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The United States does not have an image problem in the Middle East. It has a reality problem. The United States has lost credibility in the Middle East by abandoning its friends and reaching out to its enemies. The U.S. has also lost sight of its core interests, as well as its principles. America’s interests in the Middle East include countering al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and its major splinters such as the Islamic State; ensuring the preservation of sovereign states and the states system; preventing Iran from achieving regional hegemony and nuclear capability; and ensuring the free flow of oil and other resources essential to the global economy. Its principles include opposing genocide and other mass atrocities, opposing and punishing the use of weapons of mass destruction, supporting international law, and standing by its allies. We have abandoned all of these, to our great detriment. Recovering our stature in the region requires re-committing ourselves to pursue our values and our needs.
Iraq is one former friend that the United States abandoned. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, followed by more than two years of American neglect of the country, allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to arise unchallenged. The United States took no action after ISIS captured Fallujah in January 2014, waited several months after the fall of Mosul to assess the situation, and by August 2014 reactively targeted ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria through air strikes. These engagements have parried the Islamic State’s offensive in Arbil, Iraq and Kobani, Syria. But ISIS is still on the offensive in Anbar, Iraq and Deir ez-Zour, Syria, as of December 2014.
The Syrian moderate opposition was another such potential friend. American inaction in Syria has led to the marginalization of Syria’s moderate opposition and its eclipse by more effective and powerful radical groups. The targeting of the Islamic State and the internationally-focused al-Qaeda-backed Khorasan group in Syria, in particular, have seemed to opposition elements to empower the Assad regime, which continues its brutal targeting of its population.
The narrative throughout the region, indeed, is that the U.S. is flipping its traditional alliance structure away from the Sunni and Arab states and toward Iran and its Shi’a proxies. The Obama administration may not have intended any such flip, but its policies in Iraq and Syria provide ample evidence to prove to fearful allies that we have abandoned them.
The Iranian regime is the chief backer of Assad and has provided advising, assistance, and proxy militias to stabilize the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Iranian media daily hails Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qassem Soleimani as the “savior of Iraq.” Iranian trainers and proxies are deeply interwoven within the ISF, which has become a highly sectarian Shi’a force since we abandoned it in 2011. The stated U.S. policy of supporting and partnering only with the ISF looks to many Sunnis in Iraq and throughout the region like a de facto alliance with Iran. The integration of Iranian, Hezbollah, and other proxy elements in Assad’s forces make the American refusal to take any serious action against Assad look like tacit support to Iran in that theater. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see in these policies a determination to back Tehran against America’s traditional Arab partners.
The United States has also relaxed sanctions against the Iranian regime, accepted the principle that Iran will have a significant indigenous enrichment capability, and allowed Iran to conceal the history of its nuclear program. In doing so, the U.S. has adopted a negotiating position at odds with numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions, the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Iran is a signatory), and many agreements with other members of the P5+1 about the red lines to be drawn in negotiations. Again, to the eyes of worried Sunni Arabs, it appears that the Obama Administration is more concerned with some kind of rapprochement with Iran than it is with standing by its commitments under international law and treaty—to say nothing of standing by its alliances.
The United States needs to restore its credibility by pursuing its interests with strength: actually defeating and destroying the Islamic State, supporting strongly the indigenous Iraqi and Syrian Sunni resistance to this hateful ideology and militancy, targeting Assad’s capabilities to attack his people, leveraging its military assistance in Iraq to remove Iranian military advisors from that country, and strongly supporting its national interests in opposing the Iranian nuclear program in accord with international law and United Nations resolutions. We must wrench ourselves away from the policy of drifting toward a chimerical rapprochement with Iran and re-orient ourselves in support of our traditional partners and allies.