Is there a solution to avoid it?
Nicholas Kristof writing for The New York Times opposes USA intervention in Iraq. I completely support him when he says, “Our 2003 invasion of Iraq should be a warning that military force sometimes transforms a genuine problem into something worse.” I cannot however but disagree when he says, “Iraq has formally requested American military intervention, and my fear is that we will be inadvertently sucked into a civil war — an echo of what happened to the United States in Lebanon from 1982 to ’84 or Somalia from 1992 to ’94. Look, failing to intervene is a bad option in this case. But intervening is a worse one… Many Sunnis in Iraq dislike ISIS, but they have learned to loathe and distrust Maliki even more. The way out of the mess in Iraq is for the government to share power with Sunnis and Kurds, accept decentralisation and empower moderate Sunni tribes.” (June 18, 2014)
I empathise with his fear for his country’s embroiling in another vortex. However, political deals for the devolution of central power, forced from outside, do not deliver, as history proves. In Afghanistan, increasing influence of Taliban and attacks on NATO and US forces make it strategically difficult for a complete withdrawal of the alien forces as proposed earlier. The Afghan scenario today is reminiscent of Iraq. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in replacing the Sunnis with elite Shias. The cascading effect was a civil war. Ending 2011, US withdrew its forces without leaving any residual force to allow time for Iraq to stabilise with a lighter presence. The complete drawdown resulted owing to an impasse over the legal immunity of residual US troops in Iraq post 2011.
Iraq has become a battleground for war between Shia and Sunni Muslims as viewed in Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, all of which are battlegrounds of proxy wars. The existing religio-geographic dynamics cannot be overlooked. Hezbollah and Iran combined with Alawites of Syria have been aiming at reviving the Greater Iran, keeping in view their own schismatic ideology, the effects of which reflect in the current proxy war in Pakistan. The geographic link formed is Hezbollah on one end, Syria and Iraq forming the centre with Iran at the other end, converging to solidify a unified religious school of thought.
Back to Iraq now: Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to reconcile with the country’s Sunnis and Kurdish populations. In power since 2006, he has faced increasing insurgencies, in particular from a splinter group of Al-Qaeda named ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The ISIS has pushed out Nouri al-Maliki from many cities of Iraq. It has come to a point where increasingly the ‘minus 1’ formula is being supported, not only by the US but also by the Arab world. In a piece published by CNN, “There’s hope that a government bringing the Sunnis and Kurds into the political process would curb sympathies for ISIS by those who find themselves on the outside.” (June 19, 2014)
According to a report by Reuters, “Saudi Arabia gave an apparent warning to arch enemy Iran on Wednesday by saying outside powers should not intervene in the conflict in neighbouring Iraq. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal also said Iraq was facing a full-scale civil war with grave consequences for the wider region. His remarks coincided with an Iranian warning that Tehran would not hesitate to defend Shi’ite Muslim holy sites in Iraq against “killers and terrorists”, following advances by Sunni militants there.” (Published June 18, 2014) Iran, of course, fears a unified anti-Iranian Iraq, a potential threat to Iran herself.
According to Kenneth M Pollack for a Brookings paper, “Senior Iraqi officials and political leaders from across the political spectrum grudgingly concede that no Iraqi can become prime minister without Tehran’s blessing. Indeed, Maliki’s re-election was engineered — much to his own chagrin — by the Iranians who forced him to partner with the Sadrists (and the Sadrists to partner with him), and then leaned on the Kurds to do the same, forcing Iraqiyya (and the Americans) to accept the current, dysfunctional government that serves no one’s interests in Iraq except Tehran’s.” (November 15, 2011)
What then are the options available for the US?
First, it can look away. It has withdrawn from Iraq, claiming victory. The invasion that was undertaken to destroy weapons of mass destruction unearthed none. The aim to destroy presence of Al-Qaeda revealed none, not at the time of invasion anyways. So US can just look away, shrugging away any moral responsibility.
Second, it can have American boots on ground. Here, I will agree with Kristof that the US may in all probability get sucked into a civil war it helped create as a result of ‘bad intelligence’. “That does not mean we have no further responsibility towards Iraq. The current mess is a consequence of the invasion; it is possible to argue that foreign forces should not have gone into the country in the way that they did, but also that they should not have left while the country remained so unstable. This is partly the fault of Maliki, who failed to negotiate terms under which the Americans would leave a small force in Iraq when they withdrew in 2011. Yet one of the striking things about ISIS is how small their numbers actually are, with some reports suggesting they took the city with a single battalion of between 500 and 800 fighters.”(Joan Smith June 15, 2014, in The Independent)
Iran may have offered to be an ally of the US in Iraq; however, the US understands that the desired outcome of the current Iraqi situation by both US and Iran may be diametrically different. Whereas Iran will desire continuation of a Shi’ite government, the US would want the present political dispensation to develop a broader base, including the Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis. The US would ideally like Iran to play a positive role in negotiating a settlement between Nouri al-Maliki’s government and its opponents. Iran, on the other hand, would like to see US beat down the ISIS.
However, should the Iraqi government make real efforts to woo the support of Kurds and the Sunnis, US can cooperate to bring better harmony by helping clobber an alliance between the existing governments with moderates in rebel ranks. The US can help coordinate the federal and KRG forces and, having occupied Iraq since 2003, US can offer invaluable logistical support.
Does this bring us back to Kristof’s option of putting together a political deal with the stakeholders? This then brings me to my next question: how long can this last even if achieved?
In the meanwhile, Obama has announced sending in around 300 troops back to Iraq. No, it’s not to help anyone but the “temporary relocation of some staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad to the US Consulates General in Basra and Erbil and to the Iraq Support Unit in Amman,” according to the accompanying letter from the Press Secretary’s office.
Tailpiece: Iraq may implode and the Middle East will go up in flames should it do so. The US, the only country that can help, can only do so in a limited capacity and that too is based on many ifs and buts. What is taking place on ground in Iraq, as I write, may well break Iraq up into three distinct states changing the face of Middle East.