The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni extremist group that was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being too violent, has seized Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq, and is now heading toward Baghdad. They are in pursuit of an Islamic Caliphate, which would encompass territory across Syria and Iraq. They have harnessed the past decade of Sunni oppression in Iraq and are bolstered by the influx of foreign fighters that flooded Syria to fight President Bashar Al Assad. Just three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Iraqi military is proving incapable of resisting ISIS fighters and the U.S. is struggling with a series of bad response options.
The prospect of an ISIS takeover in Iraq has presented pundits with ample opportunity to point out that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and the withdrawal was poorly coordinated. But more importantly, it exposes the fact that the Obama administration still has no cohesive regional policy for the broader Middle East.
In today’s statement about Iraq, President Obama acknowledged the need to increase military and intelligence support to the Iraqi military and said his national security team was looking at all options. But he also said, “ultimately, it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems.” The President’s frustration with Iraq’s unraveling is understandable, but it does not excuse his lack of a foreign policy strategy, especially since U.S. intervention in Iraq and the surrounding area is partly to blame for the current chaos.
Yesterday, Obama said the U.S. can’t “play Whac-a-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country.” But that it is increasingly what his Middle East policy resembles—a game of forcing enemies back into a hole, with repeated failure to address long-term regional outcomes. The U.S. has responded individually to conflicts in the Middle East, without recognition of the overlapping causes and strategic interests between states in the region. The crisis in Iraq cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria. Furthermore, the alternative to military intervention is not inaction—it is diplomacy. Diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear deal, though turbulent, are progressing; this cooperation should be harnessed to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria and to contain the spread of ISIS in Iraq.
At this point, the U.S. is limited in its response to Iraq. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki reportedly asked the Obama administration to carry out targeted drone strikes in extremist areas last month and Obama refused. There is speculation that he will now be compelled to reverse his decision, though he has only gone as far as saying “I don’t rule out anything.” While drone strikes can effectively target the leadership of an organization and disrupt isolated terrorist attacks, they cannot be used to reclaim entire cities from well-organized fighters.
Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, “ISIS is very adaptive and proficient. It’s not just a terrorist organization, but a hybrid army that really incorporates elements of guerilla strategy with conventional strategy.” He added that air strikes could slow ISIS’s advance toward Baghdad and buy Maliki more time, but will not ultimately destroy the group.
In Tuesday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the U.S. has also been increasing shipments of military equipment and training for Iraqi security forces since the beginning of the year in recognition of growing instability. Her announcement was unconvincing to the press pack. “You had about a decade, though, to train the Iraqi security forces ... what makes you think ramping up training since the start of this year is going to do much in this circumstance?” asked an attending reporter.
Further complicating things for outsiders who want to prop up Maliki’s regime is the fact that Iraq’s inability to defend itself from ISIS does not stem from a lack of weapons and training—over the course of the war, the U.S. spent $25 billion to train and equip the Iraqi security forces—as much as a lack of trust in Maliki, whose sectarian politics have carved deeper divides between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations. Ultimately, a stable Iraq will require increased power sharing among sects.
This week’s events in Iraq are caused, at least in part, by the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Syria. Three years into the civil war, Obama’s policy in Syria has amounted to arming moderate Sunnis opposed to Assad, and giving them political legitimacy by declaring that Assad must go. However, Assad, strongly backed by the Iranians, has made it clear that he plans to stay, and outside support for the opposition has not been enough to pose any real threat to Assad’s hold on power. Rather, it has allowed the bloody war to continue indefinitely, during which time the opposition has fractured, and these days, the most extremist of the opposition are fighting with ISIS in Iraq.
To recap: the U.S. is supporting the Sunnis in Syria as they fight Assad, backed by the Iranians. Meanwhile, the U.S. is considering airstrikes to kill Sunni extremists as they fight Maliki, who is backed by Iran. If this seems utterly incomprehensible, it’s because it is.
In the aftermath of ISIS’s seizure of major cities in Iraq, the U.S. has been caught without a grand strategy in the Middle East. Obama’s short-term solutions in Syria and Iraq contradict one another and have little chance of stabilizing either country.
In his statement yesterday, the President also expressed a need to build new partnerships to deal with regional threats. While there are political barriers to an outward alliance with Iran, the U.S. needs to recognize the influence that Iran has in the Middle East, and harness the cooperative gains made in the nuclear negotiations to wider cooperation in dealing with Syria and Iraq. Iran is equally, if not more, threatened by ISIS. And the Iranians see a direct connection between ISIS’s growth and the terrorism safe-haven that became Syria. While it is not clear what form their intervention will take, collaborative effort with the Iranians, whether overt or covert, is necessary in stabilizing Iraq.
The U.S. should also reassess its diplomatic efforts in Syria. Though the Obama administration has claimed to support a negotiated end to the war, he unequivocally insists on Assad’s ouster and attempted to exclude Iran from previous negotiations in Geneva earlier this year. This is not negotiation. A true negotiated conclusion to the war will have to include a power-sharing government, that possibly includes Assad, and all regional powers must be included in the discussion—including Iran. Critics who say this is impossible should look to the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon, which concluded with the Taif Agreement, granting each side to the conflict proportional representation in the new government. While the Lebanese government is far from perfect, is has resisted falling back into civil war for over 20 years.