Zakaria: We need more ambitious strategy in Iraq
August 8th, 2014
12:55 PM ET

Zakaria: We need more ambitious strategy in Iraq

CNN’s New Day speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is an edited version of the transcript. For analysis of the latest developments, watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

If Iraq falls, what happens?

If Iraq falls, you have a catastrophe because you would have this very, very extreme jihadi group that would be in control of vast not just territory, but one of the five or six largest oil-producing countries in the world with access to revenues in the tens of billions of dollars.

But let's focus on the part that's most threatened right now, which is Kurdistan. The United States, since 1991, in collaboration with Britain and France established a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds. Since then, it has been a bipartisan foreign policy supported by a large part of the international community that the Kurds should be protected. So I think there’s a humanitarian issue here, but there's also a strategic issue.

The Kurds are an extraordinarily vibrant, independent-minded, quite democratic force in the region. They're extremely pro-American, pro- Western. I think there’s a strategic interest making sure that the Kurds do not fall to ISIS.

But that looks like what's happening right now, because they're outgunned. So do you train them? Do you arm them? And, if so, why isn’t it being done?

I believe we need to get more ambitious here, because we've been stymied, we've been stopped in terms of our involvement because of the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is a sectarian Shiite who is not creating a national unity government. He's pissing off the Sunnis, but that's not true with the Kurds.

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Historically, the United States has succeeded in its interventions abroad when the locals are legitimate and want to fight. Think of South Korea, where that was true, versus South Vietnam, where the locals didn't want to fight. The Kurds are authentic, they're independent. As I said, they're fierce fighters and they're very pro-Western. We should tie our policy in the region to the idea that we're going to make a much more ambitious effort to ensure that Kurdistan survives as an independent entity.

And just to make the stakes clear to the audience, this group ISIS – or now they're calling themselves the Caliphate because they want, again, to create an extremist religious state and they want to rule it, which makes them different from terror threats of the past – they are trying to hunt down and kill these Christians and other minorities. Make no bones about it, that is their goal and it will happen if they're not stopped, true?

Absolutely. Understand the depth of the tragedy. Christian life in this part of the world has existed from the time of the Bible. Part of the tragedy is that, because of this highly sectarian government in Baghdad, Christians have been fleeing anyway, hundreds of thousands even before this, but what ISIS would do would be to literally extinguish Christian life in its original lands.

So where is everybody? We always talk about what the bar is that triggers international action. We haven't seen it in Syria. We haven't seen it in the Middle East. But what about this? What about the United States? Where is the outrage here?

Well, I think that in the short term, nobody can act but the United States.

Why? Why can't India come in? Why can't the U.N. come in?

Nobody has the kind of military capacity the United States has to do something. In a humanitarian sense, in terms of aid, they can. But I do think that the next item on the agenda for the Obama administration, god knows this is complicated, should be to assemble an international coalition.

Because you're absolutely right. If you think about it strategically, as I say the position of the Kurds, if you think about it in humanitarian terms, the extinction of Christian life in Iraq, are important enough goals that you should be able to assemble an international coalition. We're going to have to do the heavy lifting.

A military source says to me the humanitarian part gets everybody's heart going, but if you don't do anything else, you're just fattening people up to be slaughtered.

Absolutely true. I think that's why I favor a more ambitious strategy. You know, Napoleon once said if you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna. In other words, if you're getting involved in a fight, fight to win. And so I would like to see more aid drop. Because if your goal is to defeat ISIS and protect the Kurdish people and these Christians, you’ve got to do something to make sure that happens.


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Topics: Iraq • United States

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Bakhtiar Dargali

    God bless you for your humane stand. You made believe that light of humanity is alive and will stiffle the sick darkness that had ISIS written on its facs.
    Kurdistan needs more than America's prayers, she needs arms to defend herself. Kurdistan is outgunned and outresourced by the lethal well armed terror group.
    Let's not fail Kurdistan. They are fighting an evil enemy that is enemy all mankind, not just Kurdistan's..

    August 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm |
    • Ever think

      Ever think of maybe buying your own arms and fighting your own war? Are you going to pay the US to do your dirty work?

      August 8, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
      • Romanf

        You want them to buy them on Ebay? There are not many places to "buy" arms from....very rarely are the arms that the US or anyone else gives are free. This is not a war of their making, so I can't figure where you're getting that anyone is doing their "dirty work". Simply a matter or eliminating a monster on the loose.

        The stronger they get, you can bet they will set their sights on the US and their interests. You think when they take over the capital in Kurdistan, they will allow the soldiers and US embassy workers to walk away? No, they will execute on video.

        Or maybe that's what you want, is it?

        August 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm |
      • fseque83

        Hey EverThink, you Ever Think that they need weapons and training NOW!!! Before they are all wiped out. Or do you suggest they buy those weapons using FedEx Overnight?

        August 8, 2014 at 3:57 pm |
      • mark dibble

        How can there be a "God" if those who believe, kill others. Sick of hearing about humans using religion as an excuse to kill.

        August 8, 2014 at 6:24 pm |
      • Sheepleherder

        By paying our taxes we did "buy arms" and "fight our own wars". Like a lot of you say " don't use your money", fine use ours. In the mean time, don't use our money to pay for the roads you use, or the schools your kids go to, or the hospital emergency room you might need.

        August 8, 2014 at 6:38 pm |
      • Bob

        We were quite happy to fund, and permit ( even encourage ) Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait to significantly arm and fund the Syrian rebels – who I might point these people were an element of. Some of them were probably trained as well. So much for foresight. That given, we should have no hesitation in arming the Kurds, other than oops, that might upset the Turks.

        August 8, 2014 at 8:12 pm |
      • jonainpdx

        If France had not provided her money and material military support, the US would not have won it's independence from Britain. That's a fact.

        August 9, 2014 at 1:14 am |
      • Kath E

        Saving the Kurds and the Christian religion in the region is hardly "dirty" work. It will be worth every penny to stop Isis in it's tracks. It's a cost we have to bare.

        August 9, 2014 at 7:45 am |
      • Cam

        For Kurds it's been difficult to buy themselves weapons, they may could get some smaller army deals that can be smuggled into Kurdistan, but Turkey, Iran, and most of other Arab countries block any weapons deal.

        August 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
    • George patton

      I agree, Bakhtiar. The Kurds need to given the same right to set up their own home state just as the Israelis did back in 1948. Only an ignorant fool would disagree!

      August 9, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
    • Mr. Mike

      Don't you think Mr. Zakaria that your comments that the US must help the Kurds "because they have been allies to the US for decades" a bit disingenuous. It was the US that provided the plans for chemical weapons plant construction to Sadaam Hussein and France and Germany–American allies–that provided the chemicals that eventually were used against the Kurds. If the Kurds did not control Mosul and the oil reserves there the US would not give a damn.

      August 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Obama is not repeating the mistakes made by earlier administrations. He thinks the Kurds deserve help and they are a reasonable bunch. If they can defend themselves and perhaps push the jihadists out of Iraq, it would be fantastic. But the Iraqi forces have to do the heavy lifting. As soon as the government gets its act together, fighting the jihadists will be their next task.

        August 13, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  2. DP

    what about Kurds in Turkey, zakaria... afraid to irritate a nato ally 🙂 ?

    August 8, 2014 at 4:38 pm |
    • George patton

      The Kurds in Turkey should be granted their well deserved independence and be allowed to join the Kurds in northern Iraq in order to create Kurdistan. This, the right-wing news media conveniently fails to mention, DP!!!

      August 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
      • Dianne Weaver

        You are not at all in a position to say what they deserve and give away somebody else's land. If somebody else did the same and made similar statements for a portion of your country, you would be outraged. Don't be a hypocrite.

        August 10, 2014 at 2:19 am |
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      August 9, 2014 at 4:53 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

        Please Reflud 42, unless you have something to say, quit wasting our time, will you?

        August 9, 2014 at 6:30 pm |
  3. Ted

    This is what Israelis understand when dealing with Islamists, even a bit less vicious than ISIS, you either fight them or die. There is no middle ground with these "convert to Islam or kill all infidels" mentality.

    August 8, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
    • Ferhat Balkan

      There's also no dealing with "Destroying Hamas", but slaughtering thousands of innocent civilians Israeli mentality either. You either bow down to their occupation and accept it, or end up being bombed to submission.

      August 8, 2014 at 7:07 pm |
  4. Ferhat Balkan

    It's not just the Christian minority that's in trouble, but also the Yazidi Kurds. The Yazidi have an ancient religion and culture that is very rich and traditional. Part of their religious belief includes the worship of the "Peacoc k Angel" which according to monotheistic religions is the evil deity Satan. This has historically led the Yazidi people into conflict and persecutions throughout history due to being labeled as "devil worshipers".
    The militant group IS sees them as devil worshipers and has surrounded them at a mountainous region called Sinjar. They had no choice but to run and hide in the mountains. Thousands of them are trapped there with no food and water. They have only 2 choices: Either starve to death on top of the mountain, or go back and be killed by IS.
    Obama authorized a humanitarian airdrop to provide them with food and water and also air strikes against the militants surrounding the mountain. This I believe was the right thing to do. These people need help urgently. However, I don't believe the US should get involved with sending ground forces, nor should it send weapons which can end up in the wrong hands. Limited air strikes and humanitarian aid should be in my opinion the only intervention the US should get involved in. It's for a good cause. IS should be dealt with local forces by the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. I believe together they can defeat IS. I saw many Republicans arguing for more military action and sending weapons which I believe to be misguided, as we've seen many times in the past, that hasn't helped the region at all. The last thing we need to do is add more fuel to the fire.

    August 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
    • Think_Dynamic

      Obama is now facing dillemma in decision making choosing between two lesser evils. First, US financial ruin and loss of lives including obvious policy and direction of Maliki administration on continuous persecution of Sunnis working under the umbrella of Iranian influence prompted Obama to leave Iraq for good. On other hand, ISIS being extremist and jihadist taking over of Iraq and Syria, commiting genocide and prosecution of Christians is a different ball game. Situation challenging US prestige as international peace keeper and a world leader is at stake. In my opinion, Obama's action may go against ISIS under humanitarian crisis and look into the middle-east further stability and peaceful

      August 9, 2014 at 4:14 pm |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    The only strategy for us now in Iraq is to use diplomatic means to get the Kurds, ISIS and the Shi'ites in Baghdad to split Iraq into three different states. Trying to hold Iraq together will only prolong this senseless bloodshed.

    August 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      No, @ My Troll, Mt. Zakatia is right,
      if my Republican friends want to send arms to the Kurds, then let's do it.
      Damn the torpedoes.
      BTW, as someone described the Kurds' religion above, it sounds really interesting. Diabolical, is it? Cool.

      August 9, 2014 at 8:18 am |
  6. Wayne Griswald

    Sorry, Fareed (you were wrong in 2003 when you said the US should get ambitious in Iraq also) but there is nothing we can do. First there is no such thing as limited war or limited successful military operations, if you don't understand this you don't understand warfare. Second there is no Iraq military, it doesn't exist. Unfortunately the people on tlhe mountain are going to die and Kurdistan is probably going to fall, there is just nothing we can do about it as bad as it is. We couldn't defeat the insurgency with 2 trillion dollars and ten years of military activity, we aren't going to be able to do anything with the limited resources we can marshal now. The region is going to fall and its going to be very ugly

    August 8, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
  7. David

    Fareed is correct. We need to be more ambitious in helping Iraq and the Kurds. The Kurds can do the fighting to protect their territory, but they need support which includes airstrikes and ground firepower. Give it to them and they can repell IS. Erbil is a terrific city with many homes, restaurants, malls, many schools and even churches. There are many families with children who want a good education for them. These are not nomads living in the desert. They deserve the right to defend themselves and to protect their cities. What is happening right now is the best thing we can do but it needs to continue until IS is gone. I am glad Obama has stepped up and stopped this insurgency before these people struck Erbil. A little late but not too late. There is no negotiating with these people. The IS are not even Iraqis, they are murderous thugs who deserve to be wiped out.

    August 9, 2014 at 4:32 am |
  8. Mr Credik

    Fight to win ? What would a win look like and could it really be achieved. If it were achieved, what would be there? The status quo minus ISIS? Who in Iraq wants that?

    August 9, 2014 at 7:38 am |
    • George patton

      No one in their right mind does, Mr Credik.

      August 9, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
  9. roadrunner48

    Thanks for the wisdom Zakaria. It's always good to hear from one of the original cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion.

    August 9, 2014 at 8:02 am |
  10. susanora

    Seems to me the President's actions are measured and further that he is not thundering and pre-announcing actions in this case. For example he waited for the first food/water drops to the Yazidis to be accomplished, before announcing that decision to the media. He already sent some 300 troops in as advisers (or whatever) – I'm sure some of them are in Erbil – and that he will do what is necessary to protect them (and thus Kurdistan's capital). Forcing the Iraqis to come together among themselves to repel ISIS (which is the announced policy) is a novel strategy – one that has never been tried – but if the Mideast is EVER to achieve a just stability, this kind of inclusional political behavior must be learned and exercised. Nothing unites people like fighting a common enemy, and If there was ever an enemy that all Iraqis can agree on, it has to be ISIS. It has just been reported that the Iraqi central government is sending arms to the Kurds – if true, that is excellent, and far better than if the US swooped in first in that way.

    Should the President announce some grand plan in advance, and then be criticized when (not if, but when) events dictate a change? It is a maxim that no plan of military action, no matter how well designed in advance, survives contact with the enemy. I would think that Mr. Zakaria, having favored the 2003 US invasion, ought to be seriously wondering why he again wants the US to act the strong man here.

    August 9, 2014 at 9:10 am |
  11. John Stidd

    It is becoming apparent that ISIL will serve a useful purpose for American interests once their attention is drawn away from the Kurdish enclave to a less defended target. Their encroachment into Syria and Lebanon places them on a war footing against Hezbollah. Their inevitable expansion to the Shia dominated section of Iraq will put the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on defensive footing. If they are convinced that the Kurds will not engage them offensively to retake Mosul Dam, the siege of Baghdad will occur. The abhorrent pictures and videos being released of their activities against the non-believers are intended to encourage fear and flight from the areas they intend to control, facilitating their occupation and inevitable cleansing. The government in Bagdad is not functional enough to defend this onslaught. The humanitarian crisis will far surpass anything we have to date witnessed. Inevitably there will be another Iran/Iraq war that encompasses Syria and Lebanon, and will hopefully drain both sides enough that they both become impotent for further expansion. For its part, America, and its allies, need to make an effort to empower the Kurdish peoples in Iraq, Iran, and Syria for effective defense against being drawn in by any side but their own.

    In my mind, this has a strange way of playing out for the Israelis and Palestinians. In Gaza, the Iran friendly elements are likely to be recruited out for other purposes. In the region, hating the "Jews" serves a useful purpose of promoting unity of purpose among people who really hate each other more. As they live among each other, it is best to defer attention away. ISIL essentially lets the cat out of the bag.

    August 9, 2014 at 12:00 pm |
  12. Viktor

    It is high time the US tells Turkey to prevent the Wahabi/Salafi terrorists from crossing its border to join ISIS/Al Qaida. Enough of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey's hypocracy.

    August 9, 2014 at 1:50 pm |
    • Dianne Weaver

      ISIS raided Turkish consulate in Northern Iraq, took down the Turkish flag, and took 40+ personnel including the consul. Turks do not sympathize with ISIS or Al Qaeda. Any and every nation has citizens that join these organizations. It is especially hard for Turkey to stop people from doing this because they share border with these Arabic countries. It is unfortunate because Turks opened their doors to Syrian refugees for humanitarian reasons and now these 2 million Arabs make it much harder to control the traffic. Turks have a tradition of helping those in need, even when they have no ethnic ties to them and even if they are "enemy". They opened their borders and let the Kurds in when Saddam was about to gas them, prior to the no-fly zone being enforced, which would also be impossible without Turkish assistance.

      August 10, 2014 at 2:25 am |
  13. RT Colorado

    I watched Mr. Zakaria on CNN the other night deliver what was a very insightful analysis of the current situation in the Middle East. I have been critical of some of his comments, but he delivered a very compelling argument regarding American policy in the region. I have read comments from liberals condemning President Bush for the Iraq War and find it hypocritical now everyone seems to be pushing for American intervention there now. If the US doesn't intervene, the Kurds are at risk. On the other hand, if the US does intervene and the Kurds become an autonomous and independent state, the US runs the risk of prompting a strong response by Turkey (a key NATO partner) who would oppose any movement towards an independent Kurdish nation. Do we alienate a key ally that sits astride the entrance to the Black Sea and holds the southern bulwark against Russia to help the Kurds or do we let the Kurds fend for themselves?

    August 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
  14. bq45

    So the catch word for Fareed and company is ; "They're extremely pro-American, pro- Western".
    The cat is out of the bag.
    It does not matter if a minority group is oppressed or want to have its rights respected. As long as they are pro-USA. Shame on you Fareed and your lackeys to be so nakedly opportunistic in your approach to human rights.

    No wonder, USA is not respected anywhere in the world.

    August 9, 2014 at 8:54 pm |
  15. Shree Shrestha

    Help Kurdistan by any means.

    August 10, 2014 at 1:29 am |
    • George patton

      I agree, Shree Shrestha. The Kurds do have a right to their own homeland just as the Israelis do.

      August 10, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
  16. incady

    So *NOW* we need to get involved? What about Syria, when you advocated non-involvement? Remember Syria, where the moderate FSA was fighting *both* the Assad regime and ISIS forces? You said we shouldn't get involved then. Subsequently, ISIS grew stronger, and is now threatening Iraq and the Kurds, We should've gotten involved in Syria, where if we armed the FSA and helped with air strikes, we couldn't nipped ISIS in the bud and brought the downfall of Assad. Your views on Syria then was NOT thought out, and it's not thought out now.

    August 10, 2014 at 1:41 pm |

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