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Asean Affairs   June 23, 2014

The Uncertain Next Steps in Iraq

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The President has set the stage. The question is what acts will follow. The United States has signaled as clearly as it can that a corrupt, authoritarian, power hungry, sectarian thug like Maliki should go. It cannot, however, make that happen or undo the damage that Maliki has done to the nation's unity, quality of governance, economy, and security forces since the 2010 election. The United States must also constantly consider Maliki's ability to turn to Iran, and the reality that Iraq's politics are far more a blood sport than an exercise in democracy.

For the last three years, Maliki has played the United States off against Iran, with Iran's Revolutionary Guards making slow gains because of their greater presence on the ground, and ability to manipulate the political, sectarian, and security situation. The United States has quietly pushed for a truly national government, an end to sectarian and ethic repression, reform and human rights, but Maliki has always been able to resist by showing his Iranian cards and threatening to turn to Russia for arms. Oil wealth has also given him all of the money to stand on his own, and the Arab Gulf states have not helped by letting their dislike and contempt for him make them stand aside and give Iran freedom of action.

Iraq's political structure still has leaders like Mahdi with the potential to win broad support, but it is unclear they can gain political power, and unity is almost certainly going to require a reexamination of the issue of federalism that Maliki ignored and repressed after 2010. A whole new wave of refugees and internally displace persons is further segregating the population at the local and national level and not just along sectarian and ethnic lines. It is polarizing populations into ordinary Iraqis and armed militias and extremist groups with the Sunni and Shi’ite blocs.

The renewed civil war Maliki created between 2011 and 2013 – made all too clear by the long series of UN reports of steadily rising casualties from Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian fighting – has begun to create as complex a mix of Sunni resistance groups as has emerged in Syria. It is not simply a mix of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and neo-Ba’athists.

Whatever the role and strength of former Ba'ath era armed factions attributed to Al Douri, Dabash and factions like the Islamic Army of Iraq; the Ba'ath ceased to have any ideology and meaningful political goals during the purges and executions that consolidated Saddam's power in the late 1970s. ISIL does have coherence as a movement, but Sunni areas are now a complex mix of new and traditional tribal leaders, armed young men – many with a background in the Sons of Iraq, and Sunni officers and officials who lost power and status when Saddam fell and divide into complex mixes of more or less secular nationalists, men who want to restore Sunni dominance, and the power hungry.

Moreover, while most of the outside world focuses on the threat to Baghdad and the oil rich areas in Iraq's southeast, this complex network of Sunni factions directly affects the security of Jordan, Saudi Arabia's long border with Iraq, and the Syrian civil war. ISIL is still fighting a two front ballet in seeking to dominate northeastern Syria, while the sparsely populated areas in southwestern Iraq create a window of opportunity for it to infiltrate fighters into Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Maliki has divided the Shiites while systematically gaining power through bribery and intimidation. It is unclear where the Hakim faction and Sadr really stand in terms of practical power, and ISIL/Sunni gains have forced Sistani – the one real voice that can unify Shi’ites – to back the Maliki government's security efforts and effectively support the revival of Shi’ite militias with strong ties to Iran and sometimes violent sectarian extremism.

The United States also is now watching the Kurds make their third major power grab since the early 1970s, with Barzani the younger clearly in the lead and Talibani faded with age and illness. Once again, the Kurds may seriously overplay their hand, but the irony is that Turkey may find them useful as a partially isolated enclave and as a source of income and oil from a region which Turkey once controlled and some Turks still see as stolen from Turkey after World War I.

None of this leaves the United States with good options, and for reasons the President could only begin to touch upon yesterday for obvious diplomatic and political reasons.

One option is particularly dangerous and that is turning to Iran.  The United States cannot deal with Iran without empowering Iran on the ground while the United States acts at a distance using airpower. This risks Iran exploiting the situation to make Iraq far more dependent on Iran, and give Iran the kind of influence in Iraq that would make it far more of a threat to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, as well as more leverage over Gulf oil exports.

Maliki is a terrible option, but one the United States cannot ignore as long as an ISIL-led Sunni threat presents any risk of taking over Iraq or triggering an all-out sectarian conflict. Here, the President has wisely distanced the United States from any support of Maliki, and made it clear it supports Iraqi unity, not a corrupt authoritarian thug.

The President laid the ground work for using the some 600 U.S. military and other personnel already supplying arms in ways that tie the flow of arms and support to efforts to restore political unity rather than simply empower Maliki or the Shiite side in what is now an increasingly sectarian civil war.

The 300 additional U.S. military he mentioned in his speech would involve the initial deployment of some 175 men -- evidently including 12-man teams of special forces or rangers -- where they can create a structure for targeting U.S. air, cruise missile, and/or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) strikes in ways that would do real damage to ISIL and other extreme Sunni elements with minimum damage to Sunni and other civilians and more moderate factions, in ways that would visibly show Iraqi forces and political factions that the United States was actively playing a role in supporting Iraqi unity rather than backing Maliki or the Shiite side.

The President is also correct in stating that any such use of air and missile power should  be made with great caution and be the limit to U.S. intervention. The United States should never thrust any form of combat ground forces into Iraq, and should tie any air support to clear limits that avoid alienating Iraq's Sunnis any more than is absolutely necessary and empowering Maliki and Iran. It should focus on working with our Arab allies to rapidly strengthen their security, and use U.S. arms shipments and air and missile power only to secure our vital interests in terms of Gulf security and the flow of petroleum exports to the global (and our) economy.

The practical problem remains, however, that Maliki may well not allow the United States to play such a role, Iran will resist such a U.S. role, our Arab allies will fear an outcome where we will empower Iraq's Shi’ites (and Iran), the Kurds will remain a wild card and potential source of future fighting, and the Syrian civil war will continue to increase its horrible cost in human misery. Some of these latter problems can quietly be handled through talks with the leaders of key Arab Gulf states, the Kurds, and Turkey, but the outcome of what can only be described as the least bad options remain all too uncertain.

One has to wonder what would have happened if we had made a far stronger effort to support a truly national Iraqi government rather than Maliki in 2010, pressed harder to keep U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011, and support moderate Syrian rebels during that critical moment when they were strongest and Assad seemed ready to fall. Regrets, however, cannot help deal with present and the future. President Obama seems likely to be remembered as the President who spent eight years struggling to find the least bad options with only limited success. This time, at least, he seems to have made a good – if uncertain – beginning.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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