As Iraq seeks help, US, UK hesitate to meddle

INTERVIEW

West Asia is back, and back with a bang. For some time now, the West - and the US in particular - had lulled itself into believing that if only it would ignore the region, its problems would go away.

After all, at a time of diminishing economic resources in the West, the Indo-Pacific with a rising China at the centre of its changing strategic landscape, was the region that deserved greater attention. 

The strategically diffident Obama Administration embraced this thinking with great enthusiasm partly for sound economic reasons and partly because it saw no need for the US to get bogged down in the millennium-old Shia-Sunni feuds. America needed nation-building at home first, argued Obama, before it could turn to Yemen, Somalia or even Afghanistan. If at all the Islamist extremists had to be fought, they could be fought from a distance using drones with help from local forces.

It was in this wider context that Obama was quick to accept total withdrawal from Iraq. Behind the façade of the US not getting legal immunity for its soldiers from the Iraqi government, the Obama Administration was quite happy to get out of Iraq and publicly sanguine about Iraq’s future prospects as a stable state. And now when the same Iraqi government is asking the US for intervention – at the moment only air strikes have been mentioned - the Obama Administration is clutching straws. There is confusion all around as to how Washington should respond to the growing crisis in Iraq. 

A hands-off approach is preferred by many in Washington as it is viewed as the Iraqi government’s job to fix it. The Maliki government is being pressed to take steps to make Shia-dominated government more inclusive and if it fails to do that, there are reports that Washington might be working towards removing Maliki from office. 

Washington is also reaching out to Iran, trying to use Tehran’s leverage over the Maliki government to make a political resolution of the Iraqi conflict more tenable. As the US scrambles to recover from its flat-footed recognition that the ISIL advance could no longer be ignored, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Iraq to send a direct message to the Mailiki government that it was time to govern inclusively or get out of the way. But contradictions abound in the larger policy and it remains to be seen if Obama’s confused and rather late move to douse the Iraqi fire will have any real impact on the situation on the ground. 

West Asia:  A powder keg

The entire West Asia is sitting on a powder keg with a burgeoning civil war in Libya, a once in a generation humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and a ruthless Islamist group on the verge of gaining control over Iraq. Formed in 2013 and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIL has as its proclaimed aim the establishment of an Islamic emirate that straddles Syria and Iraq. 

The ISIL is a highly organised, motivated, resourceful and powerful group that wields violence without any compunction. 

It has been gaining ground steadily over the last few months – starting from the Syrian city of Raqqa, moving on to take control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah by capitalising on the growing tensions between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, and final seizing control of Mosul earlier this month. 

With the Iraqi Army continuing to suffer losses and in no position to retake the ground it had ceded, the ISIL now controls the entire western frontier of Iraq and is now within easy reach of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, vital US regional allies who can merely watch with alarm. 

The success of ISIL will draw Islamist extremists who will threaten western interests much like what happened before September 11, 2001. If Iraq collapses, there could be a knock-on effect on the rest of the West Asia as well given the artificiality of the entire region. 

The UK government has ruled out military intervention in support of the government of Nouri al-Maliki but has underscored that ignoring the threat from Islamist extremism in the West Asia will “come back to haunt the UK.” It has been estimated that an estimated 400 British nationals are fighting alongside militant groups in Syria and the UK intelligence is now increasingly focused on the threat from jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. 

Former British prime minister Tony Blair has also warned that the new extremists in Iraq include many home-grown radicals who will return to the UK once they are done in the West Asia. The UK is focusing on providing diplomatic and humanitarian support as well as counter-terrorism co-operation. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has visited Iraq, calling on Maliki to form an "inclusive" government which could "command the support" of all Iraqis and to settle long-standing disputes with the Kurdish region over energy and resources. 

Instead, Maliki is ratcheting up the military pressure on the insurgents with the US providing 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi security forces and Russia supplying some second-hand Sukhoi jet fighters.

The Modi government too is facing its first major foreign policy challenge in Iraq. Even if can get back Indian nationals back from Iraq safely, it will have to reformulate India’s West Asia and counter-terror policies in light of far reaching changes taking place in its near abroad. 

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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