July 9, 2014

Iraq: Is the United States returning to the Middle East?

After the hasty withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq in 2011, the Western-supported prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was left with the responsibility of furthering the democratization process in the country. Yet, instead of ensuring the equal representation of each demographic group, Maliki tried to minimize the internal threats for his regime by centralizing political and military power: the former by means of ensuring a monopoly on state institutions, and the latter by creating a chain of command guaranteeing his direct influence on the execution of operations. These policies left a large part of the population, most remarkably the Sunnis, without a voice. Further, the violent repressions of Sunni criticism towards Maliki’s policies brought led the country to an extremely volatile state. After the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the group later known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) – began to gain influence. Bashar al-Assad had left areas in eastern Syria uncontrolled, which created fertile soil for ISIS to grow and flourish while the Kurds also started to extend their areas. Now the situation has escalated to a point where the Iraq that US forces left three years ago to develop as a legitimate democracy is falling to pieces, while ISIS has gained control over several areas, winning the Sunni population to their side.

After the hasty withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq in 2011, the Western-supported prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was left with the responsibility of furthering the democratization process in the country. Yet, instead of ensuring the equal representation of each demographic group, Maliki tried to minimize the internal threats for his regime by centralizing political and military power: the former by means of ensuring a monopoly on state institutions, and the latter by creating a chain of command guaranteeing his direct influence on the execution of operations. These policies left a large part of the population, most remarkably the Sunnis, without a voice. Further, the violent repressions of Sunni criticism towards Maliki’s policies brought led the country to an extremely volatile state. After the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the group later known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) – began to gain influence. Bashar al-Assad had left areas in eastern Syria uncontrolled, which created fertile soil for ISIS to grow and flourish while the Kurds also started to extend their areas. Now the situation has escalated to a point where the Iraq that US forces left three years ago to develop as a legitimate democracy is falling to pieces, while ISIS has gained control over several areas, winning the Sunni population to their side.

So far the predominant power in the Middle-Eastern region has showed it reluctance to execute any on the ground militarily operations in Iraq. The piecemeal fall of US hegemony has been followed by the growing isolationism of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Obama has shown his clear reluctance to start another military operation in the area. Currently the government policies concerning this crisis have relied strongly on the idea of letting the local powers settle the geopolitical situation amongst them. The United States has sent some technical assistance to the area but has strongly emphasized the idea that conflicts in Middle East have to be solved at a local level.

The US reluctance to get involved militarily is understandable; after all, it was only three years ago when the US troops left Iraq after a long and costly military intervention, without any intention of returning. President Obama is well aware of the serious risks involved in carrying out another military operation in the country, as recent history has shown that these kinds of operations don’t come without a price. The 2003-2011 intervention in Iraq cost the US government trillions of dollars, not to mention the casualties suffered among the American and Iraqi militaries and the Iraqi civilian population. A possible renewal of this kind of military operation would not only be costly but also highly unpopular– as the previous Iraq intervention ended up to be. Moreover, there is a strong possibility that such a US presence in Iraq would be prolonged—it is easier to send troops to stabilize the country than to withdraw them later on. Second, there is a question of whether military intervention would lead to long-term stability or instead have little effect on tensions between Sunnis and Shias as a result of the lack of political structure in Iraq. It is clear that geopolitical and ethnic factors create tensions by themselves; thus, simply changing the government would not be enough to create stability. Furthermore, it can be regarded as somewhat questionable to protect al-Maliki’s Shia regime against Sunnis, given that the regime has not exactly been enhancing diversity and tolerance in the area—precisely the characteristics that Iraq would need to develop as a state. Third, the US dependence on Middle Eastern oil has been declining, thereby diminishing the incentive for interventions.

So will the US try to continue on its current course, or instead opt for another military intervention in Iraq? Currently the administration faces two difficult choices. On one hand, the risks of military intervention are still firmly etched in American minds; but on the other, the possible birth of an Islamic caliphate is a global threat that needs intensive actions. Concerning the risks of not trying to stabilize the situation in Iraq it’s probable that Obama will resort to some middle road politics. The US has already increased air surveillance in Iraqi airspace. Obama has also mentioned air strikes as an option, one that would be less risky than deploying ground troops. Economic assistance to the Iraqi government could be a possibility, in cooperation with especially Turkey and possibly with other local states; they are not only regional players but also highly motivated to prevent the birth of a Sunni Islamic Republic of Iran. If USA decides to choose this option, the question about a change in government in Baghdad – or at least a change in its attitude—will remain acute. Even though the current turmoil is not just the progeny of al-Maliki and his policies, it is important to establish a new government with wider legitimacy and with the possibilities of all demographic groups to engage more comprehensively in political decision making.

Although the situation has become difficult to manage, ISIS has a numerical strength less than half that of the Iraqi army, and it lacks wider approval amongst the Iraqi population. Even though ISIS has recently captured many areas, it is impossible for the group to establish a long-lasting regime without the approval of the majority. What is needed are careful operations to stop the movement of ISIS and then to direct the attention towards the roots of the problem – trying to make Iraq a less sectarian and divided society.

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