Iraq: A Time to Act

On June 10, 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to what is now called the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS). Since that time, the Islamic State has shown a surprising ability to mix religious extremism with effective strategy and military action. It has not made the mistake of rushing into further military action in areas where it might take substantial losses, like a Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad or key Shrine cities like Karbala. It has not abandoned gains in Syria for gains in Iraq. It has not focused on Shi’ite “heretics” at the cost of failing to score gains against the Kurds. And it has done all too competent a job of capitalizing on its gains to win broad support from jihadist fighters and other violent Sunni extremist groups—much of it from al Qaeda affiliates like the al Nusra Front.

The Growing Dangers and Costs of Letting the Islamic State Go Unchallenged

It is still unclear what the overall strategies of the Islamic State are in Syria and Iraq. Also unclear is whether it can consolidate a lasting hold on power in the face of the Sunni backlash against its extremism and the challenges it faces in dealing with problems of economics and governance, as well as from other Sunni factions. So far, however, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has largely been pushed on the defensive, and other Syrian Sunni rebel factions have steadily lost ground.

As for Iraq, the Islamic State has shown that it can do an excellent job of focusing on pragmatic key infrastructure targets like refineries and dams, economic targets like some of the oilfields the Kurds had occupied, and move toward surrounding Baghdad and pushing down to the border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is still far from clear how well it can secure the divided loyalties of the Sunni tribes or deal with competing armed Islamist factions and the former elite that surrounded Saddam—which are often called Baathists but are largely military and political figures displaced from power.

The United States has had some reasons to wait. It did need to examine its military options in view of the weakness of the Iraqi security forces and the authoritarian, self-seeking sectarian corruption of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and those around him. It is often far easier to talk about using U.S. military strength that create real world intelligence and targeting capabilities than to use U.S. air and missile power, kill key ISIS leaders and fighting cadres, and avoid killing Sunni civilians and collateral damage.

Maliki has also steadily corrupted and polarized the Iraqi security forces and central government since coming back into power following the 2010 election, and there are serious limits to what Special Forces and other U.S. advisers can do without taking sides in the renewed civil war that Maliki has provoked. The United States needed time to determine how it could find ways to aid the Iraqi security forces and Iraq, rather than helping Maliki, furthering sectarian and ethnic division, and assisting Iran in gaining influence through the presence in Iraq of elements of its Revolutionary Guards Corps.

It has been more than a month since that options study was completed, however, and the Islamic State has so far gained steadily each week in which the United States has failed to act. It continues to score gains in the area around Baghdad. It has won significant battles with the Pesh Merga, in part because of a lack of financial and military support from the Maliki government. It has built up a growing threat to key elements of Iraq’s infrastructure and created major new economic pressures on the Iraqis in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas by disrupting trade and exports from Turkey.

The Islamic State is also triggering massive internal displacements of more than 1 million Iraqis out of a population of some 33 million and creating a revival of Shi’ite militias and pressures on Arab Sunnis that threaten to further divide the country and create more internal refugees. It has also carried out at least some mass killings of Shi’ites, Turkomans, and Yazdis as well as the “ethnic cleansing” of Christian minorities.

The Need to Act Rather than Stand and Wait

There are times—although President Obama seems to have trouble grasping this point—that do not serve those who stand and wait. It is true that the wrong kind of U.S. action against the Islamic State could aid the Assad regime in Syria, the Hezbollah, and Iran.

It is also true that many of Iraq’s current problems are the result of self-inflicted wounds that have come out of its sectarian and ethnic divisions, Maliki’s incompetence and grabs for power, Iran’s efforts to influence Iraq, the selfishness of Iraq’s other political figures, and the constant refusal of far too many Iraqi’s to take responsibility for their own actions and their own country. If there is any lesson that the United States—and those it seeks to help—needs to learn from the last decade, it is that we cannot help a country that does not help itself.

Much of the level of U.S. assistance should depend on Iraq’s political leaders dumping Maliki and his coterie for a power structure that focuses on national unity rather than yet another “strong” Shi’ite leader. Much should depend on how much of the Iraqi security forces can be salvaged as national forces, and much should depend on Iraqi willingness to contain Iranian influence and focus on recreating the conditions for some kind of federal Iraq.

But there does seem to be a list a list of options where the United States can act selectively, can act using only limited forces and with the support of its Arab allies in the region and possibly Turkey, without provoking new tensions with Iran and under conditions that will aid Iraq and not civil conflict.

Compartmentalizing Syria

First, the United States does not have to treat the threat from the Islamic State in Syria in the same way it treats that threat in Iraq. Russia, Iran, and the Hezbollah have made their bed with Assad. They should be left to lie in it. The United States has no present reason to use air and missile power in any way that will ease the pressure the Islamic State puts on Assad and Iranian and Hezbollah interests. They richly deserve each other, they have already created a disastrous refugee problem, and every military casualty on both sides is scarcely a loss.

The United States should, however, be far more willing to support Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in backing moderate rebel factions—and Turkey if it can create something approaching an effective program that supports the same moderate factions. It should aid the Lebanese Armed Forces in their efforts to secure the north and block off a Sunni Islamic extremist threat—one that now at least claims to be affiliated with the Islamic State.

The United States should take far more risks in providing and supporting arms transfers to moderate factions for the simple reason that their opponents are already well armed and can only get limited benefits from any losses of such weapons. It should decisively show its regional allies that it will work with them, really act on past words and pledges, and use such efforts to put as much continuing pressure on both the Assad and Islamic State factions as it can.

The United States should support moderate rebel factions with intelligence and larger training efforts outside Syria. There may be a case for deniable U.S. unmanned cruise missile strikes on key Islamic State and other key jihadist figures, when this has a broad impact on the overall threat in the region, and a case for a covert CIA or Special Forces presence with moderate rebel groups. But this is a decision for the agency and Special Forces leaders and experts that needs to be based on intelligence data they trust and their expertise. It is not the kind of recommendation that analysts outside that world can safely made.

Focusing on Iraq

Iraq will be a difficult case as long as Maliki or anyone like him remains in power—and until the leaders of Iraq’s central government start focusing on their nation’s interest rather than their own or their ethnic and sectarian faction. The election that has so far paralyzed Iraq’s political structure occurred on April 30, 2014, and the Islamic State’s first major gains came long before the seizure of Mosul when ISIS took Fallujah and Ramadi in the first days of January. Seven months of ineffective leadership and political bickering, and a divisive focus on ethnic and sectarian faction, are a poor incentive for any kind of outside commitment.

But that does not mean the United States needs to be passive, stand and wait, or continue a half-hearted security effort. Though once again, any operational plan and activity needs to be the result of expert military and intelligence efforts, the United States already seems to have developed options that can do serious damage to ISIS without making Iraq’s divisions and civil conflicts even worse.

Setting the Conditions

First, the United States should openly set clear conditions for its support. It should not blandly act as if the present Iraqi government had not created the civil war that made the gains of ISIS possible or as if the politics and actions of Iraq’s central government and major factions were not as much of a threat as ISIS.

  • The United States should actively and openly hold a dialogue with Sunni, Kurdish, and opposition Shi’ite figures. It should be clear that the United States does not trust Maliki, wants him gone, and will not take sides against Sunnis or strengthen Maliki in ways that might threaten the Kurds. If Maliki will not accept this, the United States should make it clear that he must go or there is no aid.
  • The United States should actively and openly pressure Iraq to deal with the suspect and abusive elements of its Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and intelligence efforts as it did during the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011. It should publicly identify elements of the ISF that Maliki uses to suppress and abuse Sunnis and build his own power and make aid conditional on their being excluded.
  • U.S. advisers should only work with mixed and “national” elements of the security forces—not polarized Sunni or Shi’ite led forces—and only provide aid within the structure of the professional officers and commanders that actually serve Iraq’s interests rather than those of Maliki or Shi’ites. The United States should only provide support of a kind that will assist in the creation of an effective force than serves Iraq’s national, rather than sectarian, interests.
  • The United States should either publicly report on—or leak—any action by the Maliki or any successor government that is corrupt, favors Shi’ites and pro-Maliki elements of the ISF over the need to defeat ISIS and bring Sunnis and Kurds back into the government and ISF, and links Maliki to Iran.
  • The United States should place strict restraints on the use of new arms deliveries to prevent them from being used against Sunni or Kurdish populations in ways that solely serve Maliki’s interests and exacerbate the civil war.
  • The United States should restrict any use of U.S. airpower and intelligence data to targets that are clearly linked to the Islamic State or other extremist movements. It should shape its strategic communications to make it clear to all Iraqis and all those in the region that Iranian and Russian arms, advisers, and “volunteers” are being used in ways that do not serve the interests of all Iraqis.
  • The United States should more openly and separately reach out to Sunni tribal and other leaders to encourage them to resist the Islamic State. It should back the Kurds in creating an expanded security zone and energy exports through Turkey as a counterweight to Maliki, Islamic extremists, and Iran.
  • The United States should reach out to the full range of moderate Shi’ite leaders to seek support for a united and truly national government. It should also both highlight abuses of Sunnis by Shi’ite militias and consider offering covert or overt support and training to militias that are tied to Shi’ite leaders who seek to rebuild Iraq on a national level (like Ali al-Sistani).

Once again, the best option for U.S. action is for Maliki to go and see Iraq shift to a truly national mix of Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders. The practical problem, however, is that the United States cannot wait to take some form of action. The Islamic State is growing too strong and doing too much to divide the country and polarize new sectarian and ethnic divisions and hatred.

The United States needs to act now to create a stronger military advisory effort and work with Iraq to selectively rush U.S. foreign military sales (FMS) deliveries. This effort should involve the following actions:

  • The United States should provide more advisory teams, including teams in the field, where this can already mean supporting the rebuilding of all the elements of the Iraqi Security Forces along professional and national lines. It should, however, be careful not to repeat its past mistakes in doing this the U.S. way, rather than the Iraqi way.
  • As part of this stronger training and advisory effort, it should explore the option of deploying Special Forces quietly in the field to provide operational support, tactical intelligence, and the carefully targeted flow of aid.
  • The United States should expedite new arms deliveries, seeking congressional approval of fast tracking and allocation of assets in U.S. forces where necessary. It should rush the supply of weapons and material to the ISF that will allow them to defeat ISIS and other Sunni factions, including attack helicopters.
  • The United States should begin to use airpower from nearby bases and/or carriers and unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs), selectively striking only against clearly defined critical Islamic State and other extremist military targets.
  • The United States should tie the targeting of Islamic State and other Sunni extremist targets in Iraq to strikes that will impact on their strength and capability in Syria. U.S. efforts in Iraq should be linked with efforts to strengthen pressure on both ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria, treating the operation in Iraq as part of a broader policy in dealing with Syria-ISIS-Iraq-Iran.
  • The United States should seek to repeat the effort it made in restructuring the national police. It should work with the Iraqi government to publicly identify and change the elements of the ISF that Maliki has used to suppress and abuse Sunnis and to build his own power and work to change their structure, composition, and commanders. It should persuade a new government that promotions and command positions must be approved by the entire government, to cease temporary command positions and other ways of linking command to the prime minister, and to create a national force based on merit.
  • The U.S. advisory mission should be large enough to help Iraqi forces in the field, and Special Forces and other expert elements should be deployed to help with targeting and intelligence at a tactical level. The United States should help Iraqi forces use of U.S. airpower and intelligence data to target the Islamic State threat on a broad level.
  • The United States should examining options to increase its civil advisory role in helping Iraq develop effective governance and development, with the possible option of encouraging a functional form of federalism—and supporting a strong Kurdish region or state if Iraq should actually divide.
  • The United States should more openly and aggressively reach out to Sunni tribal leaders to encourage them to resist the Islamic State and actively work to persuade the Kurds to reach a solution with the new government that will tie the size and nature of their security zone and energy exports through Turkey to the rebuilding of Iraq as a unified state—encouraging an Iraqi examination of options for federalism in the process.
  • The United States should reach out to other Shi’ite leaders to seek support for a united and truly national government. It should also both highlight abuses of Sunnis by Shi’ite militias and consider offering covert or overt support and training to militias that are tied to Shi’ite leaders who seek to rebuild Iraq on a national level.
  • The United States should work with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE to try to develop an integrated approach to dealing with counterterrorism, the Islamist extremist threat in Syria, and the Assad regime. It should not only encourage strong security ties, but consideration of plans to fully integrate both Jordan and Iraq into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • In the process, the United States should seek to strengthen support from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to limit the ability of the Islamic State to operate, cut off external sources of income and better seal key borders, and support and train Iraq forces.
  • The United States should not try to exclude other countries from playing a role when this is constructive, but it should openly identify any Iranian and other outside efforts that serve sectarian interests or those of an outside power. The United States needs a clear strategic communications plan focused on helping a national Iraqi government succeed as well as defeating the ISIS threat.
  • The United States should shape its strategic communications to make it clear to all Iraqis and all those in the region when Iranian or Russian arms, advisers, and “volunteers” are being used in ways that do not serve the interests of all Iraqis.

At every step in this process, the United States should openly make it clear that while it will never commit ground troops or try to save Iraq from itself if it does not make serious reforms, it will sharply increase its level of assistance if Iraq does complete the creation of new government without Maliki and without turning to a competing political show like Ahmed Chalabi.

The “Kurdish Issue”

The Kurds scarcely present an untarnished case for U.S. support. They have their own problems in occupying and claiming mixed ethnic areas, with authoritarian and corrupt political leaders and factions and ambitions for the division of Iraq. Their economic gains and security are largely a result of outside aid, a past share of Iraq’s total oil exports, and U.S. efforts that began the creation of a Kurdish security zone in April and May 1991. Any form of Kurdish independence can trigger new ethnic tensions affecting the rest of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey in ways that could be a major new source of instability in a region that scarcely needs new ways to fail.

But this does not mean standing by when the Pesh Merga have had major losses to the Islamic State over the last week because they lack the arms and resources to fight the Islamic State. It does not mean trying to block Kurdish oil exports through Turkey, when the Kurds have no other major source of income and the best way of securing the Iraqi Kurds is to reinforce their economic interdependence with Turkey.

Limited U.S. action to ensure the security and economy of Turkey, tied to U.S. policies that focus on federalism and the Kurds remaining within Iraq, can preserve a vital counterweight to the Islamic State and the sectarian divisions between Arab Shi’ite and Arab Sunni that are proving to be so self-destructive to Iraq as nation.

Moreover, regardless of their all-too-real failings, the Kurds have played a critical role in protecting refugees from other factions. Their humanitarian role is certainly partly a function of intelligent self-interest, but intelligent self-interest is so rare an Iraqi virtue than any example deserves encouragement. More seriously, they are often the only real hope Iraqi minorities have.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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