The U.S. is poised to ramp up military support for Iraq if a new, inclusive government takes shape. Even that won’t be enough to beat back rampaging Islamic militants unless something extraordinary happens: Iraq mends age-old sectarian rifts, experts say.
“A lot of things are going to have to go right to stanch the flow of everything that has gone wrong,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer with operational experience in Iraq. “There is a very good chance that the construct of Iraq will fall apart.”
So far, it is unclear that Iraq is capable of overcoming those divisions to field a unified, effective fighting force. U.S. airstrikes can have only limited effect against militants of the Islamic State group, who have taken control of large swathes of the country, including major cities such as Mosul.
Despite increased U.S. military involvement, the militant group could be an on-the-ground reality in Iraq for years to come, analysts warn.
Without a profound political shift in Iraq, more U.S. aid will do little to alter security conditions in a country that faces the prospect not only of breaking apart, but of having the self-declared Islamic State as an immoveable force in the region for the foreseeable future, the experts say.
For almost a week, the U.S. has been conducting airstrikes on limited Islamic State targets in northern Iraq. A modest number of special operations forces have been dispatched to assess the crisis and advise Iraq’s floundering army.
Another small group of Marines and special operations troops was sent to assist Kurdish troops in evacuating Mount Sinjar, where militants, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had trapped thousands of minority Yazidis. The U.S. said late Wednesday that the crisis had been eased by U.S. airstrikes and an offensive by Kurdish fighters.
But U.S. military officials have said limited airstrikes alone will not be enough to turn the tide on the battlefield.
“The effectiveness of airstrikes is over-stated,” Skinner said. “They’re pretty good if you catch someone in the open, but there is a huge issue with collateral damage or innocent people getting killed, so that is not the answer.”
Off the table is any plan to commit U.S. ground forces to the fight. The Obama administration has ruled that out and few of his most vocal foreign policy opponents are calling for a major U.S. ground force.
But top U.S. officials say more support could be forthcoming in other areas apart from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where airstrikes have enabled its peshmerga forces to keep the Islamic State from advancing on the regional capital, Irbil.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry say more military and economic assistance is under consideration should Iraq form a more inclusive government after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leaves office. Al-Maliki announced Thursday night he was abandoning his bid to stay in power and would step aside once his designated successor forms a new government — a process that could take weeks or longer.
Even with a new government in place, reconstituting the heavily Shiite Iraqi army, which is distrusted by Sunnis and Kurds and which has already fled the fight once, could be a slow process.
“Iraqis have to come together,” Skinner said. “The army has to pick up the weapons it already dropped.”
Should the U.S. eventually commit more military assistance, that could include re-arming the Iraqi army, which abandoned stockpiles of weapons when it fled Islamic State fighters in Mosul and western Iraq. Placing U.S. special operations forces closer to the fight to help call in airstrikes also could be an option, as well as an expanded air campaign, analysts say.
“If we decide we’re going to support the Iraq government in re-establishing the territorial integrity of the country, air power could come in,” said Karl Mueller, an expert at the Washington-based RAND Corp. “But there’s very little to be optimistic about at the moment.”
None of those assistance options will eliminate the Islamic State threat without a corresponding ground offensive by Iraqi forces, which face steep obstacles, Skinner said.
The U.S. has already announced it is re-arming the Kurds — a step the Baghdad government had been reluctant to see for fear it might encourage the oil-rich Kurdish region to seek full independence.
Mueller acknowledged that arming the Kurds “represents a step in the way of supporting the Kurds as a kind of autonomous separate entity from Iraq.”
Despite the risks, “the Iraqi army is going to have to walk with the Kurds, when just two months ago they were fighting each other over oil. It would have to be a remarkable turn of events,” Skinner said. “If that doesn’t happen, next year, you’re probably going to be having discussions with Irbil as a government. If Iraq can’t unify to face a mortal threat, then they are doomed.”
An alternative scenario, which some experts say is more likely to cause the Islamic State group trouble, is to reach out to the Sunni populations to rise up against the Islamic State, which they did in 2006 and 2007 against the militants’ predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq.
The “Anbar Awakening,” encouraged and supported by the U.S. military during the 2007 troop surge, was a turning point in the Iraq War.
“Over the long run, people don’t like being governed by psychotic Islamic fundamentalists,” Mueller said. “They’re better at terrorizing people and seizing territory than holding and governing it. In the long-run, there is the possibility that a prolonged jihadist state sort of burns itself out.”
Initially, many Sunnis accepted Islamic State fighters in places such as Mosul because they hated the mostly Shiite Iraqi army. If Sunni tribes turn against the Islamic State, its fighters would have their hands full, Skinner said.
“It’s not that ISIS is so strong, it’s that their opponents have been so weak,” Skinner said.
U.S. policy debate
In the U.S., domestic critics say the Iraq crisis is another example of the Obama administration’s clumsy response to unrest sweeping the Middle East since the “Arab Spring” uprisings erupted in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread across the region.
Rather than bringing democracy across the Middle East, the wave of unrest has led to chaos in Libya, strongman rule in Egypt and civil war in Syria.
Critics, including former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, argue that Obama’s refusal to arm moderate Syrian opposition fighters during the early stages of the civil war there helped give rise to the Islamic State group.
Islamic extremists honed their battle skills in the war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad before moving swiftly through parts of Iraq to form a cross-border Islamic State or caliphate.
The Islamic State’s battlefield successes have drawn recruits from Europe, the U.S. and, reportedly, members of al-Qaida-linked groups. By some estimates, the Islamic State has up to 15,000 fighters, which critics say has dire implications for U.S. security.
“ISIS is advancing on critical cities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, nearing our allies in Jordan and Turkey, and threatening our own personnel in northern Iraq, McCain said in a statement Tuesday. “They have created a terrorist sanctuary much larger and richer than that of al-Qaida prior to 9/11 and their leadership has already expressed ambitions to attack the United States.”
But some experts on the region believe an early backing of anti-Assad moderates would probably not have blunted the Islamic State’s rise.
Jihadists, not moderates, were always the dominant forces in the Syrian uprising, said Dana Allin, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I find it hard to believe that earlier and more vigorous support (of the moderates) would have made all that much difference,” Allin said in a video posted on the IISS website, echoing Obama’s own views.
During his time with the CIA, Skinner said programs aimed at arming moderates often failed.
“I have some experience with that and it doesn’t work,” said Skinner, who now works as an analyst with New York-based Soufan Group, an international security firm. “Give the weapons to the people who are moderate and watch what happens. The extremists, who are savages, come and take them. The savages will out fight them.”
ISIL in perspective
Whether the Islamic State is intent on exporting terror beyond the Middle East isn’t at all clear.
“Under the circumstances, it is not obvious there would be an imperative for the U.S. to go to war against a group like that,” Mueller said. “We don’t go to war with North Korea, though it is horrendous for people inside its borders. I don’t know [that] ISIS is a national security imperative.”
But the threat to Western interests and America’s allies in the region such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be overstated, some experts caution.
If the U.S. military can help in one area, it might be puncturing the aura of invincibility that surrounds the militant group, whose gains on the battlefield are unprecedented, Skinner said.
In the world of jihad, signing up with the group is like “going to play for the Yankees,” Skinner said.
Airstrikes can’t deliver a knockout punch to the group as a whole, but they can damage its mystique, which is luring fighters from around the word.
“The first time they get undeniably crushed and lose, say, 800 fighters, which is a lot for them, that will make a difference, and the U.S. can help with that,” Skinner said. “If they stick their head up, hit them hard.”