Less than four years after the withdrawal of American troops, Iraq is once again descending into chaos and violence. Islamist insurgents from an al-Qaeda breakaway group have seized large swaths of northern Iraq, and are marching toward Baghdad. The unrest has inflamed deep-seated sectarian divides between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, resulting in widespread deaths. According to estimates from the United Nations, more than 1,075 people have been killed in Iraq this month, more than any month this year. It’s also raised the specter of another US-led military intervention amid fears that parts of Iraq and Syria could become a new hotbed of terrorist activity.
“It is in our national security interests not to see an all-out civil war inside of Iraq, not just for humanitarian reasons, but because that ultimately can be destabilizing throughout the region,” President Barack Obama told reporters on Thursday, adding that Iraq must not become a “safe haven” for terrorists who may target the US.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad yesterday to meet with embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, though there is no clear political resolution in sight, and the militants have shown no sign of relenting. The challenge for the US, then, is to somehow stabilize Iraq and neutralize the insurgents without dragging itself back into war.
What's happened so far
The unrest in Iraq escalated dramatically on June 10th, when a violent radical group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL) seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They proceeded to move south, taking control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and the northern city of Tal Afar. In several days they marched nearly 200 miles — almost to Baghdad — and have launched attacks on Iraq’s largest oil refinery.
The insurgents, who identify as Sunni Muslims, say they want to overthrow Maliki’s pro-Shiite government and establish an Islamist state that would span parts of neighboring Syria and northern Iraq. They’re far smaller than the Iraqi army, numbering only about 7,000 compared to 250,000, though they’ve gained support from other Sunni militant groups and Baathist nationals in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurds, who have long sought statehood, have used chaos to their advantage, taking control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and expanding their autonomous territory.
ISIS rose out of the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an extremist group that the US military defeated in 2006, though it later broke with al-Qaeda — in part because ISIS’ tactics were too brutal. Over the past year, ISIS has taken control of several strategically important cities in war-torn Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has been battling various rebel groups for more than three years.
"Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day."
Syria has proven to be a critical base for ISIS recruiting and operations; tanks and other weapons destined for more moderate rebel groups have ended up in ISIS’ hands, and the group reportedly finances its operations by selling Syrian oil and electricity to the Assad regime. According to The New York Times, ISIS earns extra revenue by taxing Christians and Muslim adversaries in areas it controls, underscoring the group’s economic sophistication and its aims to establish a self-sustaining state. ISIS is a surprisingly effective propagandist as well, using popular social networks including Instagram, YouTube and Facebook to communicate with followers, create its own timely memes, and drum up support for its aims.
Now that it has surged into Iraq, ISIS has effectively merged two conflicts into one, further complicating any US intervention. ISIS is expecting a confrontation with the US at some point, as the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made clear in a statement issued after claiming to have massacred 1,700 Iraqi military recruits in Tikrit: "Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day."
The role of the US
The US sees ISIS as a threat to both regional stability and long-term American security, but Obama’s options for intervention are limited by conflicting objectives: the US spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and public support for overseas engagement remains at historically low levels. Since withdrawing in 2011, the US has tried to stabilize the country from afar, through arms shipments, government aid, and diplomatic pressure, but those efforts have so far failed to quell the sectarian tensions that have long plagued Iraq.
All signs point toward Obama’s reluctance to re-engage militarily in Iraq. Ending the Iraq War has been a cornerstone of his administration. When he was running for office, Obama campaigned on the need to wind down the war, and the president formally announced the end of US combat operations in Iraq in 2011, saying: "Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country's security." True to his word, all but the last US combat troops left the country in December, with only a few hundred embassy guards staying behind at the US embassy in Baghdad.
Since the US withdrawal, the democratically elected Iraqi government has struggled with internal divisions and a surge of terrorist violence in the form of shootings and bombings. Last year, nearly 7,818 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks across the country, the most violent year since 2008, according to the United Nations.
Experts lay much of the blame on the divisive policies of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, who ascended to office in 2006 with US support. In recent years, he has purged his government of Sunnis — who dominated the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein — and has conducted mass arrests of Sunnis under terrorism laws. Iraq’s minority Sunni population feels mistreated by Maliki’s Shiite-dominated administration, which has made it easier for ISIS to recruit soldiers and garner support from other Sunni militias, despite its brutally violent ethos.
"Iraqi politics are poisonous."
This hostile political climate has also made it more difficult for government forces to repel ISIS, says Emma Sky, a senior fellow at Yale University who spent four years as an adviser to the US military in Baghdad. "Iraqi politics are poisonous," Sky said in an email, adding that "poor leadership" and low troop morale have hampered Iraqi forces. "Despite the threat to the state posed by ISIS, the politicians seem incapable of pulling together and agreeing [on] a response."
Meanwhile, the large US military presence that was seen in the country for a decade — over 170,000 at its height in late 2007 — has been absent since the 2011 withdrawal. Private US contractors, however, remained behind in Iraq in large numbers, at least until recently. There were over 5,000 contractors serving various roles in Iraq — security, military training, intelligence, cooks — as of February, according to The Wall Street Journal. Yet as multiple media outlets have reported, hundreds of these contractors have been evacuated from Iraq in the past two weeks of ISIS victories.
Costs of Iraq War
US uniformed personnel killed1
US personnel wounded in action1
US personnel that suffered amputations1
Allied Iraqi forces killed2
133,000 - 147,000
Iraqi civilians killed as direct result of war2
Refugees, as of Jan. 20143
US service members deployed1
Direct war appropriations4
Financial cost including health care and other war-related expenses4
$8.5 - $200 billion
Initial CBO estimate, Oct. 20035
1Department of Defense; 2Cost of War Project, Watson Institute for International Studies; 3UN Refugee Agency; 4Prof. Neta Crawford; 5Congressional Budget Office
The US government has also been supplying the Iraqi military with weapons and equipment since the withdrawal: 18 F-16 fighter jets costing $1.9 billion total have been purchased by Iraq since 2012, according to The Washington Post. Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the fighter jets, was set to deliver them in the midst of the recent ISIS violence. Last December, The New York Times reported that the US was "quietly" rushing "dozens" of surveillance drones and Hellfire missiles (which can be shot from manned and unmanned aircraft) to Iraq to help fight back against insurgent violence. But so far these weapons have done little to stop the ISIS advance.
The challenge facing the US now, as ISIS conquers some of Iraq’s largest and most economically productive cities, is to help the Iraqi government push back the insurgency without returning a heavy US military presence to Iraq. "The strategic question is: ‘What tools do you have to shape the politics of Iraq?’" says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East division at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think-tank.
1. Military intervention
President Obama has strongly and repeatedly committed not to send US soldiers back into combat in Iraq. "I think we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again," Obama said on Thursday.
Nevertheless, the US has been re-escalating its military presence in the region. On June 16th, Obama ordered 275 American troops to Iraq to help guard the American embassy in Baghdad, and later announced that "up to 300" military advisors would also be sent to "assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward."
"we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action."
The US has also sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf with four squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, as well as other jamming planes and helicopters, according to The Guardian. Alongside the carrier are two warships, the USS Truxtun and the USS Philippine Sea, both of which have an armament of Tomahawk missiles that could be launched at targets on the ground in Iraq, according to the Associated Press. The USS Mesa Verde, another transport ship sent to the Persian Gulf on June 16th, carries 550 Marines, two landing hovercraft, and five MV22-Osprey aircraft capable of vertical takeoffs and landings for transporting troops.
Surveillance drones and manned Navy P3 aircraft have been reported flying over Iraq to gather intelligence. The US has been tracking insurgent movements with unmanned surveillance drones over Iraq since last year, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, and Obama stressed the importance of intelligence sharing in his speech Thursday.
"The ability of the Iraqi government to see and track what’s going on is pretty limited," says Eric Thompson, director of strategic studies at CNA, a nonprofit analytic organization in Virginia. "And that's a capacity that the US has on a scale that’s second to none."
Obama is also considering armed drone strikes against ISIS, possibly even in Syria, where ISIS is also based. "Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action," the president said Thursday. The Iraqi government has requested air support, but so far the administration has said only that all options are on the table. The problem with air strikes, however, is that ISIS militants have now embedded themselves among civilians, raising the risk of civilian casualties. Further, the Obama administration has been criticized around the world for its use of armed drone strikes and the over 2,000 estimated casualties, many of them civilians.
Given Obama’s previous limited responses to the conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and Syria (only Libya saw American air strikes in 2011) it’s unlikely that the president would turn to any of these options lightly, if at all. "The administration’s bias is toward caution," Alterman says. "Its general approach has been to wind down wars, not escalate them."
Prior to the run of ISIS conquests in Iraq, Obama outlined his administration’s doctrine for dealing with foreign conflicts in a speech in May, saying: "U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." If the US is able to help the Iraqi government drive back without resorting to using military force of its own, that could prove the value of Obama’s cautionary approach. It could also provide a template for dealing with future conflicts overseas.
2. The Iran factor
The success of ISIS in Iraq has even raised the prospect of cooperation between longtime adversaries Iran and the US. Iran’s Shia government supports Maliki, and neither the US nor Iran wants a large American military presence back in the region. Iran has sent special forces across the border in support of the Iraqi army, and Iranian officials reportedly discussed the possibility of cooperation with their American counterparts during this month’s nuclear talks in Vienna.
US officials have been reluctant to discuss details of a possible collaboration with Iran, and the prospect has drawn mixed reactions from Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Relations between the two countries have remained frigid for decades, and distrust remains high in spite of the progress made in recent talks over Iran’s nuclear program. The two are on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war, with Iran supporting the Assad regime and the US backing some of the rebel groups looking to overthrow it, and working together could alienate Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the region.
"We are strongly opposed to US and other intervention in Iraq."
Signs of discord have emerged since the possibility of cooperation was raised in early June. "We are strongly opposed to US and other intervention in Iraq," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday. "We don’t approve of it as we believe the Iraqi government, nation, and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition." He later accused the US of seeking regime change in Iraq for its own benefit: "The US is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges."
The White House is also wary of Iranian involvement, fearing that intervention may only fan the flames of sectarianism, and the Pentagon last week said that military cooperation is off the table. "If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation," Obama said Thursday, "and the prospect for government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term."
3. Form a stable Iraqi government
Long-term stability in Iraq is going to require political reform. Since taking office, Maliki has been criticized for implementing anti-Sunni policies and limiting high-level positions to those from his own Shiite sect. The US has long pushed Maliki to create a more inclusive government, and his failure to do so, experts say, helped fuel this month’s violence by making it easier for ISIS to garner support among disillusioned Sunnis. "There’s a sense that if Maliki lets the Sunnis in [to greater roles in government], all this goes away," Alterman says of ISIS. Any lasting solution for quelling violence, therefore, will necessarily require some concessions from Maliki.
Earlier this month, Obama indicated that any American intervention would be contingent upon political reform from Maliki. "Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences." The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration wants Iraq to form a new government without Maliki — one that would include Kurds and Sunnis, and, theoretically, curb support for ISIS. Maliki himself is clearly aware he’s in as much of a political fight as a military one: on June 17th, he gave a televised address calling for Sunni critics to unite with his Shiia-led government against ISIS. Yesterday, Kerry announced that Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pledged to form a new government by July 1st, as mandated under the country's constitution. Maliki's coalition won a majority of parliamentary seats in elections held on April 30th, though actually forming a government has proved arduous in the past.
"The United States is in a no-win situation at this point."
Yet some experts are skeptical that a more inclusive government would solve the immediate problem: pushing back ISIS. "It seems to me that people are rushing the political piece of this, the desire to create a more inclusive and more democratic government in Iraq as a way out of this crisis," Alterman says. "I’m not confident that’s what has to happen right now." Instead, he thinks the Iraqi government’s best course of action is to pressure other sectarian leaders in Iraq with a combination of "carrots and sticks," e.g. financial rewards for supporting the government against ISIS and penalties for not doing so.
Others see risks in supporting Maliki. Although the prospect of a radical Islamic state poses obvious concerns for the US, engaging in a sectarian conflict may only bolster support for Sunni insurgents.
"The problem is that by providing support to Maliki in a situation where the population is very divided is going to be interpreted in Iraq as us support for war against Sunnis," says Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center and an expert on Middle East politics. "The United States is in a no-win situation at this point."