by Wayne White
Secretary of State John Kerry’s June 23 meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent a risky symbolic message, albeit unintended: perhaps the US could work with Maliki after all. So it was no surprise today when Maliki came out swinging with his standard litany of accusations against his political enemies, clearly determined to exploit the crisis to secure another term. If he stays on, the inclusive Iraqi political solution the White House seeks will remain elusive. The same could be said about the hopes for more speedy and successful action toward driving the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL or ISIS) out from many of its holdings in Iraq, with or without strong US air support.
Excessive alarm, impatience
The Obama administration appears driven by worse case military scenarios that continue to dominate the US media. Much of ISIS’ recent acquisitions along the Iraqi-Syrian border, although troubling, have been against the relatively easy pickings of isolated garrisons. Even before these gains, ISIS had transited the border quite easily, and along the Jordanian border ISIS faces capable Jordanian military units.
In mixed areas along its battlefront, ISIS has run into some spirited resistance from not only Kurds, but even the Sunni Arab Naqshabandi Army (Baathists & former military cadres) southwest of Iraqi Kurdistan. The refinery complex in Baiji, its isolated garrison fiercely defending it for 2 weeks, appears to have been retaken. Likewise, although ISIS took Tal Afar near the Syrian border, this occurred after government security forces had again gamely taken it back from ISIS.
Iraq’s government forces are not without some obvious fighting power, and ISIS is unlikely to make substantial inroads into the predominantly Shia south or areas held by Kurds in the north.
Kerry raising the possibility that the US might begin air strikes against ISIS prior to the creation of a “transformative” government was another misstep: Washington seems too focused on the immediate situation on the ground at the expense of the basic political and military fundamentals. Due to the size of the ISIS challenge, the latter is more important. The US should have persisted with holding Baghdad’s feet to the fire over a credibly balanced new government (near impossible with Maliki as Prime Minister).
Kerry’s extraction from Maliki of a promise to speed up government formation in Baghdad already has been twisted to Maliki’s advantage; meeting with Maliki threw the beleaguered Iraqi leader a lifeline of sorts. Previously, the White House had said everything short of Maliki must go. The pressing need to peel Sunni Arab tribes and former pre-2003 regime cadres away from ISIS hinges on Maliki’s departure, which now seems less likely. Today Maliki exploited Kerry’s call for a new government within a week by promising to do so, lamely calling for unity, but lashing out again at other Iraqi politicians, Iraq’s Kurds, and foreign countries for conspiring to create the ISIS mess.
With Maliki’s history of broken promises and abuse concerning Iraq’s Sunni Arab community, Sunni demands that Maliki must go appear non-negotiable. In fact, ISIS has been using Maliki’s continued rule among Sunnis as a rallying cry for its military campaign: a struggle to punish Maliki for his anti-Sunni misbehavior.
Keeping the Kurds in hand
The President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week that Maliki’s “wrong policies” brought on the crisis, and Barzani could see little hope that Iraq could “stay together” with Maliki in office. Maliki has broken promises to the Kurds too, becoming deadlocked or sparring endlessly with them over oil export and territorial issues.
Amidst the present crisis, many Kurds have also revived their calls for Iraqi Kurdish independence. Barzani said as much in his interview with CNN. Kerry pushed back against this, and a senior State Department official warned that Kurdish separation would be very damaging at this time.
Despite Kurdish dreams of walling themselves off from the ugly challenges facing Arab Iraq, this is an illusion. Kurdish independence would render the effort to oust Maliki far more difficult by taking the Kurds out of the political fight in Baghdad, as well as leaving them with many of the same security concerns from which they want to walk away.
With mainly Sunni Arabs all along their western and southern borders, an independent Kurdish Iraq would still face a long battlefront. Over the past two weeks the KRG has moved its forces into disputed areas between it and both Sunni Arabs and Shia, including the contested oil center of Kirkuk. Under the present circumstances, this was prudent to prevent a possible ISIS takeover, but it is no secret that the Kurds would like to hold onto these areas for good — unacceptable to all Arab Iraqis. Such unilateral seizures further increase the likelihood of confrontation with either ISIS or a new government in Baghdad, be it united Arab or mainly Shia.
Governmental mess in Baghdad
Maliki’s State of Law coalition scored well in the April parliamentary elections. He and his cronies will fight hard to fend off all comers, fearing, among other things, possible retribution down the line for their abuses. By retaining the Defense, National Security, and Interior portfolios, Maliki also retains the power to intimidate.
Although a Maliki government could hold Baghdad and most of the south, such a government would not create the ethno-sectarian alliances needed to drive ISIS from the bulk of its vast acquisitions elsewhere. In fact, a narrowly based Maliki government could end up resorting to the same sort of destructive, bloody and inevitably indiscriminate slog in which the Assad regime has mired itself since 2011. Hopefully, today’s Syrian airstrikes are not an ominous harbinger of things to come.
Shia elements likely opposed to a new Maliki government also maintain an important role. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani all but declared at Friday prayers last week that Maliki and his policies are bankrupt, calling upon key parliamentary blocs to produce “an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes, and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.” If Maliki is indeed unacceptable to Sistani, that could make his bid to stay a lot tougher.
Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr, repeatedly at odds with Maliki (who turned US forces loose on Sadr’s Madhi Army militia in 2008) commands the most powerful Shia force capable of aiding the Iraqi army against ISIS. Sadr knows Maliki cannot be trusted and might push back by making full support from his tens of thousands of armed, fanatical followers conditional on Maliki’s departure.
One major obstacle in dumping Maliki is the lack of an obvious alternative. No other Shia leaders in Baghdad enjoy any particularly strong political or popular support.
The notion that Iran could help the US forge a new government without Maliki is misplaced. The Iranians have supported Maliki’s hostile policies toward a Sunni Arab community known to harbor profoundly anti-Iranian views reminiscent of the Saddam Hussein era. Iran also values its close relationship with Maliki. In fact, elements of the Iranian leadership might well be counting (as is Maliki) on fears related to ISIS gains eroding US patience in holding back “intense and sustained” US military support pending a more promising political lineup in Baghdad.
With Maliki determined to exploit Kerry’s request for a new government merely to press ahead with his own candidacy, the prospects for a sustained, coordinated, ground, air and political effort against ISIS looks bleak. Since Maliki’s 2010 election campaign especially, he has been the main driver in turning Iraq into the writhing ethno-sectarian snake pit we see today. A well-grounded way out of this crisis remains far from clear.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry, a State Department translator, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pose for a photograph before beginning a meeting in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Credit: State Department