“Degradation of ISIS is not the end goal,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week. In what appeared to be a criticism of the Obama White House’s ineffective campaign against the Islamic State, the Trump administration’s top diplomat insisted, “We must defeat ISIS.” At a two-day summit bringing together officials from the 68 countries and international organizations that form the anti-ISIS coalition, Tillerson said that “defeating ISIS is the United States’ number one goal in the region.”
The Obama administration failed in its efforts to defeat ISIS mainly because it never took on the Shiite expansionism—emanating from Tehran and spreading through the central government in Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut—that has fueled Sunni extremism. Given a choice between the depredations of the Islamic State and those of the Shiite militias backed by Iran, Sunnis caught in the middle have typically chosen to endure the former rather than risk the latter.
The Bush administration came to understand the sectarian roots of the problem. The surge that turned around the U.S.-led war in Iraq was premised on the notion that the only way to get Iraq’s Sunni tribes to fight foreign extremists was to tackle the Shiite militias that threatened those tribes. Without moving at the same time against Iran and its allies, urging a Sunni-led campaign against Sunni extremists was tantamount to enjoining that sect to wage war on itself while Iran and its affiliates profited from the intramural carnage.
In its efforts to butter up Iran, the better to seal a deal with Tehran’s mullahs, this latter approach is what the Obama White House chose. That is why its anti-ISIS policy failed. Sunnis who might otherwise have resisted ISIS refused to buy in. They saw the U.S. policy, correctly, as pro-Iran.
Worryingly, the Trump administration’s ISIS policy appears at this early stage to be stuck in some of the ruts left by its predecessor. Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi visited Washington last week, where he met with President Trump and Secretary Tillerson, who promised a “strategic partnership” to help defeat ISIS. Abadi said that it’s important to get local Sunnis on board, but that’s going to be very difficult since the Iraqi forces leading the campaign are drawn from mainly Shiite popular mobilization units (PMU), some of which have committed atrocities against the Sunni population. In November the Iraqi parliament recognized these militias as legitimate military forces. Policymakers and analysts have tried to distinguish between those PMUs that are backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and those independent of Iranian assistance. But that’s an imaginary distinction. The Iraqi interior ministry, which oversees security forces, is led by Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, who is himself a veteran of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. All of the PMUs are effectively taking orders from the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani.
Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil was also in Washington last week, where he contended that “Lebanon is a natural ally of the United States in its fight against terrorism.” By which of course Bassil meant the fight against ISIS and other Sunni groups, not the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that controls Lebanon, its army, and government—the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. Bassil’s father-in-law, Lebanese president Michel Aoun, is a Hezbollah ally who recently said the Lebanese Armed Forces will fight alongside Hezbollah in another war with Israel. In Washington, Bassil reaffirmed Aoun’s message and then had the nerve to demand that the United States continue to support the Lebanese Army.
That would be to continue a disastrous policy. As Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me, “under the cover of fighting ISIS, the U.S. policy of supporting [the Lebanese Army] has contributed to Hezbollah’s consolidation of its primacy in Lebanon, as well as to the expansion of Hezbollah’s strategic interests in Syria. This also has a direct bearing on the future war between Israel and Hezbollah.”
Events last week may have shown a glimpse of that future conflict. Israeli jets struck twice in Syrian territory, once against a shipment of game-changing weapons destined for Hezbollah, and then against a Syrian militiaman who dealt with the Iranians. In retaliation, the Syrians fired antiaircraft rounds that were intercepted by Israel’s Arrow-2 system. Had the missiles fallen on civilian or strategically sensitive areas, the resumption of hostilities that Israeli officials have warned of for more than a decade would have been likely.
Secretary Tillerson is right that defeating ISIS should be an American priority and would signal the return of American leadership. However, the battle against the Islamic State is part of a larger regional picture. As Israel’s airstrikes showed, our key Middle East ally is defending against the same forces that the Trump administration may be tempted to think are useful partners in the anti-ISIS campaign.
The anti-ISIS campaign cannot succeed without vigilance against Iran and its allies. The Obama administration’s realignment with Iran was wrong and dangerous and also deliberate. With equal deliberation, the Trump White House needs to set a new course.