How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Anja Manuel

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

It is possible that the United States may now again become embroiled in direct military action in the Middle East. Washington, unfortunately, has no good options: It can’t allow Iraq to be overrun by a terrorist group that is capable of and willing to launch attacks on the United States.

At the same time, Americans have no appetite to militarily support the ineffective, Shi’ite-dominated Nuri al-Maliki regime. Yet this is what the U.S. will likely now have to do — with possible drone strikes, intelligence cooperation and other aid.

Any decisions the United States makes will only be more gut wrenching by the fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are reportedly supporting Maliki’s forces. So we would be intervening on the side of Iran.

This disastrous situation is due to a combination of Maliki’s incompetent governance, spillover from the Syrian civil war, and Washington’s unwillingness to take more modest steps to shore up Syria and Iraq several years ago — when that might have been enough.

In a column last summer, I argued that the administration had two reasonable policy options. Both were far short of air strikes or U.S. ground troops in Syria or Iraq:

Massively increase both military (small arms) and non-lethal aid to the moderate Syrian rebels, which at the time still had a fighting chance against President Bashar al-Assad and were also fighting ISIL.Significantly step up diplomacy and increase security aid to Iraq to stop ISIL’s resurgence and its efforts to promote sectarian violence there.

Many senior leaders within the Obama administration, including Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria who recently resigned, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocated a similar approach.

It is not a given that U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition and a continued American presence in Iraq would have prevented this crisis. But our inaction worsened the situation, if it did not cause it.

Washington is belatedly aiding the Syrian opposition now, and is considering assistance to Iraq. This is a positive development. Unfortunately, the tired adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here: Modest steps to shore up Iraq and aid the pro-democratic side of the Syrian conflict several years ago would have been easier and more effective than the heavy lift — such as potential air strikes — now required to resolve the crisis.

So how did we get here?

Slideshow ( 3 images )

The story starts in Syria, as well as in Iraq. In the spring of 2011, the Syrian people — mostly young, well-educated moderates — took to the streets for weeks of peaceful protests. Assad was not willing to abdicate, as he had just seen Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak do. Instead, the Syrian president had his soldiers fire indiscriminately on peaceful demonstrators. This radicalized the conflict and started a civil war.

The U.S. and our allies — despite strong advocacy from some of Obama’s most senior aides — were unwilling to help the moderate Syrian forces in any meaningful way. They refused to send enough of the small arms and supplies that the rebels had requested. Meanwhile,

Russia and Iran

were pumping millions into Assad’s cruel military. Sunni conservatives from

Saudi Arabia, Qatar

and beyond funneled money to the most conservative Islamist groups.

The result was more than 2 million Syrian refugees, plus an additional 6.5 million internally displaced citizens; at least 150,000 Syrians killed, and a breeding ground for al Qaeda splinter groups that are destabilizing the entire region.  Assad has concentrated his fire on more moderate opposition fighters, who are now battling both Assad’s forces and the Islamists. This gave ISIL and its allies room to grow.

Also in 2011, the United States was determined to “bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” Instead of a functioning democracy, the invasion of Iraq had by then only produced a fledgling democracy and fairly weak central government dominated by Maliki’s Shi’ite faction.

The Maliki government has largely been a failure — indecisive, ineffective and not inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Maliki decided that he did not want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, and Washington — exhausted after years of difficult fighting and lack of support for the war at home — was happy to oblige.

The sovereignty of the weak Iraqi state has gradually eroded since U.S. troops left in December 2011. In 2007-9 the U.S. had significant successes courting Sunni groups to help fight al Qaeda-linked jihadist terrorism.

As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, however, these arrangements quickly broke down.  Sunnis were frequently victims of the Shi’ite-dominated government’s security forces. This may also have served as an effective recruiting tool for ISIL.

ISIL and other Sunni extremist groups began operating freely and even established some administrative control in the deserts in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.  If the U.S. comes to the aid of the beleaguered Iraqi military now, which it will likely have to do, it is unwittingly supporting an unpopular Shi’ite-dominated Maliki regime — and its ally Iran — rather than the whole Iraqi population.

Some analysts argue that if the United States had not made the original mistake of invading Iraq, none of this would have happened. It is true that Saddam Hussein was good at “keeping a lid” on sectarian strife — largely by massacring or oppressing those who dissented from his views. I did not support the invasion of Iraq (and had no involvement in the policy). Whatever one’s view, though, by 2010-11, the United States and Europe could have played the hand they were given far more effectively.

What now?

The United States has difficult decisions to make. If it does nothing — or too little — to aid Maliki, it will likely be faced with a full-scale sectarian civil war in Iraq, which could bring Iran into the conflict.

The best of the admittedly terrible options now would be to help the Iraqi (Maliki) security forces with drone strikes on ISIL forces — before those forces overwhelm the Baghdad airport or the Iraqi army’s main weapons depot, both of which are in Sunni-dominated areas.

As a condition for this assistance, Washington should require Maliki to step down after the immediate crisis ends, in order to create a more genuinely inclusive Iraqi government that would represent the interests of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.

Simultaneously, as Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, argued, Washington must finally put its full financial support behind what remains of the moderate Syrian opposition. While their victory in Syria may no longer be possible, moderates can hope to fight ISIL and Assad to a draw. This would prepare the ground for genuine negotiations over the future of Syria.

U.S. hesitation must end now.

PHOTO (TOP): Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, June 12, 2014.REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A looter checks a vehicle beside the body of a member of the Iraqi security forces in Tikrit, which was overran by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Armed Iraqi security forces personnel take their positions during a patrol looking for militants from the al Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as explosives and weapons in a neighbourhood in Ramadi May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer