Obama’s ‘unity’ plan for Iraq is a mirage
The Obama administration has developed a bad habit of founding its Middle East strategies on wishful thinking. In the past year, it has supposed that Syrian President Bashar Assad would peacefully agree to cede power at a Geneva peace conference, that the Egyptian generals who carried out a military coup would lead the country back to democracy and that Israelis and Palestinians were ready and willing to reach a final peace settlement in a matter of months.
Now the administration has a new hope: that the frighteningly extreme and war-hungry militant state that has established itself in western Iraq and eastern Syria can be tackled through the creation of a new, “inclusive” government in Baghdad that will unite Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish forces against the terrorists.
Like the administration’s previous schemes, the unity government plan has the advantage of basing itself on pre-existing doctrine and of requiring little action from the United States other than diplomatic jaw-boning.
Yet as before, U.S. allies in the region are warning that the policy has little chance of succeeding — and is merely delaying a more realistic response. Judging from what they said in a visit to The Washington Post, two senior Kurdish leaders gave the White House and State Department a bracing dose of straight talk last week.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the department of foreign relations, had two basic points to make: A new Iraqi government, if at all possible, will have to exclude current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while drastically revising the balance of power between Baghdad and the regions; and even if that succeeds, the defeat of militants will require more than Iraqi forces.
“We have got a new reality,” said Hussein. “We have got three states in one in Iraq. We have a new state between us in Kurdistan and Baghdad. So we cannot go back to the past.”
The collapse of the Iraqi army in northern and western Iraq allowed the Kurds to expand their territory by about 40 percent, including the city of Kirkuk. They also control up to a quarter of Iraq’s oil production. Kurdistan now has a 643-mile border with the Islamic State, the militant entity — and only 9 miles of border with what remains of Iraq.
Pressed by Secretary of State John Kerry, the Kurds agreed to negotiate on a new central government. But they insisted they also will go forward with a referendum on “self-determination for Kurdistan.” They have no intention of returning to a status in which they depend on the central government for revenue, refrain from directly exporting their own oil and defer their claim to Kirkuk.
“The Kurds are being told to lead the engagement” for a new government, Bakir said, in a not-so-subtle reference to Kerry. “In return for what?”
Even if the Kurds were more enthusiastic, the prospect of a unity government in Baghdad would be questionable. Standing in the way is al-Maliki, who appears to have the backing of Iran as well as the Assad government in Syria. This axis of Shiite hardliners appears set on battling the Sunni militant forces without concessions to the Kurds or moderate Sunnis. A broadly supported Shiite alternative to al-Maliki has yet to appear.
A political fix might be possible if Iran concludes that al-Maliki must go. But even then, Iraqi forces are unlikely to liquidate the Islamic State, say the Kurds. “We can’t do it alone,” Hussein said flatly. “This is a terrorist organization. They have thousands of fighters. They have got sophisticated American weapons. We are talking about rockets, artillery, tanks, even helicopters. I don’t think with the current Iraqi army they can liberate that area. And our [forces] are putting our priority on defending our area, so we can’t do it.”
Hussein said it would take “collective action” by “a regional coalition” to eliminate the Islamic State. Then he grimly ran down the list of potential actors: Iran, he said, would limit itself to defending Baghdad and the Shiite Holy places. Turkey, which chose not to intervene in Syria, would be even more reluctant to fight in Iraq. And the United States? “This government is not going to send troops.”
If the Kurds are right, the Middle East will be coping with an aggressive Islamic state in its midst for the foreseeable future. Kurdistan will consolidate its position as a de facto, if not de jure, independent state. And the Obama administration’s strategy of re-creating a unified Iraq under a strong central government will, like its previous Middle East schemes, prove a mirage.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.