maliki are dependent on Iran for support, and ISIS/ISIL poses more of a threat to moderate Sunni states and regimes than Iran.
We do not face one enemy. We face at least three: Assad, Maliki, and the mix of ISIS/ISIL and other hostile Sunni elements in Syria and Iraq. We also face a significant adversary in Iran, and the risk the growing tensions between the United States and Russia will lead Moscow to play a spoiler function in pushing its new view of the Color Revolution and effort to expand its role outside Europe by supporting Iran and Maliki.
If there is any proverb to be employed under these conditions, it is that “our friends must remain our friends.” Our focus needs to be on Jor