Who will fight for Iraq’s survival?
World powers will meet in Paris next week to consider prospects for ending the war in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
The Iraqis are aware that next week’s Paris conference will not produce the results needed to end the bloody conflict in their country. Nonetheless, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has decided to attend the meeting, clinging to the hope that something good may come out of the high-level discussions.
Sceptics fear that the international conference will be another public-relations ploy by the United States and other Western nations to conceal their failure in helping Iraqis rebuild their country more than 12 years after the US-led invasion.
Worse, the conference comes amid increasing signs that US President Barack Obama, who ends his term in office in 18 months, is buying time through the talks to adjust his anti-Islamic State (IS) strategy, while planning to dump the Iraqi conflict on the next US president.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said some of the 60 countries that are part of the US-led coalition fighting against the IS terror group are expected to participate in the conference to take place in Paris on 2 June.
A few days after the stunning seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by IS militants last June, Washington said it was launching a military alliance to help the Iraqis drive the militants from the city and from other terrain captured by IS.
Washington said it would work with its partners to contain the IS militants and reverse their gains in Iraq and Syria. In Obama’s words, their strategy was to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the group.
Washington’s approach to the campaign has come under fire for being ineffective. The critics’ main complaint is that the Obama administration has no clear vision, suggesting that better strategic planning is needed to defeat IS.
Meanwhile, instead of being degraded the group has expanded in both Iraq and Syria. Its capture of the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria in recent days has marked the latest in a series of setbacks for the US strategy.
Fabius said participants at the Paris meeting will “take stock of how the coalition wants to proceed” in Iraq, but he did not give details. He said that it was “not impossible” that Syria would also be part of the talks.
The last such talks were held in Paris in September and saw representatives from around 30 countries and international organisations meet in an attempt to come up with a strategy to combat IS and to determine what the roles of each would be in the US-led coalition.
Next week’s gathering comes amid mounting fears that IS militants will use their control of Ramadi and Palmyra to consolidate their gains in both Iraq and Syria and threaten the rest of the region.
For many critics, the fall of Ramadi amounts to a strategic defeat for the US-led coalition. It has raised a series of broader questions, not only about the viability of Washington’s approach in Iraq but also about its policies in the Middle East as a whole.
The key question now is whether the fall of Ramadi can serve as a wake-up call and if the world powers can handle the Iraqi crisis in a way different from the dozens of regional and international meetings on Iraq that have taken place since the US-led invasion in 2003.
It is unclear if the participants at the Paris summit will forge a new path against IS, apart from what is widely seen as the coalition’s ineffective bombing campaign to hit the militants in Iraq and Syria.
Washington has conceded that it is taking a “hard look” at its Iraq strategy after the fall of Ramadi, and it has said it will be streamlining the process for delivering weapons to Iraq and increasing the training of Iraqi troops.
But despite renewed calls from Republican rivals, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, to deploy US troops to help the Iraqis fight the terrorist group, the Obama administration is not expected to send combat soldiers to Iraq.
What Washington and other partners in the coalition are expected to offer in Paris is a renewal of their support for Al-Abadi’s government while restating their policy, which urges a more inclusive government in Iraq and the participation of the Sunnis in policing their areas.
What Washington needs to realise is that too much time has passed since it substituted action in Iraq with rhetoric. A close look at events in Iraq since the US troops were withdrawn in 2011 shows it now has fairly limited power in dictating what happens in Iraq.
Today, in an Iraq that is not conspicuously stage-managed by the United States, domestic and regional actors, including Iran and the Tehran-backed Shia militias, play pivotal roles. It is even difficult to imagine the magnitude of the forces working against, or at least not in line with, the United States policy in Iraq.
This probably puts into perspective remarks made by a senior administration official to Reuters on 18 May to the effect that the United States could support “all elements” of forces aligned against IS, including the Shia militias that are nominally under the Baghdad government’s control.
Washington had previously backed off from giving air support to what it considered Iranian-organised and -led operations dominated by Shia militias that answer to Tehran, and so this statement marks a departure from earlier policy.
It also underlines Washington’s decision to scrap earlier plans to supply Sunni tribes with weapons directly, without going through Baghdad. The United States has held back the delivery of much-needed weapons to the Iraqi army as an expression of displeasure at Al-Abadi’s hesitation to equip the Sunni tribes.
The most impressive sign of a retreat from taking responsibility for the setback in the war against the IS militants is accusations made by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter to the Iraqi armed forces, saying that they show “no will to fight” against the terror group.
Moreover, the United States has made little objection to Iranian forces taking an offensive role in operations to drive out IS militants from Beiji in recent days, in conjunction with Iraqi Shia militia.
The report of Iran entering the fight to retake this major Iraqi oil refinery, which came from US officials, was the first sign that Washington may have even dropped its opposition to Iranian participation in the war against IS.
What all this says about the shape of things to come after the so-called adjustment of US strategy after the spectacular fall of Ramadi is that Obama has no real intention of shifting course and seems determined to leave the war in Iraq to his successor.
In a recent briefing by a senior State Department official, the administration sent the clearest message yet to the Iraqis that no drastic change is to be expected in the anti-IS strategy before the end of Obama’s term in January 2017.
“I think some of the timeframes that might’ve been announced by various folks over the course of this thing might’ve been a little bit unrealistic. It’s three years: a three-year campaign, three years to degrade,” the official was quoted as saying at the special briefing posted on the State Department’s website.
This leaves the question why the Paris summit is being held, and whether or not this will be another pointless endeavour. Though the agenda of the meeting has not been made public, it is widely expected to be an attempt to breathe life into the dormant coalition.
Most of the coalition’s 60 members have not done much to fight IS, despite repeated US urging for them to play a more active role. Some of the countries that deployed aircraft at the beginning of the campaign have also since pulled back.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems to be keen on keeping the outfit working, ostensibly to portray coalition partners as reliable supporters in the crisis.
In the meantime, no one knows how the Iraq government will benefit from the high-level conference in Paris. Three previous coalition meetings have ended with many political statements but few tangible commitments.
The stunning fall of Ramadi and the Obama administration’s hesitation to come to the aid of the Iraqi forces should have taught the Iraqi government the lesson that it must now work according to its own schedule.
If the Iraqis won’t fight for their nation’s survival, no one else will either.