Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

In Tikrit, no matter who wins, we lose

In the 1981 movie, “Zorro the Gay Blade,” Zorro’s brother tells a peasant: “There is no shame in being poor, only in dressing poorly.” There is a corollary to that in war: There’s no shame in fighting, only in fighting poorly.

Members of the Iraqi security forces heading from the city of Samarra north of Baghdad drive towards al-Dawr area south of Tikrit to launch an assault against the Islamic State group (IS) on February 28, 2015. Government forces have attempted and failed several times to wrest back Tikrit -- the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein -- since losing it to IS in June last year. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)


By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist


By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

In the 1981 movie, “Zorro the Gay Blade,” Zorro’s brother tells a peasant: “There is no shame in being poor, only in dressing poorly.” There is a corollary to that in war: There’s no shame in fighting, only in fighting poorly.

In the months that we have been halfheartedly attacking the Islamic State, we have waged war in a way that has alarmed our allies to a point where the Iraqis have turned to the Iranians for mentorship. In the meantime, President Obama’s tepid strategic approach to war has done the impossible. It has gotten the Middle East’s most bitter rivals, Sunni’s and Shiites, to agree with their mutual Israeli enemy on one thing, that America’s leadership is lacking.

The present Iraqi offensive to retake Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit is a good example. The United States is not a part of it. We were not consulted before it started, nor was our air support requested. The attack is being led by Shiite militias effectively commanded by Iranians. By all reports, over two thirds of the forces attacking the city are Shiite non-state actors. If Iraq is not a vassal state of Iran, it is certainly a failed state which will effectively be dominated by Iran if the Shiite led militias triumph. Amazingly, the Obama administration is touting this as a triumph of its strategy to defeat the jihadists. The pig isn’t even holding still while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his flacks try to paint lipstick on it.

However, it is also possible that the Shiites will bog down into a World War I-like slugging mass in Tikrit. According to Baghdad, there are nearly thirty thousand Iraqi soldiers and militias attacking Tikrit arrayed against a few hundred Islamic State fighters. By all odds, the government and allied forces should win; but if they fail to take the whole city, or if the jihadists turn it into their version of the Alamo, we will likely be blamed for inadequately supporting the government forces which did not ask for our help in the first place. Either way, we lose.

Effectively ceding the war against the Islamic State to Iran is a mistake that will make Iran the Mid-East’s de facto hegemon and virtually ensure a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict zone with global impact. It will ensure a partition of Iraq that will precipitate a war over the nation’s resources between the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite rump States. The major Sunni powers in the region will likely feel compelled to ally themselves with whatever entity leads Iraqi Sunnis, even if that is the Islamic State. Northern Iraq and Syria will likely become the equivalent of the western front in World War I.

Absent our military presence, and bombers and drones don’t count; there will be very little chance of a diplomatic solution to either the fate of Iraq or the disposition of the Assad regime in Syria. Even if they lose Tikrit, the jihadists will have the holy war that they desire, while the Iranians portray themselves as the regional champions against the excesses of the jihadists. Our current incremental approach to the regional problem is also achieving Osama bin Laden’s cherished goal of ridding the Middle East of American influence as the American public will eventually tire of the cost of waging a an open-ended shadow war where only the Iranians profit.

We can still recover from the debacle that Iraq and Syria are becoming with a massive combined arms strike to destroy the army of the Islamic State on the ground and liberate the cities it has taken decisively. We need not stay in large numbers, but it would give us the leverage to keep Shiite death squads backed by Iranians out of Sunni majority regions and restore us as a diplomatic leader in the region. President Obama’s plan to rebuild the regular Iraqi security forces and arm moderate Syrian rebels could allow us to withdraw combat forces and allow the Iraqis and Syrians to determine their own future absent the dark domination of the Iranians; but only if we forcefully intervene. It would also give us the leverage to work on an Iraqi future that is free of sectarian domination by anyone, but the president won’t likely do that.

But if we are going to quit the region and leave it to Iranian domination and a Sunni-Shiite conflagration, we probably ought to quit right now. We could save ourselves billions in bombs and aircraft fuel.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel with peacekeeping experience in Lebanon and Syria. He was also a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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