The ISG Report — a way ahead going nowhere?

December 9, 2006

Over the past few days, it has become increasingly apparent that the report of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, is going to go nowhere. Even the Democrats in Congress have baulked at swallowing the extraordinary camel represented by the report’s recommendation that the US engage directly with Iran and Syria — the former its most implacable enemy — to achieve the rehabilitation of Iraq.

Many of the report’s recommendations seem simply incomprehensible from a practical standpoint:

RECOMMENDATION 11: Diplomatic efforts within the Support Group should seek to persuade Iran that it should take specific steps to improve the situation in Iraq.

Among steps Iran could usefully take are the following:

* Iran should stem the flow of equipment, technology, and training to any group resorting to violence in Iraq.

* Iran should make clear its support for the territorial integrity of Iraq as a unified state, as well as its respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and its government.

* Iran can use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation.

* Iran can also, in the right circumstances, help in the economic reconstruction of Iraq.

No doubt the report is accurate in saying Iran could do these things. But why on earth should it? It has no vested interest nor would there be any political advantage in doing any of them. If the current mayhem were to continue to its logical conclusion — the emergence from the ruins of Iraq of a regional entity dominated by the Shia — it would be to Iran’s advantage, since it would assume de facto leadership of such a quasi-state, vastly increasing Iran’s regional reach and influence.

Quite apart from that, Iran has no reason to do anything other than rejoice at the morass in which the US finds itself in Iraq, and has absolutely no reason to help it out.

Furthermore, Iran wouldn’t bother to even make a token gesture towards helping Iraq, in the absence of huge concessions from the US and the international community. The only concession Iran would want, of course, is the end to international scrutiny of its nuclear program, and tacit or explicit agreement to its quest to acquire nuclear weapons.

The recommendations on Syria are similarly bizarre:

RECOMMENDATION 12: The United States and the Support Group should encourage and persuade Syria of the merit of such contributions as the following:

* Syria can control its border with Iraq to the maximum extent possible and work together with Iraqis on joint patrols on the border. Doing so will help stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.

* Syria can establish hotlines to exchange information with the Iraqis.

* Syria can increase its political and economic cooperation with Iraq.

And, in the context of Hizbollah and Lebanon:

RECOMMENDATION 15: Concerning Syria, some elements of that negotiated peace should be:

* Syria’s full adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006, which provides the framework for Lebanon to regain sovereign control over its territory.

* Syria’s full cooperation with all investigations into political assassinations in Lebanon, especially those of Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel.

* A verifiable cessation of Syrian aid to Hezbollah and the use of Syrian territory for transshipment of Iranian weapons and aid to Hezbollah. (This step would do much to solve Israel’s problem with Hezbollah.)

* Syria’s use of its influence with Hamas and Hezbollah for the release of the captured Israeli Defense Force soldiers.

* A verifiable cessation of Syrian efforts to undermine the democratically elected government of Lebanon.

Laudable sentiments: but why should Syria accede to a single one of them? Syria did not enjoy being compelled to withdraw from Lebanon last year. It has sought since then to overthrow the Cedar Revolution, and now, with its proxy Hizbollah poised to take over the government by coup d’etat and restore Lebanon to Syrian control, it has no reason to even consider “ceasing its efforts” to undermine the Siniora government.

Again, it would take huge concessions from the US to achieve a commitment of the kind envisaged by the report. Syria would demand an end to enquiries into the assassination last year of Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is already clearly implicated, and no investigations at all, thanks, into the assassination a few weeks ago of Pierre Jemayel. Few people in the Middle East have any doubt that Syria was behind that killing also.

I recognise that the people who drew up these recommendations are acknowledged experts in their field, but they just look preposterous. It’s kindergarten stuff. Naive, unrealistic and pompous all at once.

Baker has climbed down a little since the report’s release, conceding that Iran, for one, is most unlikely to contribute anything along the lines outlined. But it’s worth a try, he has said; it can do no harm. I beg to differ. For the US to go to its worst enemy, conceding defeat in Iraq (largely because of Iran’s own efforts in arming the Shia militias), and begging for help in extricating itself from its troubles, would send an unambiguous message to the mullahs. Their belief in the inherent weakness, not to say cowardice, of the US would be confirmed and magnified.

The Bush Administration should shelve the report with a polite “thank you” and get on with some realistic approaches. The signs are it will do just that.

Update: An American soldier with recent combat experience in Iraq excoriates the ISG report.

(Via Atlas Shrugs.)


  1. Re “For the US to go to its worst enemy, conceding defeat in Iraq (largely because of Iran’s own efforts in arming the Shia militias)”

    So the Sunnis (Baathists) and some Al-Queda people have been standing around with the finger up the arse the last three years?

    “and now, with its proxy Hizbollah poised to take over the government”

    Funny. US proxy for Israel, or Israel proxy for US–no problem for warmongers. Hezbollah not proxy for Iran, but idea they are close drives neo-con crazy. US supply bomb to Israel OK. Iran help Hezbollah not OK. This is all double standard.

    The report:
    “Iran should make clear its support for the territorial integrity of Iraq as a unified state, as well as its respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and its government.”

    Pity the US didn’t have any respect, anyone.

    But you are right for one thing–Baker clutch the straws.

    US is fucked in Iraq, no matter what they do.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Ali Ibrahim.

    You’re quite right — the Sunnis and Al Qaida have been doing much damage in Iraq; but it is not the ISG’s suggestion that the US go cap in hand to them or their sponsors and ask for assistance. That’s my point.

    Your analogy between Israel (as a US proxy) and Hizbollah (as a Iranian-Syrian one) is not a true one. Hizbollah is the instrument by which Syria and Iran seek to take over (or reclaim) Lebanon. No sensible commentator that I’m aware of in the Middle East has any doubt of that. Israel has no territorial ambitions any more, beyond protection of a few settlement blocs in the West Bank that will rapidly become unviable over time, if Olmert makes good on his promises to withdraw from the West Bank, as Sharon did from Gaza.

    Furthermore, Hizbollah’s own ambitions are explicitly territorial. “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” — Hizbollah’s battle-cry — necessarily involves the removal of Israel from the Meiterranean littoral. In this it acts as Iran’s agent, support from whom is funnelled through and facilitated by Syria. The ISG got at least that latter point right.

    Finally, it is very clear that what the US desires, above all things — and possibly quite unrealistically — is the maintenance of a unified Iraq under a central government empowered to exercise effective governance and the rule of law throughout the territory.

    Your final statement I am inclined to agree with.

  3. This one ought to be a no-brainer.

    Negotiating with Iran and Syria rewards them for bad behaviour, gives them more legitimate influence over Iraq and the US’ strategic future, gives them better sabotage options. It would be a huge win for Iran and Syria.

    Iraq looses, US looses, Syria/Iran win.

    Keeping them out of negotiations doesn’t help Iraq or the US, but at least everybody looses, not just Iraq and the US.

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