The View From Olympus: Mr. Maliki Takes a Baath

June 13, 2014

The Iraqi pseudo-state is collapsing and its foreign-bred military is going home. The only surprise is that both lasted as long as they did. Once again we see the main lesson of Fourth Generation war: once a state is destroyed, no one can re-create it.

President Obama is edging toward committing U.S. airpower to the conflict, though not American ground troops. With no effective force on the ground to support, air power is unlikely to be decisive. The only source of a competent ground force is Iran, and while it would be amusing to see American warplanes providing close air support for the Al Quds Force, there is no reason for America to be involved in a Sunni-Shiite civil war. On the contrary, our interests are best served if that war is long and bloody. A region with vast numbers of young men with no prospects is going to generate war. Better they fight each other than us.

This latest phase of the war in Iraq has several aspects that have not received much attention. One, noted briefly by The New York Times, is that the Baath is back. Former Baathist leaders and, I suspect, Republican Guard troops are playing a significant role in the Sunni offensive. I think it likely that the role of the Baath is greater and of ISIS smaller than new reports suggest. It was only a matter of time before the Sunnis launched a strategic counteroffensive to restore their rule over all Iraq, and I suspect we are now seeing it. For Iraqi Sunnis, being ruled by Shiites is intolerable. The Sunnis are outnumbered, but the Baath knows how to organize, which the Shiites apparently do not. They may yet win this.

A second unremarked aspect of the Sunni offensive is that ISIS seems to be trying to draw the Kurds in. The Kurds want Mosul, and they will be sorely tempted to move now to take it. How would this benefit ISIS? It could potentially add a Kurds vs. Arabs dimension to the conflict, and some Shiites might choose to line up with Arab Sunnis against the Kurds. This being the Middle East, everybody hates everybody else. The question is who hates whom more right now, and all Arabs hate the Kurds. (Remember, this is a place the neo-cons promised to turn into Switzerland.) Both ISIS and the Baath are smart enough to know the rule, divide et impera.

A third aspect, one directly related to the collapse of the Iraqi Army, is that once again we are seeing that Arabs fight well when they rely on their own traditional way of war, which is essentially irregular light cavalry warfare. With only one exception, Jordan, Arab armies that try to adopt Western models fail. Of course, the fact that the present Iraqi Army is simultaneously a foreign creation and a collection of Shiite militias that get government paychecks are also factors in that army’s collapse.

The role of  the Baath and a resurrected Republican Guard in the Sunni counteroffensive may give the Sunnis an interesting mix of capabilities, with the Western-model Republican Guard serving in effect as the heavy infantry and ISIS as the light cavalry. If so, look for the Republican Guard to be the cheng force and ISIS the chi. All this would be something the region has seen many times over many centuries.

Viewed  from the perspective of the state system, the best outcome would probably be a Sunni victory followed by a restored Baathist Iraq. The Baath have shown they can make Iraq into a real state; none of the other parties has evinced that capability The Baath would have to crush their new allies, ISIS, but in that part of the world you can welcome a man as your brother in the morning and slit his throat at lunch (and keep on eating). The fact that a Baath revival would best serve Washington’s interests shows better than anything else the bottomless ignorance and folly of the George W. Bush administration and the neo-cons. We are left hoping for the return of the Iraq they destroyed, though, once again, America’s real interests are served best by an Islamic Thirty Years War.

Meanwhile, have empathy for all our men who fought in Iraq. They now face a war of lost victories. One of war’s most inexorable rules is that a higher level dominates a lower. The Bush administration’s failure at the strategic level could not be redeemed at the tactical level. It is a rule German soldiers of the 20th century learned only too well.