The President’s remarks late last week on Iraq’s civil strife left the impression that the Obama administration has either failed to settle on a strategic response orsimply desires the impossible.
“We will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists,” the President declared, just before claiming, “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq.”
More puzzlingly, Obama committed to increased support — training and advising, but also arms — for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) mere moments before promising that the U.S. would not pursue military options that support one sect at the expense of another.
Obama has failed to recognise ISF’s transformation into a sectarian Shia force, because he worked assiduously to detach his administration from the U.S.’s troubled relationship with Iraq. Iran is now the only force preventing ISIS from overrunning Baghdad. Iranian armed forces are intimately involved both in the strategic and operational aspects of Iraq’s civil war — likely to an even greater extent than has been reported in the press.
Thus, any U.S. support for the ISF inherently fuels sectarian conflict in Iraq. If one key to defusing Iraq’s civil strife is Sunnis’ belief that they have a stake in Iraq’s future, U.S. support for the ISF — and Iran, by extension — will only entrench support for the ISIS-Ba’athist insurgency.
President Obama’s contradictory hopes and expectations for Iraq underscore just how unappealing he perceives his options to be.
Yet, the problem of devising U.S. action in Iraq is not about choosing between unpalatable options — like whether to send military support that strengthens Maliki, or to wait for genuine political reform while ISIS solidifies its grasp on western Iraq. Instead, the difficulty lies in properly staging the U.S.’s response.
Working toward a solution to the Iraq crisis will require that the U.S. facilitate a series of steps that build upon each other and toward strategic U.S. goals.
That process begins with outreach to the moderate Arab groups that disapprove of Maliki and communicating the U.S. commitment to Iraqi cohesion and power-sharing. Secular nationalists, alienated Sunni tribes, and anti-Maliki Shia, all must receive overtures from the U.S.
Before the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and Maliki swerved toward divisiveness and power consolidation, Maliki’s opponents — Sunni and Shia — helped deliver Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya party a victory in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Though Maliki returned to the premiership and disillusioned these groups, they still exist. Many currently support the Sunni insurgency, but they are ambivalent about it. They are integral to any coalition hoping to piece Iraq back together. Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings Thursday with the Gulf monarchies may have represented a heartening step in this direction.
The U.S. must then arm the Kurds.
Publicly, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials express confidence in their peshmerga forces. However, some officials in Erbil express genuine concern at ISIS’ capabilities with the modern weaponry seized following ISF desertions, and at the prowess of the ISIS-aligned Ba’athist JRTN.
By contrast, the peshmerga are a disciplined fighting force, even if they’re equipped with outmoded weapons. Arming the Kurds ensures that the strongest military in Iraq has the best possible chance of defeating ISIS.
Moreover, this support may convince KRG officials that — at long last — the U.S. views the Kurds as true international partners. Years of Kurdish cynicism about its relationship with the U.S. could swiftly reverse course.
More quietly, the U.S. must drop its pressure on Kurdistan over its independent oil sales. At the same time, it can express tacit support for KRG control of disputed territories, like multi-ethnic Kirkuk, and help devise strategies for governing the multi-ethnic city, without stoking sectarian conflict.
The Kurds would then assist the U.S. with target selection for air strikes in ISIS-controlled western Iraq. With the U.S.’s partnership and air support, the Kurds would engage ISIS militarily and attempt to force the jihadists into retreat. Whereas U.S. military support of the sectarian ISF would raise immediate alarm among Sunnis, support for the pesh merga forces would not produce the same polarization.
Finally, the U.S. must support easing Maliki out of office — likely in return for immunity from prosecution.
Removing Maliki is a tall order. It pits the U.S. squarely against the conservative Shia coalition Maliki leads, and against Iran, which will fiercely oppose a less pliable government. Maliki’s coalition delivered him a parliamentary victory in April, and Iran relies on Iraq as a conduit to the Assad regime in Syria. Each will be loath to cede its favoured position.
Even if Maliki is successfully ousted, Sunni and Shia groups must still come together and try to remake Iraq. With Maliki’s rule fresh in the minds of Sunni groups, and his removal upsetting his Shia allies, negotiations to rebuild Iraqi politics are a sobering thought. Kurdistan — with modern weaponry, oil revenue, control of Kirkuk, and a renewed U.S. relationship — may prepare for independence, upsetting the delicate negotiations.
Simply put, even the best-designed U.S. engagement may fail.
But this staged approach allows the U.S. to subdue the gravest threat in ISIS, while benefiting its strongest, most reliable allies in Iraq: the Kurds. Though the U.S. hopes Iraq can politically reconstitute itself, it must see ISIS defeated and its territorial control diminished. And if the country is destined to break apart, American weapons would strengthen Kurdistan after Iraq’s dissolution.
The Iraq crisis may yet split the country for good. If it does, the U.S. will at least have worked to engage disaffected Sunni groups, ameliorate tensions, and rebuild political consensus — all of which may help ease the inevitable pangs associated with the end of Iraq.
Dov Friedman is a graduate student at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently in Kurdistan researching foreign policy in emerging energy states. Follow him on Twitter @DovSFriedman.
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