The Unites States cannot effectively address the current crisis in Iraq unless we are willing to acknowledge our mistakes and accept that we now need to make a choice among a range of only very bad options.
The invasion of Iraq, removal of the secular Baathist regime, and the dismantling of the Iraqi Army left a power vacuum, unleashing antagonistic religious and tribal forces (primarily Sunni and Shia) we could not control–and, ultimately, remained unresolved when our military forces left in December 2011.
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The Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki was, from the outset, closely aligned with Iran, whose regional hegemony and support of terrorism is opposed by the United States and the Sunni Arab states in the Middle East. The political purge of Iraqi Sunnis conducted by the al-Maliki government contributed significantly to the growing hostility between the two religious groups.
The present Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq was fueled by American abdication of a foreign policy in Syria, where we sub-contracted our interests to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Instead of dealing directly with the moderate Free Syrian Army, we outsourced the funding and arming responsibilities.
They then pursued their own interests; the Saudis supporting radical Islamic Salafis, while the Turks and Qataris backed the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which was at least partially meant to counter growing Iranian influences in the region, but complicating America’s anti-terrorism efforts.
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Adding to the complexity, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad released hundreds of Islamists from prison, who were involved in assassinations of Free Syrian Army leaders and became part of the intra-rebel fighting that has weakens the Syrian opposition.
The Sunni fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, largely self-funded through oil sales and bank robbery, spilled over into Iraq from their base of operations in eastern Syria. They were joined by disaffected Sunnis from northern and western Iraq, many of whom are associated with the former Baathist regime.
General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the King of Clubs, now based in Jordan, has emerged from hiding and is leading the Sunni insurgency with the backing of Iraqi national tribes, units of the Republican Guards, and the Fedayeen of Saddam.
The nationalist and religious units have two different trajectories. ISIS, led by al Baghdadi, wants the Caliphate, while the secular Sunnis led by al-Douri and Saddam Hussein’s daughter want the return of the old Iraq.
They are fighting together with a goal to topple the Shia-dominated government of President al-Maliki, which they believe has been left vulnerable since the departure of US troops–and do not want Iran to dominate the region.
They are united against a common enemy for the moment; but there are strong tensions between the Iraqi secularists and ISIS, which will likely lead to conflict after the fall of the Iranian-dominated government.
Except for supporting the Kurds, there are no easy courses of action for the United States in Iraq.
The Obama Administration has dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East for consultations and has announced the option of sending up to three hundred special operations troops to advise the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army and set up operation centers for possible air strikes against ISIS. Both Obama and Kerry have mentioned potential cooperation with the Iranians.
Nothing in these plans is particularly promising: acting as the Iranian Air Force and killing innocent Sunnis while bombing terrorists and thwarting our own interests by furthering the aims of Iran in the region, which could hasten an Israeli-Iranian confrontation.
A second option is to do nothing and let others control events.
There is a final, albeit emotionally difficult alternative: countering both terrorist and Iranian influence in Iraq by striking a deal with a secular Sunni faction.
It would necessarily involve negotiations with some horrific individuals, but it could lead to a situation where there are Sunni nationalists preventing a Sunni terrorist takeover–and Arabs fighting Iranians instead of Americans as infidels and invaders.
Admittedly, it is a painful choice with a risk of unintended consequences; but it does reflect the reality of the Middle East and might avoid additional expenditure of American blood and treasure, while advancing the American strategic interests of defeating terrorism and containing Iran.
Colonel Nagi N. Najjar is a Lebanese Christian and US citizen with extensive contacts in the Middle East. He was an intelligence officer during Lebanon’s civil war and serves as an advisor to US Army (ret) Maj. Gen Paul E. Vallely.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army (Flickr)
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