Iraq is collapsing and the government has to rely on its own political will and security capabilities.
Iraq, a country where nearly 4,500 American lives were lost and more than $1 trillion spent in an eight-plus year effort to oust a dictator and rebuild a nation, is approaching chaos — perhaps even a “failed state” status.
The deterioration in Syria and the commensurate invasion and spread of extremism in northern and western Iraq has turned the “cradle of civilization,” the region of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, into a sewer of the Middle East’s most militant and ruthless Islamist extremists. They proffer no future for the region’s inhabitants other than oppression under the guise of a rigid adherence to shari’a law.
At the beginning of June, extremist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — expelled from al-Qaeda because of its extreme militancy — seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and took possession of Nineveh Province, after taking Fallujah and Ramadi in 2013. They quickly moved south to Samarra and Tikrit, capturing both cities with little government opposition. They are also threatening the area around Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, extending their control in the western province of Anbar, and have seized additional towns along the country’s border with Syria. The militants’ objective is Baghdad, but they have never made a secret of their ultimate goal: “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” (Al-Sham is the Arabic word for Syria and much of the Levant.)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised a counterattack. But the ease with which ISIS fighters took these major cities, and the shocking capitulation of the US-trained Iraqi army and police raise serious questions over Maliki’s leadership and the army’s capability. Sunni residents have shown surprising apathy toward and even acceptance of the invaders; a sign of the Sunni-dominated region’s growing disgust with Maliki’s decidedly pro-Shi’a/anti-Sunni governance. Of potentially greater concern, ISIS is seeking understandings with some of the area’s indigenous Sunni extremists groups, such as the Ba’athist Naqshabandi Army (JRTN).
Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called on all Iraqis to rally to the nation’s defense and expel the extremist invaders. Popular Iraqi Shi’a leader Moqtada al-Sadr has also called for Shi’a militia groups — quiescent since the 2006-2008 struggles against American and Iraqi forces during Iraq’s own civil war — to prepare to defend Shi’a shrines and neighborhoods in Baghdad and the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
There are several potential outcomes of the current fighting in Iraq.
1) Iraq’s Kurds will not remain idle. They have too much at stake, including a flourishing economy, political stability and the prospect of growing income from increased oil production. Expect their security forces, the Peshmerga, to stand their ground to defend not only Kurdistan but also large Kurdish minorities in adjoining areas. Peshmerga forces have already taken control of Kirkuk, one area with significant Kurdish residents and the site of one of Iraq’s largest untapped oil reserves. As if to reassert their growing economic independence, the Kurds have built a pipeline connecting Kirkuk to Turkey. The Kurds of Iraq may also decide that now is the time to separate from Baghdad.
2) Iraq is threatened with partitioning now more than ever before. If the Kurds decide to go their own way in the north — an ill-advised but not implausible move at this juncture — it could lead to the partitioning of Iraq with Sunnis in the north and west, and Shi’a in the east and south. US Vice President Joe Biden proposed such an approach in 2006. Only unlike in plan, each sect would now seek independent state status.
To do that, Iran would need to commit significantly greater numbers of Iranian troops, presenting one of the greatest ironies in recent Middle Eastern history: American occupation forces replaced by Iranians.
3) Sistani’s call may exacerbate the Sunni-Shi’a feud in Iraq and Syria. While the words of his spokesman were carefully couched, most Iraqis, both Sunni as well as Shi’a, will have heard it as a call for Shi’a to defend their neighborhoods, shrines and mosques. The Iraqi response to Sistani’s appeal has been overwhelmingly Shi’a and has led to the appearance or reemergence of well-known Shi’a militias — such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (an Iranian-backed Shi’a group), the Badr Organization, Mehdi Army and Kataib Hezbollah. These actions will only confirm Sunni Iraqi suspicions, brewing over the eight years of Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian rule, that the response is aimed at them. Therefore, any campaign that is overwhelmingly Shi’a and lacks the support of respected Sunni political and tribal leaders is likely to further exacerbate Iraq’s centrifugal sectarianism.
4) NATO-member Turkey will act. With hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already living in the country, it cannot absorb tens of thousands more of Iraqi refugees. Moreover, there is a sizeable Turkish minority in the northern provinces of Iraq now occupied by or under threat from ISIS, and they may ask for Turkish help. Turkey also has substantial economic interests in Iraq, including in Nineveh, Samarra and the autonomous Kurdish region.
Turkish military action may be possible. The presence of extremist ISIS forces on Turkey’s southern border, alongside the threatening militants on its border with Syria, presents a potentially grave security threat to Ankara. Look for signs of mobilization of Turkey’s armed forces along its exposed southern borders and even possible Turkish air force strikes against militant positions in Iraq. Turkey may also invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, as the Americans did after al-Qaeda launched its 9/11 attacks against the US from Afghanistan. If it does, NATO countries, including the US, would be required to come to Turkey’s aid since the ISIS threat would be seen “as a threat to all NATO members.”
5) Iran will not remain quiet. If ISIS maintains its momentum toward Baghdad and threatens Shi’a neighborhoods of the capital and the Shi’a south, expect Iran to send forces to Iraq. Some top Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have offered Iranian assistance and have even suggested cooperation with the US against the invading extremists. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly condemned any American intervention in the Iraqi crisis, doubtlessly viewing any threat to Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government as the strict province of Iran. Maliki has not yet responded, preferring to rely on Iraqi special forces and a galvanized Iraqi public before seeking Iranian intervention. An Iranian intervention, however, coupled with the remobilization of Iraq’s several Shi’a militia organizations would all but confirm the appearance of a Sunni-Shi’a war in Iraq as well as Syria.
The dispatch of Iranian forces would likely morph into a semi-permanent Iranian troop presence in Iraq’s south, especially if there is no attempt to expel ISIS from the country’s north and west. To do that, Iran would need to commit significantly greater numbers of Iranian troops, presenting one of the greatest ironies in recent Middle Eastern history: American occupation forces replaced by Iranians.
US With Little Leverage
President Barack Obama has wisely ruled out reinserting US ground forces; although American advisers have been dispatched. Nevertheless, Washington and Baghdad’s failure to conclude a security agreement in 2011, which would have left a residual US military ground presence, and the subsequent US troop withdrawal have left Obama with little leverage.
Today, ISIS forces are well schooled after almost ten years combating traditional armed forces — first the Americans in Iraq and then Bashar al-Assad’s army in Syria — and understand how to minimize their vulnerabilities to the strengths of such traditional armed forces. So, US air and drone attacks are simply not an effective military response to the presence of ISIS extremists in Iraq.
The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011 and the failure to adequately support moderate forces in Syria have weakened the region’s ability to confront violent extremism. Now, without the potentially moderating and unifying presence of even a modicum of US forces, countries wracked by sectarian divisions are left entirely to their own inadequate devises to confront this most recent threat. Unfortunately, region-specific solutions, which are likely to direct support toward just one side, will fail to address the underlying causes, will be merely temporary, and ultimately will aggravate sectarian divisions.
Quick and decisive action is now needed to contain both the near-term threat of ISIS and the longer-term one of galloping sectarianism in the Middle East. Iraq will have to step up and find its own security and political solutions; the latter to include the formation of a new and demonstratively inclusive government following elections that were held in April. That will mean offering genuine power-sharing to moderate Sunni political and tribal leaders and also to the Kurds — something Maliki has failed to do in the last four years.
Also, to avert the threat of a region-wide Sunni-Shi’a war, diplomacy that involves the Middle East’s major players, including the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the European Union, Iraq, Russia and others, is desperately needed. Without this diplomacy, the highly infectious virus of sectarianism now brewing in the sewer that was once the cradle of civilization will spread.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.