What the US Wants in Iraq

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

As the battle between the Iraqi army and the radical jihadists of ISIS rages on in Tikrit and other parts of the country, the question of US's intentions in Iraq is mired in a thick air of ambiguity, in light of US's refusal to launch air strike against the al-Qaeda affiliate terrorists who have seized substantial arms and equipment after the fall of Mosul, thus strengthening their hands in both Iraq and (eastern) Syria.

So far, the Obama administration's tepid response has consisted of strong verbal condemnation of the ISIS assaults with little meaningful support for the embattled Iraqi government, while using the occasion to seek regime change in Baghdad and simultaneously to deepen bilateral relations with the Iraqi Kurds in the North, with talks of a separate 'status of forces agreement' with the Kurdish regional government. 

Clearly, Washington's dispatch of some 300 forces to beef up security for its huge embassy in Baghdad and or use of drones over Baghdad are insufficient remedies in terms of the international support that Baghdad needs to counter the ISIS menace. Such limited assistance may help Baghdad protect its enclave, yet far from what is needed to roll back the ISIS victories and to nullify the latter's objective of setting up a jihadist state in parts of Iraq. As a result, the Iraqi government has turned to Moscow for help, which has reportedly dispatched fighter jets and advisers, given Russia's concern that the trans-national jihadists, who include Chechens and others, represent a long-term threat to its interests.  

In order to fully understand the US's objectives in Iraq, it is important to go beyond the official Washington rhetoric and to dissect the sources of US's seemingly irrational hesitation to provide air cover for the Iraqi army operations against the ISIS. US Secretary of State John Kerry's rejection of the US airstrike as "ineffective" simply does not wash, given the comparative success of such strikes against the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, since when the US has so little faith in air power?!

Doubtless, if the US had launched air strikes against the ISIS fighters crossing into Iraq from Syria in early and mid-June, the outcome of fighting over Mosul might have been different. Washington's playing innocent of critical intelligence on the ISIS's moves is quite unconvincing, the Kurds in particular have gone public about their repeated warnings to US and British authorities about the impending ISIS attack to no avail.

Adopting the US's official line, many US media pundits, such as Michael Crowley in a piece on "End of Iraq" in Time Magazine, flatly claim that "no one saw it coming," whereas one in the US intelligence community would have to be deaf and blind to miss the overt signs of ISIS's campaign in Iraq. 

Indeed, Obama's refusal to commit the US air support for the Iraqi army is tantamount to a dereliction of duty and evasion of the joint anti-terrorism agreement with Baghad, most likely motivated by the persuasion of US's regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, backing the ISIS terrorists, not to overlook Israel's role, given the cordial ties between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds, who are accused by Baghdad of making unlawful oil sales to Israel. 

At the same time, this raises questions about US's strategy toward Iran, Syria, and Russia: Is the US relying on the Sunni jihadist card to (a) gain leverage over Iran in the nuclear standoff, (b) get even with Russia over Ukraine, and (c) reverse the recent gains of Bashar al-Assad, now that overnight a huge arms shipment from Mosul to ISIS hands in Syria has been accomplished, thanks to the betrayal of their duties by the US-trained Iraqi officers in Mosul? 

The problem with such a US approach is that it amounts to opening a Pandora's Box with the ISIS terrorists more than capable of focusing on their American enemy once they have realized their initial objectives. A historical deja vu, this would be reminiscent of the American fiasco in Afghanistan that culminated in the September 11 atrocities, in other words the US cannot simply afford feeding a monster that is bound to bite it sooner or later. The ISIS phenomenon is a knife that cuts both ways, destined to represent a growing threat to the moderate Arab regimes that are bankrolling its anti-Shiite efforts today. 

On the other hand, if the US persists with the current approach, complemented with the US pundits' open embrace of a new imperial "Sykes-Picot" division of the Middle East landscape into more small states, while the Israelis pursue their grand strategy of a "greater Israel" unencumbered by any Western opposition, then we should expect a future backlash in the form of a new wave of anti-Americanism, particularly by the region's Shiites, strategically located in key parts of the Middle East. 

To put in a nutshell, the present failure of Washington to provide the necessary assistance to Baghdad to rid the country of the ISIS menace reflects the diverse, and contradictory, influences under which Washington finds itself today and has already caused a great deal of "confidence-deficit" with Baghdad -- that can be wiped away only by the US living up to its treaty agreements with the central government in Baghdad and honoring the results of the recent elections, instead of seeking to 'fish in the muddy waters' as there are undeniable gaps between short and long-term gains as well as a whole host of unintended consequences. Only a firm and resolute expressed commitment by the US to Iraq's territorial sovereignty can do away with the Shiites' growing misgivings about US's intentions.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: US, Iraq, ISIS, Obama Administration, Kurdish Regional Government, Russia, US Air Support, Syria, Afrasiabi

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*Photo Credit: IRINN

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