Stability in Iraq requires consensus, but that will take years
Barack Obama’s track record suggests he’s unlikely to order significant US military intervention in Iraq. And if he stays true to the pattern of restraint he’s shown in Syria and Ukraine, he’ll likely have the backing of a majority of the American public and also of a US military leadership highly sceptical of military adventures that lack a credible end game.
The offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its allies has some in Washington blaming Mr Obama’s restrained global posture for the setbacks. But Mr Obama, having taken the helm of an exhausted imperial power whose post-Second World War role simply no longer matched its means, remains preternaturally opposed to injecting the US military into distant conflicts that have their own dynamics for which American power offers no obvious solution. For months, White House officials have reportedly uttered variations on the mantra “don’t do stupid stuff” to summarise the administration’s response to the “do something” pressure on Syria or Ukraine.
The US military convinced Mr Obama to refrain from air strikes in Syria because there was no clear end game. There’s plainly little enthusiasm in the military for renewed involvement in Iraq. Gen Martin Dempsey last week told Congress the US currently lacked sufficient intelligence on ISIL to make air strikes viable.
Gen David Petraeus, former US commander in Iraq, was even more forthright, telling an audience in London that the US should avoid providing air support for Shia militias – the forces most loyal to Nouri Al Maliki – and that there was no point in the US intervening to prop up an incorrigibly sectarian political order.
President Obama echoed that idea, warning that “no amount of American firepower [would] be able to hold the country together” if Iraq’s political leadership could not find a formula for inclusive governance. It’s now generally accepted in Washington that Mr Al Maliki’s authoritarian sectarian rule has set the stage for ISIL’s takeover of western Iraq.
While John Kerry stopped short of calling on Mr Al Maliki to stand down during his visit to Baghdad this week, there has been talk in Washington of “replacing” Mr Al Maliki, as if sectarian authoritarian politics in Baghdad was simply a product of the prime minister’s paranoia and other personal failings, rather than deeply etched into the political fabric. The US was unable to influence Iraq’s political choices when it had 170,000 troops in the country. It’s hard to imagine decisive influence being acquired at the price of a few advisers and the possibility of air strikes.
Just as ISIL is unlikely to be able to take Shia-dominated areas such as Baghdad, so, too, it may be unlikely that forces loyal to Mr Al Maliki will retake Sunni-majority areas. ISIL may comprise no more than about 10,000 men, but it is operating in a permissive environment. Its commanders have years of experience and they will draw allied groups from across the region under their wing.
Air strikes could certainly disrupt ISIL to a limited extent, but probably at a prohibitive cost. As Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group has warned, the single biggest boost to ISIL’s recruitment drive will be any form of Western military intervention. “Any such intervention would be a grave mistake,” he says.
The US “surge” drove Al Qaeda in Iraq out of the same area in 2007 because it bought off local tribes and insurgent groups antagonised by the extremists’s harsh behaviour. Mr Al Maliki abandoned, then turned on those forces as soon as the US stood down. Those groups may well grow disaffected with ISIL, but many of them are quite content to see the radicals drive out government forces.
The splintering of Iraq – and the tearing up of the Sykes-Picot map that created the region’s modern system of nation states – is already well underway. Kurdistan is a reality, even more deeply entrenched since its acquisition of Kirkuk. There’s precious little Mr Al Maliki can do today to stop Iraq’s borders being redrawn by either ISIL or the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The Sykes-Picot order was imposed with the backing of colonial military power. A nation-state, by definition, requires a monopoly of force in the hands of those who would rule its territory. No such thing exists in Iraq today, which is why it is breaking up. And the US – having eliminated Saddam’s monopoly – is not in a position to provide it in his stead.
If the key to stabilising Iraq requires a consensus, or at least a new modus vivendi, among competing sectarian and ethnic factions, that implies that the essential precondition for containing the ISIL challenge is some form of regional security compact among Iraq’s neighbours, whose war by proxy through Iraqi factions continues to drive the civil war.
But getting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to agree on a common approach to Iraq – and Syria – may take years.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in international affairs at the New School in New York
Updated: June 24, 2014 04:00 AM