President Obama met with Congressional leaders on Wednesday to brief them on a “comprehensive approach” to Iraq, which for now will not include air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Iraq, “in part because“—as previously reported—”U.S. military officials lack sufficient information to hit targets that would shift momentum on the battlefield.” Obama has let this drag out so long that many of the Sunni Arabs who rose up against al-Qaeda, the sahwa (Awakening), are now mixed back in with ISIS and—crucially—other locally-focussed Sunni insurgent groups, primarily the Ba’athist “Naqshbandi Army”. But, for quite separate reasons, the decision not to strike is correct.
A “senior Iraqi official” told the Guardian: “Who do you think is running the war? … Qassem Suleimani is in charge. And reporting directly to him are the militias, led by Asaib Ahl al-Haq.” One knew this but it is always nice to be sure. This is not a force America should even be seen to be fighting alongside, let alone actually assisting. David Petreaus made this point on Wednesday in London. “If America is to support then it … has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists,” said Petraeus, “rather than one side of what could be a sectarian civil war.” And John Schindler added to it yesterday: “When you wind up with your least-bad option being partnering with the Pasdaran…, you’ve been doing strategy wrong for some time.” The administration’s attempted rapprochement with clerical Iran, which has included allowing Iran a free-hand in Syria in exchange for the six-month “pause” on its nuclear weapons program—a disaster in the making, I predict—must not now be allowed to include a U.S.-Iran alliance against ISIS. This would plunge America into the middle of a region-wide sectarian war—and on the minority side, too.
Apparently, the Obama administration is focussed on getting some intelligence capability back in Mesopotamia. This seems wise: after it abandoned the country in 2011, “Iraq’s intel screens went blank.” Good intelligence will be needed to minimise civilian casualties in any future air strikes or other military action. For now the “red lines” should be any ISIS—or Iranian—advances on Kurdish territory, and preventing ISIS overrunning Samarra. ISIS must not be allowed to vandalise the Askari mosque; that would remove all restraint from the Shi’a, which is ISIS’ intent. ISIS—not unlike the way Bashar al-Assad uses them—positively want their Shi’ite opponents to massacre “their own” (the Iraqi Sunni Arabs), they want to radicalise the Iraqi Shi’a and to provoke them into an all-out campaign of sectarian murder. That way ISIS can pose as the defender of the Sunnis, shutting down any elements within the Sunni Arab community that might want to reconcile with the government, and this unified ISIS front can then convince the Shi’a that their only opponents are takfiris bent on their extermination, which further frightens and radicalises them, which has the Sunnis treated even worse, which has them hug closer to ISIS—and so the cycle goes. Sectarianism is so wonderfully self-enforcing. But short of that—to protect our only friends on the ground and to save violence on a genocidal scale erupting—the U.S. should hold fire for now.
It might sound soft-centred to say that Obama is pressuring to create a government more inclusive of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, but this is in fact the heart of the problem. Strikes in favour of the “Iraqi government” are strikes in favour of a sectarian autocrat, Nouri al-Maliki, and his retainers, who are if not Iranian agents then their close allies, who are using sectarian killer squads that have murdered our own soldiers to repress a Sunni population and takfiri terrorist-insurgents alike, and who is the problem to begin with: the Sunni Arabs have only grudgingly welcomed ISIS back because of Maliki’s persecution of them. There is no sense in defending the Iraqi government while it is led by Maliki; like Bashar al-Assad, he is the jet-fuel on which ISIS runs.
There are signs that the administration is getting this. On Tuesday, John Kerry was quoted saying it “might wind up being very salutary” if Maliki was replaced. This is something of a turn-around from 2010, when they had a chance to get rid of him—even if it was in favour of the thuggish Iyad Allawi—but it is a start. A report yesterday morning in The Independent (from Patrick Cockburn, so taken with the necessary scepticism) says that the U.S. has said it will not do anything militarily to help the Iraqi government until Maliki is removed. He has presided over the disintegration of an army of 350,000 men that cost America more than $40 billion, and shattered a viable social and political compact; they are finished with him. Maliki has rejected this condition.
Yesterday, public manoeuvring to oust Maliki began. We are in the aftermath of an Election where Maliki did not gain an outright majority. Significant sections of the Shi’a community do not like his paranoid, authoritarian rule. One of the candidates the U.S. is reaching out to is Ahmad Chalabi, interestingly enough. Other than the hysterical charges levelled at Dr. Chalabi, the only question is over his ties to Iran, which he has never hidden. Perhaps this is a disqualification but let the record reflect that Jalal Talabani also has ties with Iran and yet his absence is a great loss to the cause of Iraqi freedom, and since the present government is all-but a proxy for Tehran, it could hardly be worse. Chalabi, however, seems fantastically unlikely to be the man to succeed Maliki, assuming the Prime Minister can be forced aside. The other candidates are reportedly Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is within the-party-formerly-known-as-SCIRI but is less fanatical than its leadership, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Maliki’s predecessor who quit under intense American pressure. He is in every way Maliki’s shadow: the same class and outlook, the faithful bourgeoisie, the same geographical origins along the Euphrates, the same age, and the same political roots in the Dawa Party (though Jaafari started his own party after he was replaced). None of these choices inspire particular optimism but any one of them would be better than Maliki.
It might be that Maliki cannot be dislodged: the U.S. has surrendered a great number of her levers of influence in Iraq, and, as Toby Dodge of the LSE put it to the Washington Post in a story about the way Maliki is actually being strengthened,
“With his sectarian behavior … he was directly responsible for driving the alienation of the Sunni population. Now he is stepping forward and saying to his petrified Shi’ite population: ‘I am the only one who can sort this out’.”
It is a classic from the playbook of Iran’s tributaries—notably Bashar al-Assad and the Hizballah. Enrage the other communities by monopolising power and murdering those who complain about it, and then keep killing. Refuse every off-ramp: double-down, and double-down again, radicalising opponents, and (most importantly) your own supporters by frightening them with the prospect of annihilation that closes down dissent and rallies them behind the leader. An Iraqi Shi’ite who acknowledges Maliki’s fault for this crisis illustrates the point: “Maliki should resign. He is responsible for this. But … [h]ow could we change leaders at a time like this?“
The immediate effort should be to empower the Peshmerga to ensure they can continue to defend themselves against ISIS and the Iranian-backed government and help them with the refugees that have now descended on Kurdistan. I worried that the Kurds would seize Kirkuk, which they have now done, and which it still worries me will bring further bloodshed on the Kurds. But there is no way back: they will not surrender the city and we should not pressurise them to. Treated abysmally by the West since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and treated terribly by an Obama administration that has heretofore wanted to flatter the Iranian-allied Maliki government more than stick up for America’s reals friends in Erbil, there should be no further miscommunication on whose side the United States is on. The Kurds—showing that regime-change came too late, not too hastily— seized the chance for democracy and prosperity offered by their liberation from Saddam’s rule a full twelve years before the rest of the country. They were made a promise in 1920 of Statehood that was annulled when the Kemalists overturned the verdict of the Great War. Now we have closed a circle: the Kurds have a State and with Kirkuk they have the resources to maintain it. If they ask for American recognition of an independent State they should have it.
The other crucial elements of this are arming the Syrian rebellion, the only on-the-ground force with a record of any success against ISIS. “There is a recognition that you can’t just look at this in a silo,” a senior administration official was quoted saying in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not just focused on Iraq.” Well spotted. But that’s an insight that should have come 39 months ago. The Syrian crisis was never containable, and while Iraqi internal dynamics are key in Iraq’s present woes, it is foolish to think the Syrian crisis’ impact is not important. Since ISIS already have MANPADS—and ISIS, the Qaeda affiliates, and Hizballah have 6,000 between them worldwide—the downside risk of supplying two-dozen of these weapons systems to vetted Syrian rebel groups is so vanishing small as not to be worth consideration. The rebellion should finally be given the power to bring down the Bashar regime: this will remove a key pillar of legitimation for ISIS in the Fertile Crescent, allow a nation-wide turn on ISIS that would cripple them across the region, help lessen the death toll in Syria by removing aerial and chemical attacks on civilians, and damage Iran’s regional standing. You can’t ask for more from a single policy.
This is all so very late in the hour and the product of years of failed policy from Barack Obama—especially refusing to help the Syrian uprising and abandoning Iraq entirely—but we are where we are and this might just begin to reverse the calamity.
Update: In considering Ahmad Chalabi, I had been greatly influenced by Christopher Hitchens (see here, here, and here.) But I have to concede a mistake. Whether the charges against Chalabi from the Petra Bank are true or not we may never know, and it is still flatly absurd to say that he was the reason the U.S. got the intelligence wrong on Iraqi WMD. But there is no redeeming his character from this: “In the early days of the uprising in Syria, [Chalabi] was a regular visitor to the Assad regime’s security overlord, Mohamed Nassif. … His main backing … has come from the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani…, who acts as puppet master in Baghdad, as well as Damascus and southern Lebanon.“