Obama Mideast Policy Muddled, Confused

• President does an about-face; sends Special Forces back to Iraq to kill former Sunni allies

By Richard Walker

Just when it seemed the United States was done occupying Iraq, Barack Obama has ordered more Special Forces troops back into the country to kill the very same Iraqi Sunni rebels that Obama and the West have been bankrolling and arming to fight the Syrian government. Confused? So is the rest of world.


During Iraq War II, the U.S. military fought against Sunni Muslims, who were mostly centered in Anbar Province, right across the border from Syria. That area was only brought under control after the Pentagon put Sunnis on its payroll and then armed them to patrol their local communities.

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The policy, known as the “Sunni Awakening,” was declared a success by the Bush administration but it was deeply flawed. Sunnis were made political promises, which were not delivered. When the Shiite majority in Iraq took power, led by Nouri al-Maliki, who is now the country’s prime minister, the country split in half. The Shiites in Iraq moved closer to 90-95% Shiite Iran, while the minority Sunnis were left out.

It was only a matter of time before Sunnis would rise up again in Iraq, this time just as violently as in the past. They are now led by at least 10 major groups, some of them turning to terrorism to fight the Shiite government. Recently, Obama answered a call from al-Maliki to help Iraqi forces target Sunni rebel leaders. He dispatched Special Forces to join a large contingent of specialized U.S. military units, who were quietly left behind in the country after the 2011 withdrawal.

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What makes Obama’s decision puzzling is that the insurgency is once again in Anbar Province, which has been the base for Sunni fighters entering Syria. These are the same fighters who have been armed and trained in many cases by America’s ally, Turkey, and paid by the Saudis and other Sunni Arab nations in the region. Obviously, the risk here is that some of those militias in Syria would use weapons and training to bring a renewed civil war to Iraq.

Obama’s answer has been to pivot. With this latest move, he is now helping Iraq weaken Sunni militias and kill their leaders. That will limit the supply of fighters and weapons to Sunni rebels in Syria that Washington and its friends have been cheering on.

The Iraqis, Iranians and the Syrian regime can only be thrilled with Obama’s shifting sands policy. While they are probably as confused as everyone else by his sudden U-turn, they will take the gift he is giving them.

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Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.