Iraq: What to Do Now?
Is it “you reap what you sow”? The US electorate that voted for George W. Bush should ask itself the question.
The growing strength of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra represents a grave threat to the future of the Middle East and the US has no one to blame but itself.
ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), it is being said, could eventually reconfigure the Middle East if it is able to seize significant chunks of Iraq and Syria, the Arab world’s two strategic centrepieces, spanning the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
ISIS has begun setting up a proto-state in parts of Syria and Iraq, with its own courts, police and public services. According to the well-informed Middle East watcher, Robin Wright, “ISIS has become the most aggressive and ambitious extremist movement in the world. It is also the most deadly and the most accomplished, dwarfing its parent, al-Qaeda, in influence and impact”.
US policymakers understand from painful experience that military aid will not simply pressure Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with his autocratic sectarianism, to make serious concessions to Iraqi Sunnis, and thus help dry up the waters in which ISIS swims.
But what else can President Barack Obama do?
Red meat Congressional Republicans, who conveniently forget that before President George W. Bush launched his war there was no Al-Qaeda in Iraq, believe the US should do some bombing of the fast moving columns of ISIS troops.
But that won’t stop them. They’ll move forward under cover of darkness as the Vietcong used to do. Moreover, they have lots of back-up troops ready to take the place of the fallen.
Bombing the towns they have already taken? That will just hurt civilians and push the Sunni population of Iraq into the arms of ISIS (where they are are already heading).
“Boots on the ground”? Not even the Republicans want to see the US involved in that way.
Republicans and some Democrats gripe about Obama pulling all US troops out of Iraq in 2009 and making it clear that now that’s done and the troops in Afghanistan are coming home that the US won’t get drawn into conflicts abroad unless they directly threaten the homeland.
But it is simply wild talk to say, as those on the right do, that if ISIS succeeds in Iraq and Syria it will create an Islamist caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
al-Maliki may be on the defensive but in Baghdad and his Shia-populated backyard (60% of Iraq’s population) he will remain strong even if he loses the Sunnis and Kurds. (Ideally, the Sunnis and Kurds, who are also Sunnis, could live as one federal state, sharing the Kurds’ plentiful oil revenues. A brotherly arm from the Kurds would help dilute ISIS influence.)
In Syria it is already pretty clear that Assad is invincible. Dictator he may be. War criminal he surely is. But he is regaining territory and as long as Russia continues to supply him with heavy weapons his government will not be deposed.
The civil war could drag on but as long as the various guerrilla groups remain divided – and many of them detest the Islamists as much as Assad does – they will never be potent enough to advance on Damascus.
The best policy for Obama would be to be nice to Shia Iran and encourage it in its diplomacy with Saudi Arabia- its foreign minister has just accepted an invitation to visit Riyadh.
The Saudis have to be persuaded by the US and Iran to stop helping the Islamic extremists. (After all this would not be the first time that Saudi Arabia will have allowed its reflex support of Islamist movements to be sublimated. It spurned the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although its theology pointed it towards camaraderie with Saudi Arabia, because it had the capacity to disturb the politics of the Saudi kingdom.)
As for the threat of ISIS to the US and Europe: Sure there is one, not least because Western citizens of Middle Eastern and Pakistani origin are receiving training. But it must be kept in proportion. Western police have an increasingly good record of picking them up once they return home.
The advance of ISIS into the heart of Iraq hopefully might bring some of the regional powers to their senses, forcing them into a replica of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Year War in Europe, coming together to work on de-escalating the conflict instead of pushing to win it.
US military involvement would be counterproductive.
Diplomacy and deal making are the tools available to Obama.
Jonathan Power is a columnist and associate at the Transnational Foundation for Peace & Future Research in Lund Sweden.
© Jonathan Power 2014