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Grand strategy for the Middle East? We don’t know

In July 2009, light-armored vehicles with U.S. Marine Corps' Task Force 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, traverse the rocky terrain of the Sinjar Mountains while deployed to the Nineveh province in Iraq. Credit: Sgt. Eric C. Schwartz via Wikimedia Commons.
In July 2009, light-armored vehicles with U.S. Marine Corps' Task Force 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, traverse the rocky terrain of the Sinjar Mountains while deployed to the Nineveh province in Iraq. Credit: Sgt. Eric C. Schwartz via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/

Strolling through Jerusalem’s historic Yemin Moshe quarter on a pleasant August morning, my ears caught a ringing, melodic sound emanating from within the walls of the Old City, perhaps half a mile from where I stood. This being a Sunday, the sound I heard was the chiming of church bells, welcoming Christian worshippers to morning services.

Normally, there is something joyous about the sound of those bells, particularly in a city that contains the key holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But on this day, I felt a profound sadness upon hearing them. For Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is one of the few places in the Middle East where—despite what malicious anti-Zionist propagandists will tell you—Christians can practice their faith freely.

In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, about one day’s drive from here, only a minuscule handful of terrified Christians remain, the vast majority having been driven out by the savage terrorists of the Islamic State jihadist group. The ethnic cleansing of Mosul’s Christians was accompanied by the destruction of numerous holy sites, including an 1,800-year-old church and the tomb of the prophet Jonah. As Mosul’s Patriarch Louis Sako mournfully observed at the end of July,  “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” On any Sunday morning in that beleaguered city, you will no longer hear the sound of church bells.

The Islamic State’s onslaught has raged for several months now. Having spread from Syria into Iraq, the terrorist organization’s aim is to set up an Islamic caliphate in all the territories it conquers. It’s a mistake to believe that the national borders that we in the west recognize as sacrosanct are in any way respected by these modern day barbarians. As far as the Islamic State is concerned, there is certainly no place called Israel, and no place called Kurdistan, but there is also no Syria, no Iraq, no Lebanon, no Jordan. All these states are regarded as a contiguous territory where Islamic sharia law—as interpreted by a group of criminals, rapists, and torturers—will remain eternally supreme.

Unless, of course, we in the West wake up to the threat and understand that the only way to roll back the Islamic State is to pulverize it without mercy, killing as many of its fighters as we can, and seizing back some of the critical locations now under their control, such as the Mosul dam, which supplies water and electricity to northern Iraq.

There are, thankfully, signs that this process is now underway. After months of ignoring a worsening situation, despite the persistent pleas of our Kurdish allies—along with Israel, the best, most loyal, and most reliable friends the United States has in the Middle East—the Obama administration is now gingerly offering sorely needed military and logistical support. Important European allies, like France and Britain, are following suit, sending weapons and advisors to assist the Kurdish soldiers, the peshmerga, who are the first line of defense against the Islamic State. Backed by U.S. air strikes, the peshmerga now appear poised to take back the Mosul dam.

There was a horrendous irony in the fact that while much bien-pensant opinion in the West was bemoaning a fake “genocide” in Gaza, a real one was taking place with ferocious rapidity in Iraq, beginning with the Christians and then extending to the Yazidis, an ancient faith of some 500,000 people who are ethnically Kurdish. And had it not been for the astonishing courage of a female Iraqi parliamentarian, Vian Dakhil of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the world may well have remained stuck in its myopia.

Earlier this month, Dakhil took to the floor of the Iraqi parliament, delivering an impassioned speech on behalf of her people that ended with her breaking down and sobbing. Many of those who watched the speech were also in tears as she choked out those desperate, final words; as I listened to Dakhil, my first thoughts were of the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski and the Jewish Bund international representative Szmuel Zygielbojm, both of whom attempted to alert the Allied powers to the Holocaust befalling Jews under Nazi occupation.

Then, a few days later, when I learned that Dakhil had been injured in a helicopter crash while delivering aid to Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, my heart sank even more. Thankfully, however, Dakhil is alive, and continuing to raise her voice against this grotesque genocide.

The horrors of northern Iraq have compelled the Obama administration to both quell its isolationist instincts and to delay the much-vaunted policy “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia. However much we try, the Middle East will not let us go. And yet we still have no grand strategy for the region, no sense of how we want it to evolve, no doctrine to bring stability to its suffering peoples. Do we want to preserve Iraq’s integrity as a state? We don’t know. Do we want to encourage Kurdish independence? We don’t know. How far are we prepared to go to prevent the crucifixions, beheadings, and enslavement of women that have become the hallmarks of the Islamic State? We don’t know. If we are bombing the Islamic State in Iraq, albeit cautiously, then why are we allowing the atrocities in Syria, carried out by both the Islamic State and by the Iranian-backed Assad regime, to continue? No one, apparently, has an answer.

I’ve heard it said many times that one of the reasons President Barack Obama doesn’t like foreign intervention is that he believes political change can only come from the people whom intervention is intended to benefit. Obama is not alone; the great British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, argued much the same against the background of the Crimean War of the late 1850s.

Very well, then—let us reframe the concept of intervention in defense of human rights so that the liberators themselves are those would otherwise be liberated by outsiders.

Within these parameters, we would not send in troops. But we can provide air support, military training, and weapons, and the expertise to create and sustain post-war democratic institutions by working with politicians like Vian Dakhil.

Such a strategy will mean staying in the Middle East a while longer. It will also mean, when we are finally able take a back seat, that we will have left this region a much healthier and happier place than when we found it.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.

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