Begin with the baseline: The U.S., its allies and its regional Middle Eastern opponents such as Iran cannot tolerate the existence of a functioning al-Qaeda successor state in large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant wouldn’t be satisfied with a landlocked statelet. By ideological preference and by geostrategy, the ISIL state would have the imperative to expand to the Mediterranean coast, including Sunni-majority areas of Lebanon. [Friday], a dozen ISIL fighters were apparently under siege in a Beirut building – a sign of potential future expansion.
Once the conflict reaches Lebanon, this would probably bring in the Israelis. Nuclear Israel and near-nuclear Iran would then have to figure out whether they hated each other more than they hate Sunni al-Qaeda. If this isn’t a World War III scenario, it’s getting close.
But if these scenarios pan out, they merely make the conflict far more complex, with many more active participants, allowing many more unintended consequences to unfold. And if you want evidence that we don’t really know what’s happening or could happen, look at Washington’s surprise at the demonstrable weakness and incompetence of the Iraqi army. And conceding that we are now intervening directly – what else can Biden’s visit to Baghdad convey – and yet following up with a few hundred military advisers seems to me to give us the taint of meddling with scarcely any real influence on any outcome. Maybe it’s a form of stalling, but as the Sunni/ISIS insurgency sweeps across the Sunni parts of Iraq, it’s obviously the thin end of the wedge.
Kenneth Pollack further unpacks the “known unknowns” of the intervention:
The United States and the Maliki government (and the Iranian regime, for that matter) clearly share an interest in defending Baghdad and the other cities of central and southern Iraq from conquest by the Sunni militant coalition. However, Prime Minister Maliki is also determined to reconquer the rest of the Iraqi territory lost to the ISIS offensive last week.
That would seem to run counter to the Administration’s (entirely correct) insistence that the United States should not choose sides in the Iraqi civil war, nor help either to militarily crush the other (and jeopardize the safety of its civilian populace).
That is why Washington has, again rightly, insisted on a political strategy that would reconcile Iraq’s warring communities and ensure the safety of all. Has the Obama Administration agreed that these American advisors would support Prime Minister Maliki’s objective of retaking all of Iraq? If so, will American advisors advise/lead/accompany Maliki’s forces (ISF and Shi’a militias) if they are able to fulfill the Prime Minister’s goal of counterattacking into the Sunni-populated regions of Iraq where the potential for ethnic cleansing and atrocities against civilians will increase dramatically? If not, does the Iraqi government understand this?
At the same time, the administration says it hopes to broker a political solution to the crisis. But James Traub doesn’t see that happening as long as Maliki “can keep his grip on power while pursuing a ruthlessly sectarian agenda”:
The administration is working with Iraqi leaders to shape the process [of forming a government after April’s elections], as it did in 2010. That is not an altogether hopeful precedent. Last time around, the hope was that Maliki would govern along with Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister whose Iraqiyya party had actually won more seats than Maliki’s State of Law. This time, the White House is cajoling Shiite leaders to jettison Maliki in favor of a less divisive and authoritarian figure. According to reports from Baghdad, Shiite leaders have begun to consider doing just that.
The administration has, however, just agreed to send 300 military advisors to the country without demanding political reform as a quid-pro-quo. Obama probably felt that, with the Visigoths already rattling the gates of the capital, he could not afford to wait for the political jockeying to play out over the coming months.
Ben Van Heuvelen is more sanguine, arguing that we can affect a political reconciliation, but only with Iran’s help:
The central tenet of President Obama’s emerging Iraq strategy is that military action won’t bring stability unless Iraqi leaders can build a government that all Iraqis might be willing to fight for. “As long as those deep [ethno-sectarian] divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats,” he said on Thursday. The only problem with Obama’s formulation is its implicit assumption that Iraqi leaders can simply choose to make up. In aggregate, they have taken hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran, and some are directly affiliated with Iran-backed militias. As a result, only Iran can push Iraqi leaders toward reconciliation.
Ayatollah Khamenei, however, has come out against any US involvement:
“The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the US camp and those who seek an independent Iraq,” said Khamenei, who has the final say over government policies. “The US aims to bring its own blind followers to power since the US is not happy about the current government in Iraq. ” Khamenei said Iraq’s government and its people, with help of top clerics, would be able to end the “sedition” there, saying extremists are hostile to both Shia and Sunni muslims who seek an independent Iraq.
Earlier on Sunday Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said some countries “feed terrorists by their petrodollars,” in a veiled reference to the Arab Gulf states, and warned that such support would come back to haunt them. “Rest assured, tomorrow will be your turn. The barbarous terrorists will go after supporters of terrorism in the future,” said Rouhani.
But is Iran the only unsavory partner we need to salvage this mess? Not according to Les Gelb: “There’s only one strategy with a decent chance of winning: forge a military and political coalition with the power to stifle the jihadis in both Iraq and Syria”:
This means partnering with Iran, Russia, and President Assad of Syria. This would be a very tricky arrangement among unfriendly and non-trusting partners, but the overriding point is that they all have common interests. All regard the jihadis as the overwhelming threat, and all would be willing to take tough joint action. And with this fighting arrangement in place, the “partners” could start seriously fixing the underlying political snake pits in Damascus and Baghdad. …
I’m certainly not saying that Assad is a good guy and that we should abandon pursuing his eventual departure, or that we can now trust Russia and Iran. Washington has and will have serious problems with all these countries. And most certainly, the U.S. will have to stay on its guard. But the fact is that there is common ground with Moscow and Tehran to combat the biggest threat to all of us at this moment. Russia frets all the time about the jihadis in the Mideast making joint cause with Muslim extremists in Russia; it’s Moscow’s number one security issue. Iran worries greatly about the Sunni jihadis torturing and killing Shiites in Syria and Iraq. There’s nothing more frightening in the world today than these religious fanatics.
As so often, Gelb adds a dash of realism. If our real problem here is the possibility of fanatical Islamist terror, then the US is only one of many powers with an interest in intervening, and Assad and Iran and Russia are our partners, not our enemies in this endeavor. But even then, there is no solution to this constantly exploding “ungrateful volcano” (as Churchill described Iraq) than a multi-sectarian democratic government and that is, by any reasonable inference of the past decade or so, a non-starter. Throwing arms, humans and money at a project that has never actually worked and that, in the current chasm, cannot work, is a mug’s game. I can see the reasons behind getting better intelligence, but not much more. On this, I stand with Rand Paul.
(Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Kerry was in Baghdad to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants swept through western towns abandoned by the security forces. By Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.)