Antony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor
In the wake of the Arab Spring, policymakers in the U.S. have had to maintain a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, as calls for democracy have intensified across the Middle East U.S. officials have been under pressure to build new partnerships with emerging governments and capitalize on new opportunities afforded in the wake of change. On the other hand, policymakers have also had to deal with the realities that come with the toppling of long-standing governments: the breakdown of order, the opening up of lawless lands, the proliferation of weapons, and the emergence of non-aligned militant groups.
Unfortunately, it is this latter set of problems that is currently dictating U.S. policies and strategies in the Middle East. For the past several years, since the start of the Syrian civil war, the U.S. has been adamant in its demands that Bashar al-Assad step down from power however, the U.S. has yet to live up to its rhetoric and pre-drawn “red lines.” The U.S. has only deployed its military in order to protect its own interests as well as those of its allies. Even as jihadist groups rose to prominence in Syria and rolled back gains made by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the U.S. continued to offer its support in rhetoric only. It was only after the Islamic State (IS) executed two American citizens and threatened key U.S. interests in Iraq that the U.S. authorized airstrikes in Syria. However, this engagement in Syria is not aimed at the U.S.’ original goals of dethroning Assad and promoting inclusivity. As Mr Blinken stated, in Syria, the U.S.’ objective is to “degrade and ultimately defeat [IS].” The goal is no longer to promote democracy and remove Assad from power.
Despite the seemingly straightforward objective, Mr. Blinken made clear that dislodging and defeating IS would require a prolonged and sustained commitment to the inhabitants of the Middle East. Further, success “will not happen through exclusively military means.” A political solution is also needed.
This effort begins in Iraq, where the U.S. is already working on the ground to defuse local tentions and reestablish stability. Having already played a role in encouraging Noor al-Maliki to step down from power, the U.S. is again wielding its influence to build a new, inclusive, and representative government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Having waited until PM Maliki had stepped down from power before aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces – thus avoiding accusations of sectarian favoritism – Mr. Blinken assured the audience that the U.S. was doing all it could to win over local support in Iraq. In addition, Mr. Blinken was blunt in stating that policymakers willfully “leveraged the promise of greater U.S. assistance,” in order to dissuade any future sectarian policies. In a request to restore faith in the government, PM Abadi has already taken steps to balance out and spread the consolidation of power in Iraq, having appointed a Sunni Defense Minister while also abolishing the Office of the Commander and Chief – designed to have military personnel report directly to the Prime Minister. By reestablishing an inclusive government in Baghdad, Mr. Blinken is confident that, the U.S. and Iraqi government can counter IS’ narrative, win back local support, and reestablish stability in and around the country.
However, the threat of IS is much larger than Iraq. For that reason the U.S. is also pursuing a regional strategy in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East with the focus being, again, on building local support. Working side by side with Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and a host of Arab partners, Mr. Blinken explained that the U.S. is robbing IS of its popular narrative: that the U.S. is invading the Middle East in pursuit of its own unilateral interests. Although the coalition is currently focused on degrading IS’ fighting capacity, destroying supply lines, disrupting logistics, etc., Mr. Blinken assured the audience that more is going behind the scenes. With broad regional support, the U.S. and its partners are having greater success in dismantling the group’s cash flow, pooling resources to identify donors, monitor banks, and disrupting the group’s oil smuggling operations.
Although Mr. Blinken acknowledged that the U.S. led coalition lacks a shared objective – as many Arab states are pursuing their own agendas – he argued that their participation alone acknowledged the recognized threat that IS poses. Although this strategy may not ultimately lead to a peaceful and democratic outcome in Syria, he and other U.S. policymakers are confident that, by establishing local stability in Iraq and regional cohesion through the coalition, the U.S. can erect “two pillars” on which the Middle East Stability and peace can be achieved.