Written by: Chris Bing
On June 23rd, multiple outlets confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad to hear Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s pitch to justify further U.S. support for his regime. The omnipresent, ever-consuming violence in Iraq and the infectious, sectarian chaos across its borders, in Syria, have proven to be a consistent source of woes for the Obama Administration. But, with the scars of an 11-year nation building tour still fresh in the minds of a war-weary American public, what can be done to stifle the ongoing violence in Iraq?
Colin Powell, before the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, warned then President, George W. Bush, that once U.S. military forces broke the Iraqi State we would own the "hopes, aspirations and problems" of 25 million people.
Today, those hopes and aspirations for a democratic Iraqi State are now on the verge of being broken.
A radical Sunni, jihadist militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/the Levant, or ISIS/ISIL, are among the main players in a warring faction bent on creating a new Islamic State in Iraq. The terrorist organization was once considered an “affiliate” of al-Qaeda, but parted ways with Osama bin Laden’s successor, Aymann al-Zawahiri, over ISIS brutality in Syria.
ISIS and its allying forces have already taken control of a series of large, primary cities in the country, including Falluja and Mosul, and now they have their eyes set on the grand prize: Baghdad.
Their crusade across northern, Sunni majority cities in Iraq represents a metastasizing of two once distinct conflicts — that in Syria and that in Iraq — and an unprecedented threat to the entire region.
On June 19th, President Obama first addressed the nation concerning the current conflict in Iraq. After a week of deliberations, the White House confirmed vague reports that they are willing to send up to 300 ‘military advisors’ to Iraq, to help the country from falling into a full scale civil war. Days later, Pentagon reports confirmed speculation that Iran had in fact deployed a “small number” of troops to fight off the ISIS invasion.
“‘The only thing they[the 300 military advisors] could do that would be effective is acting as a targeting cell,’ … Practically, “targeting” would mean using high-tech U.S. intelligence assets to gather information and coordinate air strikes or Iraqi-led ground offensives. But it’s not entirely apparent who would be targeted.”- A former CIA officer told The Daily Beast.
Obviously, the influx of only 300 unspecified military personnel tends to illustrate more of a symbolic message than a literal one, to the Iraqi government. But it nonetheless leaves a message: ‘we haven’t forgotten about you or our interests in the region’. And, though it may not be the response Prime Minister al-Maliki hoped for, it does however signify the beginning of a long and arduous diplomatic process between the United States, Iran, and Syria.
Little if any progress seems possible in Syria, as all sides — Assad and much of the fragmented opposition — feel as though they are benefitting from the current chaos. Tellingly, the only area where real action seems possible is in gaining international cooperation to help contain violent extremism.
“We were winning the war where I served and when I left.” - A Vietnam War vet commenting on the similarities between the war in Iraq and Vietnam, told Vice New’s Dan O’Shea.
A fragile and corrupt Iraqi State under the influence of Prime Minister al-Maliki has, over time, created an unjust sociopolitical hierarchy between the 3-primary ethnic groups in the country — favoring the Shiite communities over the Sunnis and/or Kurds. Now, given the opportunity to supplement their social statuses, political prowess, and economic standings, moderate Kurdish and Sunni groups are finding themselves aligned with ISIS in an odd partnership that will decide the future of Iraq.
Though ISIS has matured and grown stronger through their crusade across Iraq, the current conflict in Syria and subsequently in Iraq involves a larger set of international players. A grandiose view of the conflict reveals a critical geopolitical struggle between nations in the region to administer favorable border partnerships.
ISIS, in its self-proclaimed status as an independent state, has claimed the territory of Iraq and Syria, with implied future conquest intended over more of the Levant, including Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, and Southern Turkey.
In June alone, the group has already killed a reported 1,075 Iraqi citizens, according to the Associate Press.
ISIS along with the Army of Islam, Free Syrian Army, Kurdish militant forces, and al-Qaeda, supply a substantial majority of the rebel forces battling against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian national army only a few hundred miles away from Baghdad.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and of course Israel, all have a major stake in this.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shia Islam's leading voices, has called for the creation of a new government that, 'avoids past mistakes’.
"Obama’s recent remarks shows that the White House lacks serious will for confronting terrorism in Iraq and the region.”- Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs
Standing atop newspaper headlines everywhere is the news that Iran is currently funding a troop push throughout Iraq to quell the rebel forces. In the past two days reports have also surfaced claiming that both Syrian and Israeli military planes are bombing Sunni targets inside of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia remains tied to funding allegations that prop up al-Qaeda affiliated groups, like ISIS, who they deem are battling against an autocratic Shii’te majority.
“They [the Qataris] punch immensely above their weight … They keep everyone off balance by not being in anyone’s pocket … Their influence comes partly from being unpredictable” - An unnamed senior Western diplomat told The New York Times.
Turkey has now spent $1.5 billion in caring for Syrian refugees, with no end in sight. Ironically, only months prior, the Turkish government were also encouraging ISIS fighters to use their sovereign border next to Syria as a means to an end in toppling the Assad regime.
80 Turkish citizens are now reportedly ISIS hostages after the militant group took the city of Mosul, according to The New York Times. Cross-border trading has suddenly all but halted, cutting off a vital source of national income for Turkey.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, the minister of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, has declined to comment on how the current conflict in Iraq would affect Turkish policy.
In addition, the current, volatile nature of Turkish politics has diminished the chances of diplomacy between the two nations. Turkish foreign policy — sharing a common theme with its neighbors — is in its form, focused on a self-absorbed notion of power. A quick glance at the situation in Iraq/Syria reveals that maybe no other actor would benefit as greatly as Turkey could if its neighbors to the South would begin to stabilize.
Clearly, the current crisis in Iraq boasts a complex knot of actors in overlapping crises. Attempting to use a broad-stroke foreign policy initiative, reliant on immediate military support/action, would prove not only insufficient but also fatal to a young democratic Iraq.
“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grandiosely claimed in 2011 that our "responsible withdrawal" of military forces from Iraq would be supplanted by the largest U.S. diplomatic program since the Marshall Plan. That never materialized. The Obama administration declined to use what leverage we had left to broker a stabilizing political bargain after the 2010 parliamentary elections, standing in silence as Maliki politicized the electoral commission (it invalidated numerous winning candidates), violated the Iraqi Constitution, replaced effective military commanders with cronies, and used the justice system to persecute sectarian foes (including the sitting vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi).”- Kori Shake, Contributor at Foreign Policy
The need for a leadership entity — be it regional or one of international origin — is necessary to resolve the ongoing conflict in Iraq. While the entire region has a stake in the outcome of this conflict and they are bound to get involved in it one way or another, the U.S. must lead.
Primarily with a strong diplomatic and economic force of influence, the Obama Administration must pacify the most dangerous and immediate threat to American lives: allowing Iraq to decay into a lawless environment which will inevitably produce murderous international terrorist cells.
How the nation will do this is clearly up for debate. That being said, given the executive branch’s historic tendencies when it comes to the region (i.e. its use of E.O.s and the War Powers Act), I think it is safe to say that President Obama alone will lead that debate — regardless of his recent proclamations to include Congress.
“We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.” - Massoud Barzani, President of the semiautonomous Kurdish government, told Secretary of State John Kerry (Associated Press 2014).
The first task at hand will be containing the relative violence in Iraq and then stabilizing the country. This means using whatever force necessary to disband ISIS’s influences — some sort of short term, trust-building partnership with Iran may be possible during this immediate step, and as such should be taken advantage of.
Isolating ISIS from the 'main stream’ global jihadist movement will also be key in any standard plan to decimate the threat in Iraq — which, fortunately for the U.S., is something the group has seemingly already done to itself.
The biggest concern in this process however, will be the necessary and careful inclusion of Sunni and Kurdish representatives in the Iraqi administration — something that neither Maliki nor the Iranians are particularly keen on.
As history has taught us, successful post-war nation building takes decades — as it did in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The price of freedom and long term stability in the world is an enduring commitment to political, economic, and military obligations.
Though it may be a tall order, international collaboration is required and the current situation may just be one of those rare moments when such cooperation is possible, provided there is some flexibility about who does what.
Ironically, the region’s reigning bogey man, Iran, stands as the most plausible ally in the fight against ISIS. Doing so however, will require the type of tight-rope diplomacy that has been absent throughout the duration of the Obama administration.
As David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy writes in his most recent piece, “America Can't Fix the Middle East, but It Can Fix Its Middle East Policy”: “Do too little and we will soon be facing what is a genuine red line for the United States: Jordan … Be too fastidious about getting precisely the political progress we want in Iraq and we will be easily manipulated by Maliki and Iran into strengthening their partnership in ways that could lead to outcomes that might be acceptable for them -- like the partitioning of Iraq.”
Stabilizing the country, acquiring a crucial and underrated trading chip in the Iran/Iraq relationship (maybe something towards the much heralded Iranian nuclear weapons deal), and finding the right forum in which to enter into a meaningful discussion with Iran, should be the U.S.’s main objectives in Iraq, today.
Though it should never have been the U.S.’s responsibility to ‘nation-build’ in Iraq, it certainly cannot reattempt that possibility now.
The clock is winding down and now the U.S. must act to save Iraq. Foreign policy is sometimes messy and action is sometimes required even when perfect outcomes are not apparent. This is one of those times.