Resurgent Iraq?

Conflict Forum’s Weekly Comment, 8-15 August 2014

“Iran Wants Iraq’s New Premier to Start Job Immediately”. “Iranian Leader Hails Breakthrough in Iraq’s Political Deadlock: the Iranian Supreme Leader … on Wednesday … hailed the appointment of Iraq’s new prime minister … God willing, the deadlock will end with the appointment of Iraq’s new prime minister; and the government will be formed to start its work”.

These quotations from the Iranian Fars News Agency (which is close to the Revolutionary Guards) make it abundantly plain: Iran has re-directed its support from al-Maliki to the individual whom Iran now judges to enjoy a majority of support both within the larger Shi’i coalition, as well as in al-Malaki’s State of Law coalition.  In short, Maliki had lost the support of Iran – and the main Shi’a militia groups, who previously supported him. This makes it improbable that he will be able to leverage what elements of the security forces that still may remain loyal to him, to lay claim to his right to attempt to form a government.

Al-Maliki had lost the support of both the key militia groups: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and the Badr Organisation, who have switched their support to al-Abadi.  The shift by these two militia is a strong indication that Iran (together with Ayatollah Sistani, the powerful Iraqi Mar’jah) placed  greater emphasis on preserving the Iraqi state rather than Maliki’s rule, now that Shi’a political parties had united on a premier candidate. Al-Malaki may still have retained the loyalty of a small inner circle and his praetorian guard, but even the latter would have been able to read the ‘writing on the wall’: Maliki’s political hegemony was now broken.  The best that he might effectively hope for is a non-executive role as vice-President (which would provide him with impunity from prosecution).

There is a meme that al-Abadi is Britain’s (he lived there for many years until 2003) and America’s man, pressed onto the Iraqi political class via Washington’s working of the telephones.  This simply is implausible.  Certainly, the US Administration worked the phones, but the reality was the tectonic shift in consensus in Najaf and Baghdad – a consensus that was then endorsed in Tehran and Qom.  The latter’s endorsement of course was crucial in realizing, or actuating the change.  And although Abadi undoubtedly does have his British links, he is known in Tehran for his closeness to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of Da’wa, who always has been closer to Tehran than was al-Maliki.

Al-Abadi’s perfect English (which Maliki did not have) and his western links may not have been perceived as a ‘disqualifier’ in Iran, but rather the reverse. And this is significant. It says much about how Iran is approaching the Iraqi crisis.  Beyond the very clear statements of support for Abadi from all quarters in Iran, the Iranian foreign minister particularly emphasized, in a phone call to his Italian counterpart, the need for the new Iraqi government to be broadly inclusive.

That Iran favours an inclusive government in Iraq is nothing new – it has been urging this on Maliki (fruitlessly) and the Shi’i political leadership for a long time – but the thrust of all these Iranian statements is important:  Despite the failure in the P5+1 ‘initial phase’ talks, Iran remains open to international diplomacy on the crisis in Iraq, and in resolving the challenge from Da’ish (ISIS).  Iran takes ISIS very seriously (perhaps more seriously than anyone else in the region, or beyond).  Iran then, manifestly has lent its full-support to an English-speaking Iraqi leader, who like Iran’s own foreign minister, can interact effectively with the West.  This is a clear signal: Iran clearly is reacting – not with escalation against the West (post P5+1) – but with statesmanship.

It is self-interest, too, of course: Iran clearly has set as a priority the need for the Baghdad government to woo as many of the Sunni tribal leaders away from ISIS as possible, and to bind the Kurds too (in their now weakened and vulnerable state) back into the Iraqi state.

The first question is whether America will read these signals correctly.  They are pretty clear: Iran is not escalating against western interests, but is open to co-operation on issues on which mutual interests intersect (defeating ISIS and stabilizing Iraq and Syria).  This should not be seen as a signal of weakness, or that Iran is ready to collude militarily with US – it is not.

More significantly than the question of whether the Iranian signals will be correctly read however, is whether the West is able to react positively to them.  We have argued before that – the bursting onto the scene of a radical Sunni jihadist movement that really does threaten the Saudi hand that conjured them out from the magic lantern – represents an overturning of decades of western policy.  The West has come to be heavily dependent on the belief that Saudi Arabia somehow could manage radical Sunnism in both its interest and that of the West.  Now that hypothesis stands as tragically mistaken.

President Obama (so far, has barely dipped his smallest toe in to the water) of challenging Da’ish.  Even the US Director of Operations (Joint Chiefs of Staff) admits its ineffectiveness:  “We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo; and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Irbil. However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operation in other areas of Iraq and Syria,” (emphasis added).

In fact, President Obama used the pretext of the Yazidis supposedly marooned on their mountain top, to send a few aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf to attack the ISIS forces threatening Irbil, (with its key CIA and Mossad stations, its strategic airport, and its clutch of International Oil Companies headquartered there). A majority of the Yazidi had in fact been safely evacuated to Syria before air raids began – courtesy of the (Syrian) YPG and PKK forces.

Why is Obama so hesitant?  After all, he is being attacked from both wings: lambasted by his former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton (see here) and John McCain from the right, for his failure to take action against this new ‘Islamist menace to the US homeland’.  True, American public opinion is opposed to any new military engagements – but more probably the explanation is that Obama has not had a Saudi ‘green light’ (recall that the Saudi Ambassador in London recently warned that any western attack on Da’ish would be considered to be an attack on Sunni Islam as a whole).

For sure, the Kingdom is becoming decidedly more worried (see here), but it finds itself both drawn toward the dramatic founding of a new Sunni state; one that is deeply rooted in a (revisionist) Wahhabist ideology, and one that has achieved the severing of Iran from Syria – at the same time that alarm for the Kingdom’s own continuation is causing the hairs on the Saudi skin to stand erect.  At any rate, the US refusal to raise a finger for Iraq (ostensibly until Maliki goes), whilst rushing to save ‘plucky’, western-orientated KRG, will not have been missed by most Iraqis.  Well, al-Maliki is on his way out.  We need to await the US’ response.

It seems that Iraqis themselves, Iran and the US (and possibly Saudi Arabia too) are setting much store that the change in PM may turn the tide against ISIS: But is this just wishful thinking?

One astute commentator – calling it the fallacy of ‘replacing the head’ – notes that we tend to place too much emphasis on changing a leader/autocrat:

“It is a U.S. foreign policy fallacy that changing the man at the top, always likened to Hitler, will solve everything… But usually it is not the person who manages a nation who is forming that nation. The nation and its situation are just as much forming the person leading it. Ghaddafi wasn’t the way he was because he created Libya to his likeness but because successfully leading a united Libya required him to be the way he was. Russia is not re-surging because of Putin; but because Putin formed his policies to the way Russia is”.

“Maliki led Iraq in a way that gave him the support of the majority of its people: He did not give in to the blackmail by Sunni tribes, which had become accustomed to the bribes the U.S. military had showered them with. It is that “lack of inclusiveness” that made him successful … If al-Abadi changes Maliki’s major policies he will have no support from the majority of his country; and will either end up as a brutal dictator, or dead.”

The key point here is that it is easier to call for ‘inclusivity’ unreflectively than to consider its true prospects reflectively. The Iraqi Army and the political establishment in Baghdad have been radiating unalloyed weakness and disarray since ISIS began its campaign.  Many of the Sunni tribes in the north have been giving their allegiance and support to ISIS, rather than to Baghdad – indeed, ISIS has been building its relations with the Sunni tribal leadership out of their base in Mosul since at least 2010.

Abu Bakr (the new ‘Caliph’) also has built, over this period, an extremely effective military command (composed mostly of former Iraqi military officers, who have credibility within the Sunni sphere); the Caliphate is cash rich and it has ample weapons.  It projects strength; it projects purpose; and it projects military competence.  Baghdad reflects none of these things. Is it not likely therefore that Sunni tribals will be drawn to ISIS ‘strength’, rather than Baghdad ‘weakness’, military disarray and political division (the Shi’i politicians of Iraq are noted more for their contentiousness than their unity)?

Iraq is not Syria. In Syria, Da’ish to an extent has been not as successful (but still holds substantial territory in the far West, abutting Iraq), but in Iraq ISIS has had a stellar launch: Why?  For whatever else may have been wrong, Syria nonetheless possessed a clear, motivated leadership; its government did not fracture (in spite of all the inducements and pressures); it retained a strong sense of what it is to be ‘Syrian’, and it had – already formed by Bashar al-Assad – a strong core (about 80 strong) of tough, effective military leadership.

Returning to ‘inclusiveness’, perhaps Baghdad’s better bet will be with the Kurds (who until now, have displayed the opposite of any propensity for inclusiveness themselves). If Baghdad and its army have advertised chronic weakness since June, so too has the KRG. The KRG has exhibited political division and (what came as a surprise) the military failure of the Peshmerga – long since held up as a paragon of military competence.

This weakness too, will have a profound geo-strategic consequence. Barzani like Maliki stands to a degree discredited (Ex-President Talibani has had to return to Iraq to try to inject some leadership into a deteriorating situation).  Militarily, the KRG is begging the Americans for help (see here): you are our “last chance”, Barzani told the Aspen Group.  Reportedly Barzani – and his Washington advocates – have asked the Americans for Javelin anti-tank missiles, integrated air defense systems, armored personnel carriers, surveillance drones, and third-generation night vision equipment. The list – in itself – says a lot about the situation of the KRG.

Barzani’s opportunistic policy of bypassing Baghdad to sell ‘Kurdish’ oil direct through Turkey (contravening the Iraqi Constitution) has found only one buyer (reportedly an Ukrainian billionaire in the US), and is in trouble. Baghdad duly retaliated against this illegal move by suspending central government finance to the KRG, which reportedly is now having difficulty paying salaries (following the failure of its initiative to sell oil independently).  The Turks have appealed to the US to help the KRG sell its oil independently – but clearly America cannot call for inclusiveness on the one hand, and collude in the breaking up of Iraq, on the other (Or perhaps they can?).

The central government can smell Barzani’s plight.  As the head of KRG foreign relations said rather plaintively “The political landscape in Iraq has changed … the balance of power has changed … Today, Iraq is not our neighbor – ISIS is our neighbor.” In sum, suddenly the KRG needs Baghdad quite urgently.  What price Kurdish independence now?

Whilst it is true that the Peshmerga (with US air support) managed to dislodge ISIS from several villages it had captured in the course of its recent march on Irbil, even as this was happening ISIS went on to take several other towns in Diyala province – and arguably more important ones. The Da’ish-held territory has increased further as a result, and at this time, ISIS fighters are massing near Qara Tappa just 70 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, according to Iraqi security sources.

In short, ISIS are consolidating their position: US air attacks are making only a marginal difference (and, in any case, are focussed on the surrounds to Irbil). The ISIS will respond, over time, to the US air campaign (as they did in Aleppo) by dispersing their large formations – and instead quietly filtering their fighters slowly into urban areas, where the US effectively is deterred from attack.  At the same time, they will forbid the population to leave the towns.  Da’ish are prone to liken their military strategy to that of a viper between rocks. In short, they will pause; they will ignore the difficult ‘rocks’ – and strike when ready.

And here is the rub for al-Abadi: no doubt Qassem Soleimani is a highly skilled military strategist, but he essentially is starting from ground zero in respect to the building of an Iraqi army.  The old army is a mess and its will is broken.  It is now in a process of exchanging its discredited and ineffective commanders for experienced military officers drawn from those who were formerly with the Badr Organisation.  This is fine, but the changing of the ethos of an army takes years – not months.  There is a mis-match of timing here.  The threat is immediate, but the response must await the longer-term project of re-building an army.

In all, it is not promising. There seems to be a considerable element of wishful thinking in the general expectation that the appointment of al-Abadi – in itself – can pull together an inclusive, strong and competent government of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds working concertedly in Baghdad.  The government will continue to be weak and corrupt.  ISIS looks set to be around for a while yet – and the Sunni ‘state’ will become the ‘wedge’ struck into the heart of the Muslim world – breaking apart the post-WWII order for good.

Leave a Reply