Tough decisions in Iraq for Obama
The struggle for Iraq’s soul is getting more intense every passing day. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which spearheaded the latest uprising from predominantly Sunni areas, has continued to advance towards the south, capturing new towns along the way to Baghdad. Last week, it took control of strategically located Qaim, Rutba, Rawa and Anah in the Anbar Province. These towns control important crossings and would provide logistical advantages to ISIL in transporting weapons and equipment. The speed of the losses of the central government raised fears over the fate and the future of the country.
The growing menace of ISIL, together with the support of Sunni tribes and other groups, has reached to a proportion that it now clearly threatens the unity of Iraq, as well as the security of the neighboring countries, chief among them is Syria. Even though the Obama Administration announced the end of the “dumb war” in Iraq six years ago and withdrew the last of the U.S. troops at the end of 2011, Iraq is still a sore point for U.S. President Barack Obama. At the beginning of the latest crisis, he obviously tried to ignore it, wishing it to go away. Failing at that, he has been trying to find a stopgap solution to thwart the immediate threat posed by ISIL, hoping to placate wider sections of the Iraqi public to allow time to hatch up a new deal with a new government. Along the way, he is also trying not to send U.S. ground troops to Iraq again and thus not to attract the wrath of ISIL and other extremists groups against the U.S.
As a result, while Obama decided to send 300 U.S. military advisors to Iraq to assess the situation at first hand and guide the central government, as well as gather necessary intelligence to prepare other wider operation if ever the President decides to enlarge the U.S. involvement, he clearly does not wish to prop up the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which by and large has become part of the problem in Iraq.
President Obama is still seeking a legacy for his presidency and deploying U.S. soldiers to Iraq is not among the alternatives, even though Republicans taunt him with their criticism and support for such an option. Striking the ISIL positions with drones and missiles like the U.S. did in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia seems to be still on the table. But the real question is whether such a strike would be enough to stabilize the country?
In the region, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei strongly opposes U.S. or other countries’ involvement in what he terms as “Iraq’s domestic affairs.” On the other hand, Iran is deeply involved with the al-Maliki regime in Baghdad.
Obama’s preferred option seems to be to fasten the process of the formation of a new and more inclusive government with “anybody but al-Maliki.” The Iraqi Parliament has been trying to form a new government since the last elections in April, but has made little progress so far. Thus, there is a suitable ground to replace al-Maliki. While Saudi Arabia and Jordan have tried to convince Iraqi Sunni tribes to not to support the extremist groups and to help form a new government, it is not yet clear whether this will work either.
As we are witnessing the collapse of the al-Maliki regime, which has led the country since 2006 with support from the U.S., a new modus operandi is needed among various ethnic and religious groups if Iraq is going to be kept together. As such, in addition to the Kurdish groups that have strengthened their positions since the last time they were involved in such negotiations with the central government, the Sunni groups will have much more force on the negotiation table than 2005-6. This time, the parties might decide to divide the Iraqi state altogether to have their own smaller states instead of trying to live within a bigger state but with power sharing.
In any case, what is at stake is the future of Iraq, and by extension the Middle East.