US military advisors have a complex job — especially in the Middle East

Key Points
  • Syria Tomahawk strikes open new chapter for Trump administration
  • U.S. military advisors play a critical role in Syria and Iraq
Iraqi troops trained by U.S. military advisors just before the Second Battle of Fallujah, 2004.
Source: Michael Zacchea

Being a U.S. military advisor has never been easy — particularly in the Middle East — and it's not going to get any easier now.

In the wake of U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes against Syria and a new hard line against the regime there, U.S. military advisors in the region are likely to play an even more important role than they already do. Americans are currently advising Iraqi troops in a vicious fight against ISIS in Mosul, and the United States has almost doubled, to nearly 1,000, the number of U.S. soldiers and Marines on the ground in northern Syria just in the past month.

But training local fighters is a risky job that's hard to do right, especially in the Middle East, which is splintered into groups with conflicts that go back centuries. Those divisions can be religious (Sunni vs. Shiite), ethnic (Arab vs. Kurd) and national (Turkey vs. Syria). An advisor's job is made all that much harder by the fact that the divisions overlap.

That complexity is a topic retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea understands well. In 2004, the former U.S. military advisor became one of the first Westerners to raise a native, Middle Eastern military unit and take it into combat since Lawrence of Arabia did it 100 years ago this month.

The following excerpt from the book Zacchea co-authored with CNBC's Ted KempThe Ragged Edge: A Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion — illustrates the cultural complexities that Zacchea encountered then, and which lie ahead for Americans serving in Iraq and Syria now, and in the future.

Then-Maj. Michael Zacchea in Fallujah, Iraq, late 2004.

Slowly I began to discern the divisions that separated the Iraqis from each other. The most obvious was rank. The officers strictly separated themselves from the enlisted men, to a degree much more stringent than we knew in the Marine Corps. Every expression, every gesture reinforced their separateness and their superiority. Their attitude toward the NCOs — those sergeants who acted as intermediaries between the officers and the enlisted Iraqis — was only slightly less condescending.

The second-most-obvious partition among the Iraqis was ethnicity. The Arabs considered the Kurds' loyalty suspect. The Kurds considered the Arabs' motives dangerous. The Arabs spoke Arabic, and the Kurds spoke two dialects of Kurdish. The couple dozen [soldiers in the battalion I advised] from other ethnic groups — Assyrians, Turkmen, and the like — clung to each other for safety.

The toughest schism to detect — but probably the most dangerous — was the religious divide. The Sunni-versus-Shiite division of twenty-first-century Iraq made me think of the Catholic-versus-Protestant division of sixteenth-century Europe. The Sunnis and the Shiites split apart almost at the very beginning of Islam, in the seventh century. ... Fourteen centuries later, the dissension was still just as real, right in front of me.

The fact that the Kurds were mostly Sunnis — and so had that in common with half the battalion's Arabs — scrambled things up that much more. We advisers had been taught about none of these rifts before we left the States. Probably nobody in the military knew to teach them to us. We learned on the fly.

Making things even more turbulent were a few basic facts about Iraq and our war. Most Iraqis are Shiites. But Saddam Hussein and his old power structure were Sunni. Both the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs resented the Sunnis in a deadly serious way. Then there were our enemies, the insurgents. Most of them were Sunnis. But in the south and around Baghdad, they were usually Shiites who were allied with Iran. The two insurgent sects also were fighting each other. In some places, subsects were fighting each other. The Kurds were loyal to the Americans, but their Peshmerga warriors were fighting insurgents in the north without consulting with us.

That said, the Iraqis' [animosity toward each other] seemed to evaporate when they dealt with each other one-on-one. Like people everywhere, in the abstract, their words were a lot tougher and meaner than their face-to-face behavior. A Kurd may casually refer to Arabs as "rabbits," because he thinks they're good for hunting down, but then he'll be friends with an individual Arab. A Sunni may like saying that Shiites are wannabe Iranians, but then he'll greet a Shiite acquaintance with a kiss on both cheeks. [My close friend and Iraqi officer] Major Zayn, for example, was a Sunni, but he shared a room and was close with two Shiite officers. ...

I stayed up with the three of them late nights, taking in everything I could. We sat on their scratchy wool blankets and talked about religion and the war and America. … The Iraqis loved talking about politics and religion. They went on and on about those two topics more freely with the Americans than we Americans are willing to do with each other. The Iraqis were intensely curious about the United States. So we talked, long into the night. Outside, it was 110 degrees. Inside, they turned the AC down as low as it would go. My teeth chattered, and they laughed at me.

I needed to learn as much as I could. I felt rushed to learn. Military units need cohesion. They do not need baked-in discord.

If we were going to overcome the Fifth Battalion's many partitions, we would have to do it on two levels: On a high level, we had to make them loyal to the concept of a unified Iraq where everyone is equal under the law. In other words, we had to make them Western. (Nobody back in the States had told us how to do that, either.) On a basic level, we had to work man by man, creating something cohesive between individuals that could supersede the cultural schisms. That meant building relationships between Americans and Iraqis, and building trust among the Iraqis themselves.

We had to find the best, most committed leaders who could hold the battalion together. The ancient schisms weren't going away.

Reprinted from The Ragged Edge: A US Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion by Michael Zacchea and Ted Kemp with permission from Chicago Review Press. (c) Copyright 2017. All Rights Reserved. Now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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—Clarification: This report has been updated to reflect that Zacchea was one of multiple U.S. military advisors working with Iraqi troops in early 2004.