AS the US was about to launch its 2003 military invasion of Iraq, the then secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, warned presciently: “You will open the Gates of Hell”.
Carved out from the debris of the Ottoman Empire by the secret Sykes-Picot pact, Iraq was a Humpty Dumpty state , ruled by a Sunni minority with an oppressed Shia majority and a disaffected Kurdish minority.
To ward off the war and prevent Iraq’s disintegration, Saudi Arabia floated a proposal at the eleventh hour that would have sent Saddam Hussein into exile and passed power to an Iraqi general who would cooperate to assure that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan, then a member of the Security Council, offered to sponsor this proposal. However, it was summarily dismissed in Washington.
Undeterred by friendly warnings, the Americans, soon after occupying Baghdad, proceeded to disband the Iraqi army and ban the Baath Party, the only organised institutions in Iraq. Six months into the invasion, they decided to hold elections. The theory propounded by the ‘neo-conservatives’ in the Bush administration was that democracy could be inducted in authoritarian Arab states, by force if necessary. When the view was expressed that the elections in Iraq would lead to a pro-Iranian Shia government, it was countered by the bizarre thesis that the US aimed to create a rival Shia centre to Iran in Iraq, notwithstanding the deep ties of each of the three Iraqi Shia political parties to Tehran.
As feared, the consequences of American hubris were Iraq’s political disintegration and a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. The Kurds, already separated during the years of sanctions against Saddam, consolidated their de facto statelet. The ousted Baathists and army veterans joined the Sunni resistance. Shia parties vied for power, often violently, like Muqtada al-Sadr, against the foreign forces, the Sunnis and often each other. Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda and Zarqawi, emerged as important actors in fighting the foreign forces and the Shia factions. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was born during this Sunni resistance. It worked with Al Qaeda but was separate from it, focused on local rather than global ‘jihad’.
The US 2006 troop surge, counterterrorism operations, co-option of Sunni tribes and formation of a broad-based coalition in Baghdad restored a semblance of order to be preserved by a new US-trained and equipped Iraqi army.
Then in 2011, the US withdrew totally from Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, refused to sign a status of forces agreement immunising US forces from Iraqi jurisdiction. President Obama felt obliged to fulfil his promise to end America’s war in Iraq.
With the American departure, Maliki proceeded to transform Iraq into a Shia state, excluding and persecuting Sunni politicians and tribes and further alienating the Kurds. The escalating terrorist attacks against Shia targets over the last two years signalled the resumption of Iraq’s civil war.
The opportunity for the revival of Sunni resistance came not in Iraq but Syria. As the West encouraged opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite (a Shia sect) regime, the ‘moderate’ Sunni resistance provided a legitimate cover for more ‘radical’ groups: the Nusra Front, linked to Al Qaeda, and specially ISIS, to carve out a leading role for themselves in the Syrian struggle. Al Qaeda broke with ISIS not because it was too ‘radical’ but because it was more effective.
ISIS had a clear military and political strategy: to secure sources of finance and recruits and capture and hold territory in Sunni-majority areas across Syria and Iraq. It displayed tactical flexibility: shifting its attacks to the most vulnerable targets. It has controlled Fallujah for several months. Its takeover of Mosul and march towards Baghdad were well-executed. Surprisingly, the Iraqi army collapsed under the ISIS onslaught.
Mobilised by fear and humiliation and Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms, the Iraqi army and Shia militias are likely to succeed in defending Baghdad and pushing ISIS out of some mixed Sunni-Shia towns. Retaking Sunni strongholds, like Fallujah and Mosul, may prove more difficult.
America’s ‘hawks’ are pressing the administration to launch air strikes against ISIS, if needed, in tandem with Iran. Admission of their past strategic mistakes or remorse for the massive suffering these have inflicted on the Iraqi people is not in their DNA. Obama has been wise to deflect their pressure, hold back from air strikes and keep his options open.
Unless Maliki reaches a rapid accommodation with the Sunnis and other political forces, which is unlikely, US air strikes would reinforce the Sunni alienation and Iraq’s political division. If American strikes were conducted now in coordination with Iran, they would heighten the suspicions of America’s Gulf allies that it is indeed tilting strategically towards Tehran. Attacking ISIS would willy-nilly also strengthen the ability of the regime in Syria to extend its military advantage over the ‘moderate’ opposition once its main combatant (ISIS) is militarily diminished.
In any case, unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS does not pose an immediate threat to the US ‘homeland’. Its objectives are regional. Bombing it could change its agenda and create the very threat that some in Washington presume it poses. Its eventual neutralisation will have to be achieved by a combination of political and military means.
However, the threat posed by the ISIS advance may generate the political will in Baghdad and, more importantly, in Tehran, to work for a political solution which accommodates the legitimate aspirations of Iraq’s Sunnis within a federal structure.
It appears from Obama’s remarks that Washington intends to evolve its response in consultation with Saudi Arabia and other allies. It will require adroit diplomacy to cut through the deep layers of hostility to achieve a consensus between them and Iran on a peace strategy for Iraq. If this can be achieved, it could lead to a wider understanding on ways to neutralise ISIS and other Sunni and Shia extremists in Iraq, promote a similar ‘federal’ solution to the Syrian conflict, end the region’s sectarian wars and close ‘the gates of hell’.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2014