By James Kitfield
The unsettling news in recent days that Al Qaeda in Iraq (newly renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has captured the strategic crossroads town of Fallujah, Iraq, was just the latest evidence that Iraq is sliding back towards the abyss. The terrorist group killed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, making it the worst year for violence since the dark days of 2006-7, when it took 140,000 U.S. troops to defuse a sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, ISIS has also captured territory in neighboring Syria, drawing more than 10,000 jihadists to its banner and threatening to export that country’s sectarian strife to the wider region. Meanwhile, a political impasse in Iraq lasting more than two years continues to alienate the Sunni minority, giving ISIS a fertile swamp of disgruntled Sunnis to swim in.
After Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visited Washington a few months ago, the U.S. agreed to sell Iraq Hellfire missiles and drones to combat ISIS, but it is almost certainly too little support to turn the tide against the ascendant terrorist group. Over the weekend Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was working with the Iraqi government and Sunni tribal leaders in Fallujah and surrounding Anbar Province in an effort to “support them in every possible way.” He insisted, however, that did not include U.S. “boots on the ground,”
To better understand the steps the United States might take to reverse the battlefield gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, I recently spoke with diplomatic troubleshooter and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, dean of the George Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University. Together with Gen. David Petraeus (ret.), former U.S. commander in Iraq, Crocker was instrumental in helping pull Iraq back from the abyss during his time in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009. Following are five steps he believes are necessary to pull Iraq back from the brink and avoid another descent into sectarian civil war.
Understand Al Qaeda’s Strategy: Starting a Sectarian Civil War Between Sunnis and Shiites that Engulfs the Region
Former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s strategy to oust the United States from Iraq was to slaughter enough Shiite “apostates” to ignite a sectarian civil war that U.S. troops would be powerless to reverse. Zarqawi believed the Sunni minority in Iraq would emerge from the maelstrom victorious. Though he was killed by U.S. Special Forces in 2006, Zarqawi’s apocalyptic vision was nearly realized, and it took the 2007 “surge” and 140,000 U.S. troops to keep the country from descending into all-out civil war. No such buffer exists today, however, and the 8,000 Iraqis who have died in violence in 2013 were the most since 2007. If ISIS is not stopped, it will almost certainly succeed in 2014 where it failed, just barely, in 2007-8.
“ISIS is unquestionably trying to start a sectarian civil war with these incredibly lethal and appalling attacks, mostly targeting Shiite civilians,” said Crocker. “I’m also worried that the group has been targeting the Sunni leaders behind the Sunni Awakening, which was critical in reducing Sunni support for the group. That violence is exacerbating ethno-sectarian tensions that already exist in Iraq. Thankfully al Qaeda’s tactics have not yet reignited the level of sectarian brutality and bloodshed we saw in 2006-07. If a way is not found to stem the violence we’re now seeing, however, Iraq will reach a breaking point. That would have very severe consequences for Iraq and the region”
Realize that Al Qaeda Views Iraq and Syria as a Single Battlefield
The increasingly sectarian nature of the civil war in neighboring Syria has been critical to the reemergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In northern Syria, ISIS has captured territory, implemented its harsh vision of Sharia law, and ejected more moderate rebel factions that the U.S. supported in their fight to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. According to US intelligence estimates, ISIS is already plotting “external operations” to export its violent jihad to the region from Syria, which helps explain the fall of Fallujah in Iraq and recent bombings that have targeted Shiites in Lebanon.
“We should be very worried that in addition to destabilizing Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has now established a base of operations and sanctuary in Syria,” said Crocker.”Occupying Arab territory has long been a dream of al Qaeda, and it will likely use it to not only plan and launch operations in Iraq and Syria, but also overseas again. So, the stakes involved in Iraq and Syria are potentially huge for the region and for the United States on multiple levels.”
Reestablish the Close Counter-terrorism Partnership Between U.S. Intelligence and Special Forces and Iraqi Security Forces
Secretary of State John Kerry has promised to support Iraqi Security Forces and Sunni tribal leaders opposed to Al Qaeda in “every possible way,” though he ruled out U.S. “boots on the ground.” There is precedent for a counter-terrorism model of operations that leverages advanced U.S. intelligence gathering, to include drone operations launched from outside the country, with local counter-terrorism forces on the ground: namely, African Union operations that U.S. Africa Command is currently supporting in Somalia to combat the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab. Something similar may be necessary to reverse ISIS gains in Iraq.
“I absolutely believe that the United States should supply Iraq with the increased counterterrorism support necessary to deal with the al Qaeda threat,” said Crocker. ‘We have a playbook for this, and it doesn’t require Apache helicopters or lots of troops. But it does require good Special Forces and intelligence support. As David Petraeus and I discovered when we were in Baghdad, you can’t achieve progress on the political front until you improve security. So priority number one should be working with the Iraqis to figure out how al Qaeda is moving men and material, what rat lines are they using, where are their safe houses and how can we penetrate its ranks. And then you have to go after them.”
Leverage US Support to Broker a Political Settlement Between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Leaders
After nearly 10 years in Iraq trying to steer that nation on the path towards democracy, US diplomats are the only third party that is sufficiently trusted by Iraq’s sectarian factions to broker a deal that keeps the country from splintering. The Obama administration has been reluctant to play that role once U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, however, and it may have to overcome that reticence to keep Iraq whole.
“Once the United States helps get the level of violence down, we will be in a better position diplomatically to say to Maliki, ‘Look, this situation got this bad in part because al Qaeda is preying on existing tensions among sectarian groups. So let’s sit down and work through those issues.'” said Crocker. “U.S. diplomats may have to deal with individual Sunni leaders separately, and we’ll have to make it up as we go along. But we have to get back to the role of mediator that the United States used to play in Iraq. Because absent such U.S. engagement, it will be difficult for Iraq’s various factions to make the concessions necessary to break the current impasse.”
That inability to compromise is a direct result of Iraq’s tumultuous history, including decades in which former dictator Saddam Hussein purposely exacerbated sectarian tensions as a way to divide and conquer. “Remember, Maliki and many other senior government officials came from Shiite parties that were brutalized during the reign of Saddam Hussein, who turned such suppression into an art form,” Crocker said. “As a result they have a zero-sum mindset that focuses on trying to consolidate power. That history has made all of Iraq’s sects deeply suspicious of each other. The Shiites don’t trust the Sunnis, and neither of them trust the Kurds, who themselves don’t trust anyone. So more than anything else, I think that Maliki is still motivated by fear. Fear of the past, and fear that in the future Shiites will once again feel the boot of the Sunni Baathists on their necks. Maliki lived that history. He was forced into exile. He used to quote that history to me chapter and verse. Given what they have all suffered and lived through, senior Iraqi officials find it very hard to think in terms of compromise or concessions. In their experience, compromise equates to weakness and weakness equals death.”
Accept that U.S. Strategic Interests are Directly Threatened by Al Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq and Syria
The Obama administration continues to argue that the fight against ISIS is up to the Iraqis and the Syrians, but every time Al Qaeda and its affiliates have captured territory, the group has eventually exported its fight to the West and the United States through terrorist attacks. There is no reason to believe that history won’t repeat itself in Iraq and Syria if it gains a strong foothold. As much as the Obama administration would like to disengage from the Middle East and “pivot” to Asia, the reality is that groups like Al Qaeda that threaten U.S. allies and interests are filling that vacuum.
“My best read of the situation is that President Obama saw getting the United States out of Iraq as his mandate, and he adopted an attitude that we gave them their chance at democracy, and now it’s up to them to decide what to make of the opportunity,” said Crocker. “In disengaging from Iraq, President Obama also obviously reflects the prevailing mood on Capitol Hill and among the American public. But I can tell you as someone who spent a lot of time in that region that a strategy of U.S. disengagement is very dangerous. You may think Syria and Iraq are pretty bad right now, but believe me, it can get a lot worse. We could very well have the whole Middle East blow up in our face.”