Just a day after overunning Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, militants from the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit. How should the Iraqi government and United States respond? And what are their chances for success? Leading analysts offer their take on what to look for. The views expressed are their own.
U.S. should deal with Iraq and Syria together
By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN
The astonishing advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across parts of northern and central Iraq has reignited a debate about what the Obama administration should do in Iraq and Syria. For now, the centerpiece of the struggle is sharply focused on how Iraq’s government responds and how countries in the region react.
The first key question is how Iraq’s government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responds to this assault. Al-Maliki, a leader from a Shia party who has led Iraq for the past eight years, has been accused by his opponents of becoming increasingly authoritarian and not inclusive when it comes to reaching out to people in the Sunni minority community. Some have gone so far to say that his neglect of the Sunnis created the opening for extremist groups like ISIS to achieve the rapid gains over the past few days.
If al-Maliki can put together a cohesive response that cuts across the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and the Arab-Kurd split, this would go a long way toward building a more stable political foundation to address Iraq’s dangerous security problems. These events come just as Iraqi leaders are negotiating a new governing coalition after national elections on April 30.
The second key question is how Iraq’s neighbors react to these events. It is difficult to imagine Iran, a Shia-majority country that has seen its regional influence grow considerably after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, will just passively watch events inside of Iraq. Iran has also strongly backed the al-Assad regime in Syria, which is a sworn enemy of ISIS, the group that seeks to establish a new Islamist emirate on both sides of the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country that strongly opposes Iran’s regional role, will not likely sit on the sidelines if sectarian violence continues to rise back up again in Iraq. Finally, Turkey, a NATO member that has built stronger ties with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government during the past year, continues to be directly impacted by the violence.
It’s easy for this complicated regional picture to induce policy paralysis in the United States – but this need not be the case. Iraq and the United States have mechanisms to coordinate security and intelligence activities – it should increase this cooperation and elevate the level of diplomatic engagement to encourage an effective and inclusive response that isolates these militants. This doesn’t require any U.S. boots on the ground. In Syria, the United States should reexamine its current policy posture – its rhetorical support for a negotiated political transition is out of sync with the reality on the ground and isn’t matched with sufficient commitment to change the battlefield dynamics there. Finally, the United States should develop a more cogent and integrated policy approach that deals with Syria and Iraq together – the challenges in both countries are becoming more interlinked.
But the real action is in the region – and it will largely be up to Iraq and its neighbors to respond.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Provide arms, intelligence to Baghdad
By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN
What has been especially shocking about the takeover of Mosul was that Iraqi government forces did not resist it, but actually facilitated this by cutting and running. This development, along with the ISIS takeover of Tikrit, raises ominous questions about whether ISIS will be able to seize control of any more – or even all – of Iraq.
Can anything be done to prevent this? One thing is clear: the Obama administration, which presided over the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, is highly unlikely to send them back there under any circumstances. But America, as well as other countries, could provide arms, intelligence, and possibly even advisers to Baghdad to bolster it in the fight against ISIS. Equally important, Washington could help the al-Maliki government increase cooperation with important Iraqi groups it now has bad relations with – including the Kurds and those Sunni Arabs who are also threatened by ISIS.
Hopefully, these steps – as well as the desire for self-preservation – will result in the al-Maliki government being able to contain further expansion on the part of ISIS and even to roll back its gains. But if al-Maliki is not willing or able to do this, then the United States and others must work with other, more capable Iraqi actors – including the Kurds in the north, Shia Arab militias, and anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribesmen. The result may be the permanent division of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia Arab, and Sunni Arab segments. But a divided Iraq with ISIS defeated or contained inside the Sunni Arab zone is preferable to a united Iraq in which the central government is too weak to fight effectively against ISIS.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and author of Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror After Iraq and Afghanistan.
Time to push al-Maliki out of power
By Anthony Cordesman, Special to CNN
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s seizure of Mosul is a major threat to Middle East stability, not just Iraq. ISIS is now moving on Iraq's main refinery, may be taking control of other western cities like Tikrit, has already threatened Samarra and is simultaneously fighting to create a much larger enclave in Syria.
This highlights the risk Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al Qaeda will create an extremist enclave in both Iraq and Syria. This could make any hope of a serious moderate rebel force emerging in Syria impossible. It could create an extremist sanctuary that could threaten Jordan and the other Arab Gulf states, make the conflict between Sunni and Shiite even worse, and push the Iraqi regime closer to Iran in self-defense.
The United States and its allies, however, face a second threat. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become steadily more authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive. He has made the Iraqi security force his political tool, deprived it of effective leaders, used security funds for his own profit, and brought his supporters and relatives into the command chain. His ruthless repression of legitimate Sunni opposition and pressure on the Kurds – and lies and broken promises to Sunni tribal leaders – have lost him the support of Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and empowered ISIS. His broader failure to govern has led institutions like the World Bank and United Nations to give the same or worse ratings than Saddam Hussein, and his ties to Iran have helped it ship arms and volunteers to Syria, Hezbollah – which now presents a massive rocket and missile threat to Israel – and helped create the same rising threat in Gaza.
Yes, the United States might have to help in spite of his total unfitness to rule and Iraq's desperate need to expel him and his cronies from the country, but U.S. aid must be conditional and tied to the fact that al-Maliki is an authoritarian thug. The United States should also quietly do everything possible to push him out of power and into exile.
Anthony Cordesman is Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
No time to turn back on world’s most combustible region
By Will Marshall, Special to CNN
Suddenly, Iraq is coming apart at the seams. Its government seems powerless to stop the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group so extreme and aggressive that even al Qaeda has disowned it. Let’s hope President Obama has a contingency plan to prevent Islamist extremists from destroying the tenuous order that’s existed there since U.S. forces pulled out two and a half years ago.
The new war in Iraq calls into question four key decisions that have shaped President Obama’s approach to the old one, and Middle East policy in general.
The first was the decision not to press harder to keep a residual U.S. force in Iraq. Now Sunni insurgents have reclaimed large swaths of Anbar Province, which U.S. forces had pacified at considerable sacrifice, as well as the important northern city and oil hub of Mosul. At a minimum, the White House seems to have placed too much confidence in the Iraqi army, which despite intensive U.S. training and billions of dollars’ worth of advanced equipment, has failed to check the insurgency. The president needs to act swiftly to use U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism assets to stiffen the resolve of Iraqi forces and help them launch an effective counteroffensive against ISIS.
Obama’s decision to stand aloof from the Syrian crisis also deserves a second look. Foreign policy “realists” have heaped fulsome praise on the president for this supposedly wise rebuff to interventionist hotheads. But over the last three years, the Syrian conflict has turned into a major humanitarian and strategic debacle, prompting our ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, to resign in protest.
ISIL drew jihadis from Sunni countries to fight the “apostate” regime in Damascus, has now apparently invaded Iraq from Syria, and is busy setting up an Islamic Caliphate in the ungoverned spaces straddling the two countries’ borders. That gives the President Obama a strategic rationale for arming the moderate Syrian opposition, which as Ford notes will have to grow strong enough to topple Bashar al-Assad and drive foreign fighters from Syria.
Third was the administration’s decision to treat al Qaeda, rather than its ideology, as the main danger to be contained. This implied that our fight against terrorism would be over once the original al Qaeda organization was smashed. To the president’s credit, that’s happened. Unfortunately, though, the persistent threat we face comes not from any particular group of Salafist terrorists, but from the fanatical beliefs they share in common. Thus we’ve seen al Qaeda-inspired offshoots crop up in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa, in Syria and now Iraq again. The Obama administration needs to develop a patient, long-term strategy for countering the extremist narrative.
The president’s fourth decision was to declare America’s intention to pivot to Asia. Of course, there’s a powerful strategic argument for shifting U.S. attentions and assets to the Pacific, the world’s new epicenter of growth and power. But the administration has given friends and foes alike in the Middle East the impression that it can’t wait to extricate the United States from the miserable place once and for all.
The truth is, we can’t afford to turn our backs on the world’s most combustible region. The ripples and spillover from its endemic disorder and violence have already hit us, hard, and will continue to threaten our interests and friends. We aren’t leaving the Middle East anytime soon, and we might as well say so.
Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.