Thursday, August 21, 2014

Iraq requires a long U.S. attention span

The reversal suffered by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, at Mosul dam has raised exaggerated expectations about the ability to defeat the group. The Islamic State will remain a major headache, even as there is still no comprehensive strategy in place to defeat it. Much has been made of the Obama administration’s military intervention in defense of the Kurdish areas. Only when Irbil was threatened, the argument goes, did Washington deploy its aircraft. That’s only partly true. Turning back the Islamic State in the north was as much a priority for Iraqis in Baghdad and Basra as for those in Kurdistan. And Iraqi special forces were as involved in the takeover of Mosul dam as were the Kurdish peshmerga being rearmed by the West.

The real question is not why the United States entered the fray. It is where the campaign to defeat the Islamic State is going. Until now there have been only haphazard signs of what the U.S. administration intends to do, with President Barack Obama hesitating to outline the specifics of a sustained campaign for fear it may turn the American public, which has no appetite for a new war in the Middle East, against him. The Islamic State’s beheading of American journalist James Foley was apparently designed to exploit this mood.

On the political side, the United States was able to help oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In this regard it found an objective ally in Iran, which though it had intended to keep Maliki in office, was compelled to eject him when a significant number of Iraqi Shiite leaders, above all Ayatollah Ali Sistani, refused to endorse a third term for the prime minister.

Washington is hoping that Haider al-Abadi, Maliki’s replacement, will form a government that is more inclusive of Sunnis, and that can spearhead a counteroffensive against the Islamic State. In parallel to this, the United States is seeking to work out an arrangement between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes, one that involves devolving regional military decision-making to the Sunni-dominated governorates, and putting the forces there back on the payroll of the central government.

That’s a good plan, but one should watch out for Iranian displeasure. In recent weeks Tehran has seen several things in Iraq that it does not like: a return of the American military, which even if it does not fundamentally threaten Iranian hegemony today, does complicate the picture significantly; Western arming of the Kurds, which may help advance a project of Kurdish independence; the potential arming of anti-Islamic State Sunnis, which down the road could undermine the power of the Shiite-dominated central government; and signs of affirmation from Iraq’s Shiites, who compelled Iran to fall in line with their desire to oust Maliki, though he served Iran well.

Iran is caught in a tight spot today. If it derails Abadi’s efforts to unify Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites against the Islamic State, this could bolster a jihadist group that endangers vital Iranian interests in Iraq and Syria. And if it goes along with American preferences, it could see a lessening of its influence in Iraq, as Sunnis and Kurds gradually break away from Baghdad and view America as their primary mediator with the capital.

In Iran’s favor, as always, is America’s short attention span and Obama’s reluctance to play a deeper role in internal Iraqi politics. Even America’s military plan against the Islamic State is ambiguous. Obama has implied that the campaign may take some time, but he has not defined what the conditions are to end it. Instead, the administration has held to an absurd rationale, saying that American military intervention is designed above all to protect the safety of Americans in Iraq.

Obama needs to say this for domestic political reasons. However, it is worrisome if Americans swallow such nonsense while remaining oblivious to the very real dangers posed by the Islamic State. In this regard, Foley’s murder could backfire. Far from pushing Americans to oppose military intervention, it could have the effect of making them rally around the president in fighting the abomination that is the Islamic State.

More significant is what does the United States do about the Islamic State’s presence in Syria? For now the subject is off the table. But the reality is that any effort to push the Islamic State out of Iraq risks simply displacing the problem to Syria, where the group has made important gains.

The regime of President Bashar Assad is happy to portray itself as an enemy of terrorism, as this helps it to survive politically. It is not inconceivable that Assad will soon be part of a de facto anti-terrorism alliance, as he has been planning for three years after facilitating the emergence of the danger he is now fighting. Yet, if Iraq’s army can collapse as suddenly as it did, there are no guarantees that Syria’s army, worn down by years of battle, will not do the same. Assad’s confidence may be misguided.

Obama’s craven Syria policy has only helped the Islamic State. The president has promised military assistance to “moderates,” as much to fight the Islamic State as the Syrian regime. But the soonest this can happen, if it happens at all, is next spring. By then there will be no moderates left, as extremist groups, above all the Islamic State, overcome them. This shows why an Iraq-centric American military plan, as welcome as it is, may be neutralized by the absence of a Syria component.

American administrations shy away from multifaceted entanglements. The focus is now on Iraq, only Iraq. But such an approach poses risks, particularly with the administration having failed to define its aims there beyond protecting Americans. Obama may spoil everything if he fails to adequately address the complexity of the situation in Iraq and Syria.

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