BRATTLEBORO—There are no easy, clear-cut solutions for dealing with the ongoing Syrian civil war, the disintegration of the state of Iraq, or the rise of the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Former U.S. diplomat and longtime Kurdish advocate Peter Galbraith of Townshend just returned from the Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria, and believes that while there are no easy solutions, the current situation in Iraq and Syria could be made a lot worse depending on what the United States does.
Speaking to the Windham World Affairs Council at the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Dec. 12, Galbraith said the centuries-old grievances between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam are the fuel for the conflicts in the region.
In 2006, Galbraith wrote “The End of Iraq,” where he argued that the country would be better off if it were divided into three regions controlled respectively by the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. He said he received a lot of criticism for that scenario at the time. Then he showed a cover of Time magazine from June of this year. The cover line: “The End of Iraq.”
Right now in Iraq, he said, Baghdad and the south are controlled by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, but Galbraith said it has almost no influence beyond that region.
The north is controlled by the Kurds. The autonomous state of Kurdistan, Galbraith said, had one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
The center of the country is mostly controlled by the Sunnis, the sect behind ISIS.
While the official U.S. policy remains keeping Iraq as one nation, Galbraith said that as long as there is no desire among three groups to form a national unity government, it will not happen, especially as the Kurds are determined to achieve full independence.
“The civil war in Syria created the opportunity for the radicals,” said Galbraith.
At the beginning of this year, ISIS began to take control of rural areas of Syria and Iraq, Galbraith said, but were little noticed until June, when a force of 800 to 2,000 ISIS fighters routed an Iraqi force of 40,000 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in about 10 hours.
In the process, ISIS captured $50 billion of military equipment that the United States provided the Iraqis.
How did that happen? Galbraith said part of the reason was that the Iraqis never had 40,000 troops. Many were so-called “ghost soldiers” who took a paycheck, kicked some of the money back to their commanders, and went off to pursue other work. In reality, the force was closer to 15,000, Galbraith said.
And sectarian concerns took precedence over defending their country. The Sunnis in the Iraqi army went over to ISIS. The Shiites “either fled or were captured and, to a man, were executed. They were abandoned by their officers,” Galbraith said.
With the capture of so much U.S. weaponry, Galbraith said ISIS suddenly became “the best armed military force in the entire region,” with armored Humvees, tanks, anti-tank weapons, helicopters, and fighter jets, although with the latter two items no one there knew how to fly them.
The Kurds were ISIS’s next target in July. The peshmerga, the main Kurdish fighting force, initially struggled to turn back ISIS, Galbraith said, due to a combination of rustiness — not having had to fight since the post-Gulf War I battles of 1991 — and a lack of weaponry, as the U.S. had not equipped the Kurds nearly as well as it did the Iraqis.
That’s when the U.S. stepped in and President Obama authorized additional military aid for Kurdistan. The Kurds managed to push ISIS back, Galbraith said, something the Iraqi army, that the U.S. spent so much money and time to train and equip, could not do.
Of the 17 Iraqi divisions that existed at the start of 2014, Galbraith estimates that “five or six remain. So, basically, the Iraqi army has dissolved.”
This leaves the Kurds, with about 100,000 fighters, as the only effective force in Iraq to fight ISIS. Despite the lack of U.S. enthusiasm for Kurdish independence, Galbraith said the U.S. had little choice but to support the Kurds.
Meanwhile, ISIS has about 40,000 fighters, but Galbraith said they have little support outside of the rural Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq and Syria. Their “puritanical” interpretation of Islam has little appeal to others, he said.
War in Syria
Galbraith said that Syria was quite similar to Iraq in that it has split along religious and ethnic lines.
“There have always been two Syrias,” he said, calling the western part of the nation, which includes Damascus, “one of the most diverse places in the Middle East.” This area, controlled by the Assad government, includes the Alawites (generally moderate Muslims), various Christian sects, Sunnis, and Druze.
Then there are what he called the “grim” villages of the Euphrates River Valley that are “almost entirely Sunni, conservative … impoverished, and primitive. That is the backbone of where the Islamic State is operating. That is the fundamental conflict — between these two Syrias.”
There are also three small Kurdish regions in the north of the country, which Galbraith said has been holding out well against ISIS.
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, at the same time as the “Arab Spring” that saw uprisings that overthrew governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. It didn’t happen in Syria, Galbraith said, because of ethnic disputes that, like those in Iraq, go back centuries.
The Assad family are Alawites, a group held in contempt by the Sunnis for about 1,400 years. When Hafrz Assad took over in a coup in the early 1970s, Alawites suddenly found themselves in power, and the other sects knew that if they wanted to get along under Assad they had to go along.
That’s why, Galbraith said, about 30 percent to 40 percent of the Syrian people back the Assads — the Alawites, Christians, and Druze, along with the Sunnis who made out well under Assad.
“That is sufficient to stay in power,” said Galbraith, who has met with representatives of all three groups over the past two years.
So why would so many people back one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East?
“If Assad went, and the Alawites went, they would face genocide,” Galbraith said.
While conventional wisdom frames the Syrian Civil War as a battle between two equally unattractive sides — the Assad government and the Islamic State — Galbraith made it clear that there is no chance at achieving a democratic, pluralistic Syria should the Islamic State win.
Flawed U.S. strategy?
What is the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? As articulated by President Obama earlier this year, it is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.
Realistically, Galbraith said, the strategy is to degrade and contain ISIS, which he described as a group that “underneath the thin veneer of Islam … behaves like a criminal enterprise,” relying on bank robbery, kidnapping, and extortion for most of its income.
He ridiculed some of the rhetoric out of Congress that equated ISIS with Hitler’s Germany, saying that people “ought to take a deep breath” and realize that ISIS is already surrounded by enemies, such as Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria.
Air power has been a main source of the U.S. support in the war against ISIS, but Galbraith said that is of limited value because “it’s hard to degrade and destroy the infrastructure of people that don’t have much infrastructure.”
Galbraith questioned some of the strategies being pursued by the U.S., like trying to rebuild, for the third time, an Iraqi army. “Do we really believe that a third Iraqi army will be better than the first two? This a formula to waste money, and possibly have [weapons] go to the Islamic State.”
He also said he feels trying to create a new government in Iraq is fruitless: “Is there any possibility of reconsiliation between the Iraqi government and the Sunnis? My answer is no.”
As for Syria, the “basic choice is between the Sunni Islamists and the [Assad] regime,” he said. “If the Sunni Islamists prevail, there will be no space in Syria for Christians, Alawites, Druze, or Kurds. If the regime prevails, they are, in fact, the protectors of the these groups. Both are repressive. Both have engaged in extraordinary war crimes. But if the regime prevails, a diverse Syria can survive.”
American influence is limited on ending the Syrian civil war, Galbraith said, but the U.S. might instead try dealing with the various factions in Syria to create autonomous regions in Syria for them to control, much like the arrangement the Kurds have in Iraq.