Iraq will never be whole again, so what’s next?

May 27, 2015
People gather at the site of car bombs attack in Baghdad

People gather at the site of car bombs attack in Baghdad, May 2, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.

It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.

Islamic State maintains support among Iraq’s Sunnis. The more the Shi’ites align against it, the more Sunnis see no other choice but to support Islamic State, as they did al Qaeda after the American invasion in 2003. Stories from Tikrit, where Shi’ite militia-led forces defeated Islamic State, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” There are other reports of ethnic cleansing in the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar. Absent a unified Iraq, there will always be an al Qaeda, an Islamic State or another iteration of it to defend the Sunnis.

The only way for Iraq to remain unified was a stalemate of force, with no side having the might to win nor weak enough to lose, with negotiations to follow. As the United States passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shi’ite Iraqi client, that possibility was lost.

It’s possible to pin down the failure to a single battle. The last hope that Iraq would not become an Iranian client was dashed after Islamic State’s defeat in Tikrit. The victory triggered the Iraqi central government to dismiss American and Kurdish support for a drive toward strategically important Mosul. The government all but abandoned the idea of a nonsectarian national army; it turned instead to a gang of Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias with a bundle of anti-Sunni agendas. Baghdad pointed those forces toward Ramadi.

Islamic State is also in Ramadi, but it had already poked into most of the city over the past year. It needed only 400 fighters for the final push last week. The threat was not new. The move by Baghdad on Ramadi is thus more long-term political than short-term tactical: think of Ramadi not as a gate through which Islamic State must pass moving east toward Baghdad (Islamic State cannot occupy the Shi’ite city of four million, defended by untold militia, any more than the German army could capture Stalingrad) but as a gate the Shi’ite militias must traverse headed west to control the Sunni homeland of Anbar.

The Kurds, America’s great loyalist hope, were energetic fighters against Islamic State in the north, at least as long as their peshmerga was reclaiming territory — such as the city of Arbil — from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurds are nowhere to be seen now that fighting has shifted to Anbar. Kurdistan cares little about the Sunnis other than to keep them away from its territory. Baghdad, with Islamic State on its plate, under political pressure from Washington to keep the peace with the Kurds and facing a powerful peshmerga, is unlikely to make any near- to mid-term moves against Kurdistan.

So, besides simply hoping for the best, what can the United States do? Not much. Most of the possible game changers have already failed.

Ever more air power and raids by Special Operations forces cannot hold ground or do more than dilute Iranian influence in spots, assuming they are not actually assisting the Iranians. President Barack Obama has ruled out large numbers of U.S. ground forces. (Not that troops matter; the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq at the surge’s peak failed to win anything lasting, and Obama’s final pullout in 2011 was numerically meaningless.) The training the United States is doing with the Iraqi Army in 2015 will accomplish about the same as the training the United States did with the Iraqi Army from 2005 to 2011. Even the U.S. secretary of defense was reduced to near-mockery when describing Iraq’s army in Ramadi; it lacked the will to fight, he said.

America’s latest man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi, has no more moved his country toward any kind of reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. Abadi’s reliance on Shi’ite militias only draws him closer to Iran.

Obama’s post-Ramadi hope  is once again to try to attract and train an anti-Islamic State Sunni force. There’s no support for that idea in Baghdad itself. The central government fears arming domestic Sunnis, besides a few token “federal police” units. It seems unlikely the Sunnis will be fooled by another U.S.-sponsored “awakening,” like the one in 2006 that helped root out insurgents in Anbar province. Baghdad left the fighters without paychecks from — or meaningful representation in — the government. As America watched, Maliki’s failure to capitalize on the original awakening is a large part of why Iraq is falling apart now.

The much-ballyhooed pan-Arab coalition against Islamic State proved to be a short-lived photo op. America flies roughly 85 percent of the missions against Islamic State, with Western allies filling in a good part of the remaining percentage. No Arab ground troops ever showed up, and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.

The United States appears to have run out of hope any of its cards will play in the long game.

Iraq’s Sunnis can, at best, hope to be pushed into an Islamic State-protected enclave on the fuzzy Syrian border, a development Washington would likely quietly support to avoid a politically embarrassing ethnic cleansing. Iraq would remain an Iranian client state, dependent on its patron to keep Islamic State in check. Iranian and Iraqi political needs would mostly be aligned at that point, though more Islamic State fighters nearer to Syria would pose its own problems. This would expose  what might be the key flaw in American policy in Iraq: The people America thinks are its allies don’t actually want what America wants.

The Iraq of 2003 is gone. The Iraq of 2014 is gone. America’s mistakes made in between have had consequences because, as everyone knows, hope alone is a poor strategy.

17 comments

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What is confusing is the apparent change by the US administration concerning its now not so close Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia who appear to have been dropped in favour of Iran.

Will Iran be more reliable?
Will the actions of the USA reduce the problem between the Shia and Sunni?
Will not properly arming the Sunni or Kurds help solve the problem?
Will empowering Iran help Israel.

If there is a US plan it seems that it is for the civil/religious war to continue for generations with an arms race between the regional powers as a bonus.

The Sunni’s have now learnt what the Poles learnt from FDR in Yalta: Never trust a US administration.
The bottom line is that in the new deal of the Middle East whatever the US does is to a great degree irrelevant.

Posted by Robert2016 | Report as abusive

I enjoy Paul’s work and respect his opinion. However it irks that he (like many others) refer to Kurds, Sunni and Shia as the three major ethnic groups in Iraq. Although Kurds have a diverse spread of religious affiliations, the large majority are Sunni themselves. Glad I got it off my chest. Good article. Thanks

Posted by 511881 | Report as abusive

……….Peter

Posted by 511881 | Report as abusive

“I cannot imagine anything more carefully calculated to permanently split this country apart, the country of Iraq apart, than a Shia-led military effort into a completely Sunni area.” — Ryan Crocker
For sure, war makes strange bedfellows. But maybe fighting common enemy ISIS is what the Sunnis and the Shias needed to figure out a way to get along.

Posted by kafantaris | Report as abusive

No matter who we support in the ME, some group there will be pisses.

Posted by jmad34 | Report as abusive

It is absurd to look for a victory in Iraq while eastern Syria is the main base of IS/Daesh. The main battleground is Syria; not Iraq, and nothing can be done in Syria without Assad. After all, tyrannical or not, Assad’s is the Syrian government.

Posted by noneofdabove | Report as abusive

Saddam Hussein was a secular, non-religious, strong, iron-fisted leader.

He was an enemy of Al-Quaeda and an enemy of Iran.

He was exactly what was needed to keep peace in such a volatile region.

America’s invasion of Iraq was, and is, the greatest tragedy of this century.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Who brought about the media campaign to convince the American people to invade Iraq in 2003?

Two extremely powerful constituencies: 1. the military-industrial complex, led by American and British petroleum companies, and 2. Israel.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

America has started all these mess . Now by any means they have to finish this issue..

Posted by RStephen | Report as abusive

May be Obama’s involvement is superficial out of his basic “No war policy”.He does not want American soldiers die there because American soldiers are not trained for ground war and that too in terrain so wild.This has been proved beyond doubt before withdrawal.At his heart is the policy not to be a policeman for other countries.Look at how Pakistan and even Libya and now Ukraine have lukewarm support of US.Yes he does want to involve collectively with Nato/EU but not alone to save lives of soldiers……The result? Let countries settle mutually and with their own capacity.He is not worried about Iran or Russia or even China’s positions.Obama seems concentrating on the progress and security of America and not of others.May be also because he has lost the confidence in the team spirit of EU members.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

to add…
Obama also cares less of Israel or even Saudi Arabia’s favor.His views towards Iran and Palestine and Afghanistan is only humanitarian and not to gain anything any more from them.Now America has enough oil and galloping technology,he wants others to follow him when he can use his cards,not now.Let them settle at their own among themselves.Again he he has stopt making America as policeman for others to save lives of soldiers and to save economy of America.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

those ppl who are talking about how great saddam hussein was, suddenly acquire memory problems, when they are reminded about the bathist genocide of near 2 million kurds or the countless wars usa had with saddam when he was in power, or what about syria, no1 intervened in syria its in a similar war, who can guarantee there would be “peace and stability” in iraq if saddam was left alone in 2003.

Stalin was a secular dictator who hated iran, that doesnt mean things would be better if he was in power

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

This is the legacy of GW Bush: What a short-sighted president can do. Not seeing the bigger picture, only focusing on one-upping “daddy” for not invading Iraq, and cherry picking faulty intel to justify the invasion.

The big argument was WMDs. Meanwhile, N Korea tested an atom bomb during GW’s tenure, but George looked the other way.

Ironically, I’m sure many in the middle east long for the relatively quiet days under Saddam.

And for those arguing that Obama dropped the ball by not setting up permanent troops. Tell you what, you be the first to volunteer your kids for this pointless duty, then get back to me.

Posted by Ice9 | Report as abusive

Let’s step back a century if we can. What was in 2001 was a British formed country called Iraq. Under the Ottoman’s rule, Kurdistan was one province, Baghdad was another and Basra was the third. The Kurds are Sunni like their Turkish cousins. Basically, the northern tier of the Middle East is Turkic. It is NOT Arab. That’s the big difference with the Iraqi Sunis. Basra as most know was Shiia. As one said, GWBush’s invasion was the greatest mistake of this century. Breaking up the Ottoman’s Arabic holdings into five countries (Syria,lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan) was the greatest mistake in the 20th Century along with Support for the Brits in Iran back in the 1950’s. Our problem today is “messing around” in other people’s back yard both in the Middle East and in Afghanistan (which is not really ME but Central Asia. The Afghans are not Arabic but Indo-Europeans, Turkic and some Asians. OUR problem is not knowing the history of the area.
Additionally, if the Brits had not been so busy trying to fight the Bolsheviks in southern USSR and forced the issue on the Kurds to be independent and split away from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, things MIGHT have been different. But, as the saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Or if you like, “That’s water over the dam or under the bridge.” We have our puritanical moralizing nose under the tent of the Middle East as well as our fingers in Saudi oil.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Hey republicans, told you so. Back in 2003. 2 trillion taxpayer dollars. 4,000 young Americans killed…. for nothing.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Iraqis want their wealth and oil back, US Big Oil doesn’t want to release these reaches, so there is taxpayers funded war on ISIS (read protection of US Big Oil operations (btw AlQuida disappeared?)

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

“We estimate the operations in Iraq will take weeks, not months.” -Republican Vice President Dick Cheney to Congress; January 2003

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive