President Barack Obama came nearly full circle on Iraq on Thursday, sending military advisers back to cope with that country’s disintegration, as U.S. officials lobbied for replacement of the prime minister that America helped install. These were the right choices, but they were a measure of how badly U.S. policy has gone awry.
Obama has concluded that Iraq faces all-out civil war and partition unless it replaces Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing leader. U.S. diplomats are floating the names of various alternative candidates in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Obama is sending up to 300 military advisers to assess if the Iraqi army can be salvaged after it collapsed in Anbar province, Mosul and Tikrit.
The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The U.S. is pushing them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished. Obama knows this silent putsch will succeed only if it has tacit support from Iran, which effectively has a veto on the next Iraqi prime minister.
One sign of Iran’s hegemony is that Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, was said to have flown this week to the northwestern city of Tal Afar, near the border with Syria, to assess the battle there against Sunni extremists.
To create a broad-based Iraqi government that can fight the brutal insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. and its allies need to quickly gain the support of Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders. I met with several of them in Amman two months ago, and it was clear that although frightened of ISIS’ power, they were using it to attack Maliki. This Sunni opportunism can be reversed. The tribal leaders told me they want American help, and they should get it.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have leverage with the Sunni tribes, began talking this week with tribal leaders to pull them away from ISIS. That’s a plus, but bribes won’t be enough here. The Sunnis want a real share of power.
Senior U.S. officials have been debating how to begin targeting ISIS. U.S. drones are gathering intelligence over ISIS-controlled areas, in hopes of fixing the locations of key leaders. The U.S. advisers who will be moving with Iraqi units on the ground will also gather crucial intelligence. One place to target ISIS initially might be in its safe havens and infiltration routes along the Syria-Iraq border, where there’s less chance of hitting Sunni tribesmen.
“We know where their base camps and training camps are, which is where we can start,” says CENTCOM adviser Derek Harvey.
The campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria will need political cover, so that it doesn’t alienate Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. One possibility, suggested by a source close to the Jordanian government, would be the Gulf Cooperation Council. This alliance of Gulf monarchies has sometimes been toothless in the past, but recently it has worked effectively to keep Yemen from splintering, and it can play a key role now, working in tandem with fellow monarch King Abdullah of Jordan.
The Saudis are going to have to swallow the reality that ISIS can’t be stopped without some cooperation with Iran. One bridge might be a GCC summit with the Iranians to discuss the crisis in Syria and Iraq. The GCC could even propose a stabilization force to be deployed in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. It’s a long shot, but the Saudis long ago backed a similar “Arab Deterrent Force” that stabilized Lebanon after the worst years of its civil war in 1975 and ‘76.
Good policy for Iraq and Syria can’t rely on military force alone. America’s misadventures after the 2003 invasion of Iraq surely teach that lesson. What will stabilize this part of the world (slowly, slowly) is political action backed by military power – conducted under a series of umbrellas: The first umbrella is a new Iraqi unity government; the second is a U.S.-Iranian dialogue that draws in Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners; the third is an international coalition backed by the United Nations.
One irony of the Iraqi mess is that the only stable area is Kurdistan, whose leader, Barzani, is probably the strongest political figure in the country. If Iran balks at removing Maliki in Baghdad, the U.S. should respond by deepening ties with the Kurds – a step on the way to an independent Kurdistan and a new map for the Middle East.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.