West back in Iraq

West back in Iraq

Iraq was supposed to be George Bush and Tony Blair’s war.  Much to their chagrin, it is now becoming Barack Obama and David Cameron’s war.

The spectre of Iraq is haunting the West once again. After days of deliberation, the United Kingdom too has now decided to chip in. 

Insisting that his government’s position on Iraq is “clear” and that the UK would not deploy “boots on the ground,” British Prime Minister David Cameron is suggesting that Britain would "use all the assets that we have”, including “military prowess” and aid to defeat the “monstrous” Islamic State militant group. 

The Royal Air Force surveillance aircraft have already been operating in Iraq for the past few days in support of the US missions and the UK government is underlining that its military involvement in the country could last for “months.” 

Although at the moment the UK military is primarily involved in humanitarian missions and there is no demand for them to deliver air strikes, there are signs that the British government is preparing for that role as well. As a result, critics are calling for greater clarity on the role that the UK is likely to play in the rapidly evolving strategic environment in Iraq. It is hardly likely that the UK would be able to provide clarity any time soon, however. 

Most western nations are unsure as to what they can do in the Iraq. Austria, France and Germany are sending military supplies to the Kurds, a mission of which the UK too has been a part of since last week.

The US decision to go back to war mode in Iraq has changed the calculus for most powers. As the US scrambles to recover from its flat-footed recognition of the fact that the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could no longer be ignored, the Obama Administration has been at pains to underline its recognition of the dangers posed by the extremist ideology sweeping the region. The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions. There are close to 1,000 US military advisors in Iraq, including Special Operations forces, divided between Baghdad and Kurdistan and the CIA is believed to be running an operation to supply Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, with arms and ammunition.

Humanitarian catastrophe

Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe has engulfed the country. The United Nations announced its highest level of emergency for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq last week, where hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and Christians have been driven from their homes and tens of thousands had been trapped on a desert mountain by the advance of Islamic militants across the north of the country.

Formed in 2013 and led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS has as its proclaimed aim the establishment of an Islamic emirate that straddles Syria and Iraq. The ISIS is a highly organised, motivated, resourceful and powerful group that uses violence without any compunction. It had been gaining ground steadily over the last two months culminating in the declaration of a caliphate — an Islamic State ruled by a single political and religious leader — with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its seat of power. 

Ungoverned territories are dangerous and if the ISIS succeeds in controlling territory from Syria to Iraq, it 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 Middle East as well, given the artificiality of the entire region. There are now fears that the Islamic State could now use the dam as leverage against the new Iraqi Prime Minister by holding on to the territory around it in return for continued water and power supply. Writing to Congress, President Obama cited the potentially massive loss of civilian life and the possible threat to the US embassy in Baghdad.

 Those dangers, he wrote, were sufficient reasons for deploying air power to support Kurdish forces trying to recapture the dam.

For the West, the dangers of growing Islamist radicalisation as conflicts drag on in the Middle East are overwhelming. Around 500 UK nationals are estimated to have gone to Syria to become jihadists with most joining the ISIS. At least half are believed to have returned to Britain and this exodus is likely to increase posing significant dangers to the social fabric. 

The rise of ISIS owes a lot to the political vacuum in Iraq and the Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia first approach in politics. Haider al-Abadi was picked to form a new government that can unite the country in the face of the Sunni militant onslaught, which many blame al-Maliki for fuelling by pro-Shiite policies that alienated the Sunni minority. Al-Maliki grew increasingly isolated as the dangers from ISIS gained momentum, with Iraqi politicians and much of the international community lining up behind al-Abadi. Once Iran withdrew its support for al-Maliki, he had no option but to go.

The West is hoping that political transition in Iraq towards a more inclusive government with some military assistance to stem the tide of the ISIS would be enough to salvage the situation in Iraq. But there are always dangers of mission creep inherent in any such endeavour. 

Much as Washington and London would like to leave Baghdad behind after their previous experience, it is Baghdad that it is not ready to give up that easily. Iraq was supposed to be George W Bush and Tony Blair’s war.  Now much to their chagrin, it is becoming Barack Obama and David Cameron’s war.

(The writer is Professor, International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King's College, London)