U.S. President Barack Obama announced Thursday that he was sending up to 300 military advisers to help shore up the besieged government of Iraq. The lightning advance of Sunni militants from the north has revealed the fragility of Iraqi security forces and, by extension, that of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
A token U.S. force will not turn the tide in Iraq; only sweeping changes, and perhaps even radical options, will stop the disintegration of that country.
In a little more than a week, the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken control of large parts of northern Iraq, and there are fears that further advances and the consolidation of its power could result in the partition of Iraqi into three separate countries.
While a redrawing of the Middle Eastern map may be long overdue — today’s borders reflect arbitrary decisions by colonial powers over a century ago — the resulting chaos could have devastating consequences as well as result in the creation of terrorist safe havens.
Since the fall of the city of Mosul on June 10 and the collapse of Iraqi security forces, critics have been quick to blame President Obama for this disastrous turn of events. They argue that the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011 precipitated the ISIS advance, forgetting that al-Maliki refused to agree to the U.S. proposal for a status of forces agreement that would allow its military to remain in Iraq.
Moreover, al-Maliki has governed in a way that has exacerbated the deep divide between Shiites (the majority faith in Iraq and that of al-Maliki) and Sunnis. He has prosecuted senior Sunni officials and oppressed the Sunni community in the name of fighting terrorism. He has ignored the urgings of Washington and others to share power in a meaningful way.
As a result, the sense of disenfranchisement and discrimination among nearly half the Iraqi population has robbed the government of legitimacy and set the stage for its unraveling in the face of the ISIS advance.
Now, al-Maliki is asking for U.S. military power to repel the insurgents. Obama is understandably reluctant to get drawn back into a conflict in support of a government that cannot claim to represent the nation. In this situation, U.S. action to back al-Maliki would be seen as taking sides in a sectarian conflict and could begin the first steps toward military escalation and a renewed U.S. presence.
Instead, Obama announced on Thursday that the U.S. would send up to 300 military advisers “to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.” But, he continued, “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq … We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
That effort must be matched by initiatives on the part of the Baghdad government to be more inclusive and more representative of Sunni and Kurdish interests.
It is not yet clear if al-Maliki can continue in office. He is such a divisive figure and has been so discredited by recent events that it may well be that only his replacement would permit a national unity government.
Developments in Iraq are also likely to have wider regional implications. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni governments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf have backed ISIS forces as a way of blocking the spread of the Shiite form of Islam — one manifestation of which is the al-Maliki government — that looks to Iran for leadership.
This support for a radical Islamic group that may eventually target the United States and its interests is another in the lengthening list of grievances that Washington has with its longtime ally and partner in Riyadh. Strains in that relationship are getting worse.
At the same time, an ironic convergence of interests could be pushing Washington and Tehran toward common ground. Both worry about the spreading influence of radical Sunni groups such as ISIS, and there has been talk of the possibility of coordinated action by the two governments — reports that have been quickly denied by both capitals.
Far-fetched though it may seem, there is precedent: The U.S. and Iran worked together a decade ago to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. The two governments are already meeting within the context of the Permanent Five Plus One (Germany) to find a solution to Iran’s nuclear program and problems, and diplomats have conceded that the subject has come up on the sidelines of those discussions.
Genuine rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran is unlikely, as both governments have vested too much time and rhetoric in demonizing the other over the past three decades. More significantly, parts of the forces that would ultimately be utilized on the ground in the event of an allied U.S.-Iran coalition have the blood of the other on their hands.
Ultimately the only hope for Iraq is a genuinely inclusive government in Baghdad. It is not clear whether al-Maliki is capable of heading such a government.
As a first step he would have to give up the position of minister of defense, a post he holds in addition to that of prime minister. He would have to give the post to a Sunni or a Kurdish politician; merely passing it to a Shiite crony would do nothing. This is a crucial moment for Iraq, but the problem is one that only Iraqis can solve.