Obama's Iraq-Syria strategy, way back in June 2014 ... and now

Obama touted Yemen as a model for US efforts against the so-called Islamic State in a major speech this summer. While an odd statement at the time, with Yemen teetering, it looks much worse now.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Obama pauses while speaking about the situation in Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Obama said the US will send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq, set up joint operation centers.

On June 19, shortly after Iraqi troops fled the country's second largest city, ceding it to the army of the so-called Islamic State, President Barack Obama held a press conference on the situation in Iraq and Syria and what his administration was going to do about it.

He promised that "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq" even as he announced 300 military advisers were being dispatched to Baghdad, a stepped-up intelligence presence, the need to work with "the moderate Syrian opposition," and that the government would be "prepared to take targeted and precise military action," among other measures. But what was the ultimate strategy that this US effort would serve?

He spoke of a "counterterrorism platform that gets all the countries in the region pulling in the same direction," and that "there is going to be a long-term problem in this region in which we have to build and partner with countries that are committed to our interests, our values." He then used Yemen as an example of how all this might come together:

You look at a country like Yemen -- a very impoverished country and one that has its own sectarian or ethnic divisions -- there, we do have a committed partner in President Hadi and his government.  And we have been able to help to develop their capacities without putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground at the same time as we’ve got enough CT, or counterterrorism capabilities that we’re able to go after folks that might try to hit our embassy or might be trying to export terrorism into Europe or the United States

And looking at how we can create more of those models is going to be part of the solution in dealing with both Syria and Iraq.  But in order for us to do that, we still need to have actual governments on the ground that we can partner with and that we’ve got some confidence are going to pursue the political policies of inclusiveness.  In Yemen, for example, a wide-ranging national dialogue that took a long time, but helped to give people a sense that there is a legitimate political outlet for grievances that they may have.

Today the "Yemen model," much like the "Mosul model" of nearly a decade ago, is in tatters.

In September, a little over two months from Obama's speech, much of the Yemeni capital Sanaa fell to Houthi rebels, shattering the myth (for those who believed it) that there was consensus within the country that "a legitimate political outlet for grievances" had been created. The government has since been dissolved, though President Hadi is nominally still in charge. Thursday, a suicide bombing, suspected to have been carried out by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, killed at least 47 people in the capital, most of them Houthis, member of a Shiite sect.

Sectarian and regional tensions have never been far from the surface in Yemen, and that was as true when Obama spoke in June as it is today. The country's minority Houthis fought off and on against the Sunni majority government between 2006-2010, with hostilities resuming this summer. There has been a healthy dose of greater regional rivalry in all this, just as in Syria and Iraq. Shiite Iran has backed the Houthis, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni-dominated central government militarily and the spread of their austere and uncompromising Salafi brand of Sunni Islam in the country.

Brian Whitaker has a good roundup of the background and state of play today, and his quote of Yemen researcher Shelagh Weir on some recent history is worth repeating in full: 

During the 1990s the growth of socially divisive Salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [ie the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics.

Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, and just as Saudi Arabia has sought to weaken them, Iran has sought to prop them up. And even without addressing the divisions within Yemen at this level, the country has simply been plagued by warlordism, a government incapable of controlling much of any of the country's hinterlands, or managing its tribal, religious, and commercial rivalries, without frequent resort to open conflict. Obama's praise of President Hadi in June for overcoming much of these problems was, at best, premature.

But this helps circle back to the fundamental problem with Obama's approach - the need, as he presented it, to partner with regional powers "committed to out interests, our values." Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, nor Turkey share either what are generally seen as American interests in the region. The Turks and Saudis see toppling Syria's Bashar al-Assad, who hails from an offshoot of Shiite Islam itself, as of paramount importance. Confronting IS, one Sunni Islamist movement among many fighting Assad, is a back-burner issue, at best. As is maintaining majority Shiite rule in Iraq - where the Sunni minority held sway until 2003, and was seen as a bulwark to Iranian interest in the region.

America's interest is to preserve the Iraqi governing arrangement, with the Shiite Arab majority of the country holding most of the power, that it has helped create over the past 11 years. And America's first target in doing that is undermining IS, which has the added benefit of protecting the Iraqi Kurds, who have been able to carve out an autonomous region of Iraq thanks to US military support dating back to the end of the first Gulf War.

The Kurds, too, are a problem. Turkey hasn't much liked Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, since it encourages its own Kurdish separatists, much as it fears a Kurdish victory in Kobane against IS, just over the border from Turkey, would. That's why we've been treated to the spectacle of US air power trying to save the Kurdish city from falling to IS in recent days, while Turkish troops on the border expended most of their efforts on preventing Kurdish fighters from Turkey joining their brethren, or simply rearming them, in Kobane.

Which brings us back to square one. The strategy, as Obama outlined it a few months ago, didn't make much sense. Or at best, was built on a bunch of highly unlikely hopes. With each passing day, it looks less coherent.

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