Behind US President Barack Obama’s plan to battle the Islamic State lies a history of flawed and shallow US policy in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
Vowing to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (IS), US President Barack Obama said this week that he is seeking an international coalition to join the fight against IS. The plan was compared to US actions against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Al-Shabab in Somalia.
“You initially push them back, you systematically degrade their capabilities, you narrow their scope of action, you slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control, you take out their leadership, and over time they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could,” Obama said.
At first glance this may sound like a superb strategy for the world’s pre-eminent superpower, except that neither Al-Qaeda nor Al-Shabab has been routed and, years after the US interventions, both Afghanistan and Somalia remain trapped in terrorism and civil war.
Indeed, Obama’s bellicose rhetoric was in sharp contrast with his admission that he did not “have a strategy” for countering IS, which he has dubbed “a cancer” that needs to be uprooted.
Political and military analysis provides the perspective necessary to show how badly the US president is floundering in the face of a major world crisis, one that he has admitted will eventually pose a threat to the United States.
Ending a summit with fellow NATO leaders on Friday, Obama said key allies in the 28-member military alliance stand ready to join the United States in military action to defeat IS militants.
His remarks came after defence and foreign ministers from nine other countries met with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and US Secretary of State John Kerry to work out a response to the IS threat.
Later, the group, which includes Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Denmark and the United States, was described as a “core coalition” allied against IS. The United States has also called for broad support from allies and partners around the world to deal with the emerging challenge.
Some of these countries, among them France, Britain, Germany, Canada and Australia, have been sending weapons to the Kurdish Peshmergas or carrying out humanitarian missions, but none has said it is ready to engage in the fight against IS, including potential military action.
The United States has also said it wants to get its allies in the Middle East, including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on board with its approach. There are even signs that the Obama administration is willing to co-ordinate with Iran to build support for a military confrontation with IS.
But the question remains: Having made it clear that it has no strategy and that there are no plans to send US ground troops to Iraq, what does the Obama administration intend to do with what Kerry has described as the “genocidal” threat of IS?
The United States is seemingly adopting a two-pronged approach by involving Iraq’s new government and Iraq’s neighbours in tackling the IS threat. But this approach has been tried time and again since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which unleashed anarchy in the war-devastated nation.
In fact, it has become a case study in how to invade a nation, destroy it, and then leave it to local and regional stakeholders to fix the damage.
On the Iraqi side, the United States has made it clear that once Iraq starts to build a new and “inclusive” government it will consider providing additional military, economic, and political assis-tance to the country to defeat IS.
Washington has also been insisting that Sunni tribesmen in western Iraq join the Iraqi security forces in their fight against IS. This is part of its declared strategy to create a partner on the ground so that the US air force can then support from above.
On the regional side, Washington has been pressuring its regional Sunni Arab allies, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to join this new “coalition of the willing” to confront IS in Shia-led Iraq. It also wants some of these countries to stem the flow of weapons and money going to the extremists in Syria and Iraq and to publicly denounce them.
As for Turkey, the other Sunni powerhouse in the region, Washington has made it clear that it needs Ankara to share intelligence on foreign fighters who are using Turkey as a route to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq. It also wants Ankara to stem the flow of foreign jihadists into countries on its southern border.
Washington has showed a strong preference for Shia Iran to join the fight against IS. State department spokeswoman Marie Harf has said that the United States is willing to engage Iran “as we have in the past, most notably on Afghanistan.”
She was referring to Tehran’s support for the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks and participation in international efforts to establish a new government there to replace the defeated Taliban regime.
But several points could be raised to question Obama’s approach, or “non-strategy” as his critics call it.
To combat the IS threat, Washington needs to do more than simply order air strikes on targets in Iraq. A military confrontation will only be successful if it is embedded in a political setting, and a global strategy is needed to confront IS.
Iraq’s new government, formed on Monday, lacks the national consensus needed to address the country’s entangled conflicts. To say that this is a unity government is also inaccurate and misleading, since it remains split over fundamental issues, such as power, wealth sharing and territorial sovereignty, that have divided Iraqis for a long time.
Only those unaware of the details of the Iraqi crisis can claim that the new government will be able to resolve the communal strife that is behind Iraq’s instability. Having ethno-sectarian warlords and manipulative and corrupt politicians in power does not mean that Iraq has a representative government.
Regionally, it is highly unlikely that heavyweights such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will come together to fight IS, despite the threats the murderous group poses to their own national security. Even if the threats from IS recede, the problems between these countries and their rivalry over Iraq will not go away.
In the cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, while in theory there are mutual interests that could encourage these countries to unite against IS, in practice the two countries have divergent priorities that will make it difficult to find common ground.
In addition, there is a complete lack of confidence between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s strategy in Iraq since the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein has aimed to block Iran from winning a foothold or imposing its hegemony on Iraq.
IS’s control of huge swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria, including their shared border, has virtually cut off the Alawite regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy, from its Shia allies in Iraq and Iran.
“While Saudi Arabia wants to see IS broken, it doesn’t want Iran to benefit from this,” according to Saudi analyst Jamal Khashouchi, writing in the London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat on Saturday. He continued, “IS has broken the Shia crescent that extends from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria.”
Other Arab states in the Gulf have also facilitated the rise of IS to weaken the Shia-dominated government and counter Shia Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Whether or not IS is defeated, Iraqi Shia and Iran will continue to be their enemies.
On the other hand, Iran has its own active strategy in Iraq. Tehran is a major actor in Iraq, and Iranian involvement has extended beyond supplying weapons and advisers to the Shia militias.
Iranian-backed militias are believed to be tipping the balance in the fight against IS, and last week they were largely behind breaking the more than two-month siege by IS militants on a Shia-Turkmen town, a major breakthrough in the war against the group.
Though Iran has a vested interest in defeating IS, which would remove the threat on Iran’s western borders and help stabilise Iran’s two main allies in the region, Iraq and Syria, it remains sceptical about an international coalition that would group together so many of its foes.
On Sunday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the United States for not being serious in its fight against IS. “They [the US] supported IS in Syria in different ways, and now they cannot decide what to do about those slogans [about fighting IS],” Zarif was quoted as saying.
Turkey, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped about joining the anti-IS coalition. While Ankara has denied western accusations of being a “jihadist highway,” it has refrained from taking measures to offer military support to the Iraqi government.
“Rather than asking Turkey to catch IS militants going to Syria, the west needs to stop recruitment in their own backyards,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the pro-government Turkish Daily Sabah on Saturday.
Turkey has long been known for having its own priorities in Iraq, including oil, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. Its regional strategy is in collision with Shia Iran, the Iraqi Shia-led government and the regime of Al-Assad in Syria.
As the Obama administration plans to expand its offensive against IS, its main challenge remains finding a proper strategy that will help get rid of IS and keep Iraq united.
In 2003, the US illegally invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, promising that it would help build a new democratic Iraq. Whether it was badly executed or intentionally planned, the fiasco of the Operation Iraqi Freedom left Iraq in ruins.
The United States is now expected to blunder again in its present intervention. Obama hasn’t yet given the new strategy a name, but he has used the sport’s expression “Play game” in connection with the push to form an international coalition to defeat IS.
With the US’s proposed partitioning of Iraq being relaunched, pending the outcome of the confrontation with IS, one could argue that, given the history of US policy in Iraq, the next chapter will most likely be another killing game with far-reaching and devastating consequences.