Strategic Redeployment vs. “Surge” and (Not) Engaging Iran and Syria

Earlier this evening President Bush made a publicly televised speech to reveal his anticipated new Iraq strategy. In his address to the American people, the President, using a central theme of “sacrifice,” argued in favor of sending a short-term “surge” of more than 20,000 extra American troops.
However this choice, which is reflective of a lack of creativity on the Bush administration’s part, is also dangerous because it will break the back of the American army while failing to quell rampaging violence that has killed at least 23,000 Iraqis last year and over 3,000 Americans since the invasion began. These deaths are for what Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen calls “maybe.”

Among Cohen’s list of maybes, which the President also strongly hinted at or directly addressed, include:

  • Sectarian-based implosion of Iraq
  • Al-Qaeda would have a base to flourish
  • Iran would extend and enhance its influence and Syria would “gloat”
  • Israel would be even more threatened
  • American withdrawal would further encouraging extremists to attack it
  • (Skyrocketing oil prices causing a global economic meltdown can be added to this list.)

Would 20,000 more troops help stabilize through Bush’s military-centric approach? Not at all. In a 2005 op-ed, British strategic analyst and military historian Niall Ferguson concluded based on historical precedent, the United States would need at least one million troops to counter the popular Sunni-based insurgency. He determined that figure before a suicide bomber blew up a large section of the holy Shi’a Askariya mosque in 2006, setting off Iraq’s ongoing sectarian bloodbath. Given the current situation, it would be logical for the Bush administration to think that if it seeks a fresh military-centric option–of which it is neither intellectually, nor logistically, capable–it will require a lot more than an extra 20,000 troops.

Rather than “staying the course” and opting for a military surge, the administration should very seriously consider a different strategy: strategic redeployment and a diplomatic surge.

Naysayers of a diplomatic surge, such as the President himself, highlight Syria and Iran sponsorship of groups the United States lists as terrorists. They would also argue that any sort of a withdrawal, including a strategic redeployment, would be disastrous based on the list of “maybes” mentioned above.

I would first respond by arguing that engaging Syria and Iran can mitigate many of the disastrous “maybes” surrounding any type of withdrawal. In the global fight against Al-Qaeda and its like-minded militant supporters, the United States had working fairly well working relations with Iran and Syria, until recently. Those who support maintaining a large diplomatic distance between Washington and Damascus and Tehran are either dismissive or ignorant of the facts.

In addition, all three countries have strong interests in engaging each other in at least some limited fashion in order to achieve a more stable Iraq. The influx of Iraqi refugees is a destabilizing factor that harms all three parties. (See this map [PDF] of where Iraqi refugees flee to.) Both Syria and Iran are directly affected while America is indirectly affected by threats to friendly oil-producing states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Furthermore, Iran and Syria would be directly impacted should the Kurds decide to form their own state, as would NATO ally Turkey.

Also, engaging Syria can important to Israel’s security, especially in light of its recent peace overtures towards the Jewish state. As one Israeli commentator noted, “If the headquarters of these organizations [HAMAS and Islamic Jihad] are fated to live outside the territories, would it not be better for them to operate from a country that has a peace agreement with Israel, instead of being expelled to a hostile country from which they can operate as they please?” Ditto for Hezbollah, which uses Syria as a transit hub to receive its men and materiel in Lebanon.

Engaging with Iran would also be helpful for Israel. Iran does not possess nuclear weaponry, but Israel is widely believed to have at least 100 nukes, a nuclear armed sub fleet able to strike any target in the Middle East, and a successfully tested anti-ballistic missile system capable of shooting down anything Iran can launch. Notwithstanding the intense media focus on Ahmedinejad’s rhetoric, Tehran has consistently behaved as a rational state actor with a defensive military posture–including its nuclear program (largely mimicking Israel’s strategy). Even with the military balance tipped heavily in its favor, Israeli security only stands to benefit further from a revived US-Iranian engagement by soothing dangerous tensions that could lead toward conflict.

Some fear that if American troops withdraw, Iraq will descend into a civil war. However if a commonly accepted and scholarly definition is used, then the Iraq has already been in a civil war since 2004. With current American military presence doing little to stem the ongoing sectarian bloodshed, it is high time to seek help from the international community, push the Iraqi government to make political compromises among its various political factions, and begin removing American troops.

Withdrawal from Iraq and ensuing sabotage of Iraqi production may significantly impact oil prices of neighbors like Turkey and Syria, but the global market has been accustomed to a lack output from the country for a while. The bigger threats to regional and global oil output are 1) the influx of sectarian violence-scarred Shi’a refugees whose demography and experiences may radicalize local Shi’a populations in oil-rich states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; 2) the possibility of Al-Qaeda cells attacking oil facilities such as Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia and; 3) Iran imposing a blockade on the Strait of Hormuz if attacked by the United States or Israel.

The personal experiences of a Middle East expert, a comprehensive assessment by the consensus of the American intelligence community, global public opinion polling and even opinions of former jihadis all make clear that the invasion was a propaganda victory for extremists, generating enmity toward America among Muslims. This does not mean that the majority of Muslims in Iraq or elsewhere like Al-Qaeda. They do not. However, once American forces depart, Al-Qaeda will have a very hard time maintaining its presence. The Iraqi and global Muslim community will soon turn on the radical organization, absent a rationale for its violent tactics that have unnecessarily claimed the lives of thousands of Muslim and non-Muslim civilians.

It is sad that President Bush used “sacrifice” as a theme to couch his arguments for escalating the Iraq war. If he does go ahead with his proposed plan, American and Iraqi lives will continue to be sacrificed to fruitlessly pursue a chimera of “victory” which ultimately harm everyone’s interests – whether it is America’s, Iraq’s or its neighbors.


Alejandro Beutel is program assistant for the Minaret of Freedom Institute with expertise in religious freedom, democratization and security issues.

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