More than 10 years after the US invasion of Iraq entrenched political positions have crumbled. In Tehran, France and Iraq debate the merits of intervention. While in Paris, a coalition of 30 countries back ostensibly US plans for military action.
This turn of events follows US President Barack Obama’s address, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, that spelt out America’s response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Obama defined a four stage strategy built around airstrikes, support to local forces, a regional alliance and humanitarian assistance to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL”. (The US pointedly rejects the existence of the Islamic State on the basis that it is neither Islamic nor a state).
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Yet apart from announcing the destruction of a terrorist group there was much left unsaid. There was no clear affirmation about the US’s policy for the region nor its aspiration for those countries involved. Success was limited solely to the eradication of ISIL. Nothing was said about what would follow in its passing. Yet these were not the haphazard omissions of a hastily made foreign policy but rather recognition of the bleak prognosis of the situation. Given this initial pessimism, it is right to question why and how the US has chosen to reengage.
The US willingness to delve back into Iraq stems from a number of overlapping motives. First, in many quarters there is a sense of responsibility towards Iraq following the invasion of 2003. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “If you break it, you own it”. This is re-enforced by the belief that US foreign policy should be a force for good. Cynics of the moral component would do well to consider Russia’s own ongoing intervention in Ukraine. Similarly, while the US might have been slow to respond to the plight of the Yazidis virtually no-one else lifted a finger.
Finally, there are the possibly more decisive regional factors. The fact that so many countries have committed themselves, at least in spirit, to the alliance shows the fear engendered by ISIL. There is a widespread belief that they have the capability to expand their “Breaking the Borders” campaign and sweep down into Jordan and across the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. While the US knows it cannot destroy ISIL by itself, equally the rest of the region knows they are dependent upon US leadership and firepower.
The US strategy demonstrates they have taken into account many of the difficult lessons learnt both in Iraq and Afghanistan and they are also prepared for the long haul. As Obama warned, “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL”. Similarly, given the limited nature of the goals Obama set out in his speech, i.e. they stop at the destruction of ISIL, there has been a realistic appraisal of what can be achieved.
Such caveats suggests that the US is all too aware of the conflicting regional power plays to be navigated and the partnerships it will have to stomach.
Threat as catalyst
The US’s most important political partner in this venture is also the newest. While political stagnation in Iraq allowed the expansion of ISIL, paradoxically its threat ultimately acted as the catalyst for change, with the US using air strikes to reward the formation of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s new government.
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The Kurds, while quick to become engaged in a bloody struggle with their new southern neighbour, can be equally wary of Baghdad, which in turn is concerned with the increased supply of weaponry being sent to the North from countries like France and the UK. The federal government suspects that the Kurds would rather use this new firepower to shore up their independence than to fight for Iraq’s unity.
The US strategy also has the unpalatable consequence of acting in support of Iranian backed Shia militias. Recent US airstrikes allowed the Hezbollah Brigades, along with the Kurds, to break ISIL’s siege of Amerli. Similarly, while the search for moderate rebels in Syria opposed to both Assad and ISIL may prove challenging the fact remains that any action taken against ISIL directly benefits Assad.
Inevitably such accommodations will lead to charges of hypocrisy yet they are central in assuring the actual fighting is carried out by local forces. After the collapse of Iraq in 2004 when bewildered US commanders realised they might require an early exit it was common practice to quote T. E. Lawrence’s 1917 principle that, “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly”.
While the collapse of Iraq’s army in Mosul demonstrates the hazards of such advice it remains true and compellingly politically expedient.
For Barack Obama in his second term this is less of a concern. His “lame duck” status means he has less reason to fear the political implications of renewed military action (mirroring George W Bush when he announced the “Surge” in 2007).
His European counterparts, like Cameron who faces an election within a year, are not so lucky. While the brutal murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and most recently David Haines have increased support for action the fact is the western public continues to prefer intervention from 20,000 feet rather than on the ground.
The reason Obama was so reticent about what success would look like and what would follow the removal of ISIL is that he knows there are no entirely good options left. He has decided that the least worst option is better than doing nothing. Given what we have seen happen in Iraq over the last months, that is justification enough.
Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.