Anne Patterson on the Middle East

The US has forced itself back into the balance of power in Iraq and has already managed to stabilize the situation there, but the fight to expel ISIS extremists from the country will still be a long struggle, and will require Americans to essentially rebuild Iraqi security forces, according to Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. But the most transformative event in the Middle East now would be a successful nuclear deal with Iran, which would have enormous strategic and commercial implications. “US companies are salivating to get back into Iran,” said Patterson, a former ambassador to Cairo and to Islamabad with 41 years of service in the State Department.

Underlying all the turmoil in the Middle East, Patterson told a roundtable lunch of LAWAC members on Friday, were two fundamental problems: First, the youth bulge of young, under-skilled and often unemployed men who have been a fertile recruiting pool for extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Secondly, the tenuous nature and identity of nation states in the region, most of which (with the exceptions of Egypt and Iran) are less than a hundred years old and emerged shakily from the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire and the machinations of British and French colonial rule. Today “when their autocratic rulers are removed from the top, many have dissolved into ethnic and tribal conflict.”

On ISIS, Patterson said the US was aware of the threat from the al Qaeda offshoot, but did not realize how poor Iraqi government forces had become, nor how much the battle-readiness of the Kurdish peshmerga forces had declined, which allowed ISIS to quickly conquer much of western and northern Iraq. “It is hard for Americans to understand how much we had withdrawn from Iraq, pulling back our personnel to our embassy, and no longer knowing what was happening on the ground in the countryside,” Patterson said. By the time ISIS had taken Mosul, it was clear the US had to intervene, but “the President didn’t want to be Maliki’s air force,” so the US forced the unpopular and narrowly sectarian Shiite prime minister to step down before committing American planes to the fight against ISIS. “Now [that] Maliki has gone – and gone diplomatically, not with a bullet in his head – which is good for that part of the world,” said Patterson, there is a possibility of getting the Sunnis to join in the fight against ISIS. And the US was also determined not to fight ISIS alone, instead devoting considerable diplomatic resources to build a coalition of some 62 nations, including 5 Arab countries, to take on the extremists. Patterson said that although “the President has said no US boots on the ground”, there are already 1,700 US military advisers in the country, “and that number will probably have to go up.”

In Egypt Patterson said that the US is concerned about the crack-down on civil rights and the arrests of activists and journalists, but said the main challenge was economic – “they must get jobs for the young generation.” Libya, by contrast, is showing the extreme element of what is happening in the Middle East – “they have 7 million people, over $100 bn in foreign reserves so they are very rich, but after Gadaffi lost power it has broken apart.” Today the country is virtually ungoverned, the US embassy has completely withdrawn, and the CIA estimates there are some 125 different militias fighting for power.

Overhanging much of what is going on in the region are the ongoing discussions with Iran aimed at reaching a deal on their nuclear capabilities by November 24th. “If the Iranian nuclear talks are successful and they decided to rejoin the family of nations, the commercial and strategic impact would be huge,” said Patterson. Sanctions have crushed Iran, she said, with the currency having lost 75% of its value, and Teheran facing huge budget deficits – made worse by the recent drop in the oil price. “They need a deal and we need a deal,” said Patterson. And if there is no deal, there will be huge pressure on the US to further increase sanctions, while domestically the more reform-minded leaders around President Rouhani will lose out to the hardliners. There are some stark decisions ahead for the region.