Analysis | New Mideast “Great Game” – Cordesman

Published: July 11, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

The Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington released “The New ‘Great Game’ in the Middle East: Looking Beyond the ‘Islamic State’ and Iraq” report on July 9th. In it Dr. Anthony Cordesman provides a comprehensive brief that “examines both the options in Iraq and Syria and the broader goals the U.S. should pursue in the Middle East.” Today we provide the introduction to the report and a link to the full document. It will provide a thoughtful discussion of the following steps suggested in the report:

  • Focus on partnership and stability in key regional allies.
  • Focus on the truly violent extremist and terrorist threat without taking sectarian or ethnic sides, or sides in a civil war.
  • Treat Iraq and Syria as an integrated mix of threats and opportunities.
  • Approach Maliki as much of a threat as ISIS/ISIL and Assad.
  • Provide strong support for a truly unified national Iraqi government if one should emerge, and encourage Iraq to create some form of federalism and a more workable basis for unity.
  • Ensure Iraqi Kurds have an option, and step up coordination with them.
  • Contain the Assad regime as much as possible and keep the option open for a moderate opposition or post-Assad compromise.
  • Focus on a successful P5+1 Negotiation with Iran without setting unrealistic goals for a broader rapprochement, and while actively seeking to contain Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.
  • Actively respond to new Russian and Chinese activities and strategic challenges.
  • Work with Israel to ensure its security while continuing visible peace efforts.
  • Keep U.S. ties to Egypt while seeking to moderate the Sisi regime.

This is the latest addition to a vast collection of insightful and comprehensive assessments produced by Dr. Cordesman. SUSRIS is pleased to have assembled many of his reports and briefings for your reference. [Link Here]


The New “Great Game” in the Middle East: Looking Beyond the “Islamic State” and Iraq
Anthony H. Cordesman
July 9, 2014

The U.S. has good reason to try to prevent the creation of a violent, extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to reverse the gains of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), and to help move Iraq back towards a more stable and unified form of government. The chances, however, are that the U.S. can at best have only partial success. The U.S. faces years in which Iraq is divided by sectarian and ethnic power struggles, the Syrian civil war continues, facilitating some form of radical Sunni threat crossing the border between Syria and Iraq.

csis-doc-greatgameClick for full report

ISIS/ISIL did not suddenly materialize in Iraq in December 2013. For years, the group exploited growing Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian divisions and steady drift towards civil war. For at least the last three years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s actions of building his own power structure around a Shi’ite dominated state with close ties to Iran alienated Sunnis and exacerbated tensions.

The U.S. cannot simply intervene in Iraq by attacking ISIS/ISIL. It is a major movement in Syria as well as Iraq. The U.S. must also find some way to limit and roll back ISIS/ISIL – without taking sides in Iraq’s broader civil war. At the same time, creating anything approaching a stable Iraq means creating new and lasting political bridges across Iraq’s increasingly polarized and divided factions as well as helping to create a more effective and truly national government in Iraq, as well as rebuild Iraqi forces that serve the nation, rather than an increasingly authoritarian Shi’ite leader.


It is far from clear that the U.S. can do this, and Syria and Iraq are only the most visible challenges taking place in the strategic game board that shapes the Middle East. The U.S. must also deal with a much broader set of new strategic forces that go far beyond Iraq’s borders. The U.S. must change the structure of its de facto alliances with key Arab states in the region, and it must deal with new forms of competition – or “Great Game” with Russia — and possibly China, as well.

Excerpt from the report:

Living with Complexity and the “Decade of Least Bad Options”

A strategy of living with problems is never going to be as popular as one of trying to find short term solutions, but it is likely to prove far more realistic over time. While miracles can happen, they almost never happen to the people whose plans depend upon them. Moreover, while the U.S. may not have to fight a long war against extremism, it almost certainly is going to have to continue to deal with multiple crisis in the Middle East for at least the next decade.

The end result is a clear need for strategic patience and realism. It is also for an acceptance of the need to just how unavoidable the complexity and uncertainty of the new Great Game really is, as well as the need for domestic political acceptance that the U.S. must take risks and even the best judged options can and will fail. These are not natural American virtues but they have clearly become necessary ones.


Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy

People Anthony CordesmanAnthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS. During his time at CSIS, he has completed a wide variety of studies on energy, U.S. strategy and defense plans, the lessons of modern war, defense programming and budgeting, NATO modernization, Chinese military power, proliferation, counterterrorism, armed nation building, security in the Middle East, and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts.

Cordesman has traveled frequently to Afghanistan and Iraq to consult for MNF-I, ISAF, U.S. commands, and U.S. embassies on the wars in those countries, and he was a member of the Strategic Assessment Group that assisted General Stanley McChrystal in developing a new strategy for Afghanistan in 2009. He frequently acts as a consultant to the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence community and has worked with U.S. officials on counterterrorism and security areas in a number of Middle East countries.

Before joining CSIS, Cordesman served as director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as civilian assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. He directed the analysis of the lessons of the October War for the secretary of defense in 1974, coordinating the U.S. military, intelligence, and civilian analysis of the conflict. He also served in numerous other government positions, including in the State Department and on NATO International Staff. In addition, he served as director of policy and planning for resource applications in the Energy Department and as national security assistant to Senator John McCain. He had numerous foreign assignments, including posts in the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran, as well as with NATO in Brussels and Paris. He has worked extensively in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. He is a recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

Cordesman is the author of numerous studies on energy policy, national security, and the Middle East.

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