How to Save Iraq: Weighing the Options

On Monday, June 16th, the crisis in Iraq deepened as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni Islamist militant group, seized control of additional strategic territory in Iraq, including the northern city of Tal Afar. Over the last few months, there has been increased violence and hostility in Iraq as the ISIS has sought to seize control of the state from Prime Minister Maliki’s Shi’a majority government. Beginning as early as January 2014, the ISIS successfully took control of important Iraqi cities including Mosul, Falluja, Tikrit and Sammara. The volatile situation in Iraq has also been exacerbated by the neighboring crisis in Syria, where jihadists have taken over significant swaths of territory. Over the last few months, the ISIS’ military insurgency has intensified violence against Iraqi citizens and soldiers, taken hostages and  seized entire cities with no signs of stopping in the immediate future.

While the ISIS is believed to have less than 15,000 members compared to the 193,400 Iraqi soldiers in the country, the Iraqi military has failed to stop its advance. Although the Iraqi military has a budget of more than $17 billion, with $1.3 billion coming from the US alone, the military has proven to be useless at best. The Iraqi army has been weakened and disillusioned by the abhorrent political situation in Iraq, and soldiers have literally been ripping off their uniforms and running away to evade conflict.

As violence continues to escalate within Iraq, the US and its allies, as well as regional powers, are facing the pressure to take action in order to de-escalate and stabilize the troubled country.  The news is inundated with policy experts advocating every degree of intervention from boots on the ground to complete passivity. Let’s try to parse through these conflicting prescriptions and see the merits of each. 

No Intervention

Some believe that the US should not get involved in Iraq at all, arguing that the problem is domestic and therefore should be resolved domestically. Critics of the US intervention in 2003 argue that the current crisis is a result of a vacuum that was created by the failures of the US’ prior involvement in Iraq. There is also broad anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East as US intervention has exacerbated local conflicts in the past and Iran has warned that foreign military intervention will only worsen the Iraqi situation. Marzieh Afkham, Iran’s foreign military spokesman stated that "Iraq has the capacity and necessary preparations for the fight against terrorism and extremism” and military intervention is “not in the interests of the country or the region.”

Critics of non-intervention including Emma Sky, former political adviser to General Raymond Odierno who served as the commanding general of the US forces in Iraq, counters that the US and other Western powers must use military force or risk further destabilization of not only Iraq, but the entire region. The ongoing crises in Syria and Libya are not isolated from the events unfolding in Iraq with the current insurgency drawing strength from neighboring Syria, effectively transforming the region into a battlefield.

Military Intervention

Although there is strong opposition to putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq, military intervention is being widely considered by many members of the international community. Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the UK, is advocating for Western intervention in Iraq to prevent further violence, combat extremist terrorist threats and stabilize the country.

While the use of air and missile strikes by the US would undoubtedly weaken ISIS and halt their progress, scholars debate whether this will actually resolve the conflict. Military intervention is a powerful tool but has the potential to further destabilize conflicts as evidenced by the US intervention in Libya.

Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, stated that military intervention at this time was inappropriate. Clinton stated that the US would set preconditions to military intervention if the need for it arose in the future, with Maliki having to demonstrate that “he is a leader for all Iraqis, not for a sectarian slice of the country.” Additionally, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO, stated that the military alliance will not intervene as he “does not see a role for NATO in Iraq.”

Not only is military intervention without a diplomatic resolution a short-term solution to the more complex issues that face Iraq and the region at large, but it also gives rise to another set of problems. If the West chooses to use military force in this context, it may provoke retaliatory terrorist attacks in the US, the UK and the larger international community. Additionally, many will perceive intervention on behalf of the Shi’a majority government in Iraq as sectarian favoritism, deepening the Sunni-Shi’a divide across the region. There is also no guarantee that military intervention will quell the conflict in the short-term.

Intelligence & Strategic Assistance

As the situation currently stands, the US does not have a strong enough incentive to use military force and the most likely form of intervention will be through intelligence and military assistance. The US can provide the Iraqi military with weapons and a counterinsurgency strategy. However, there is fear that advanced weaponry may be turned over to or seized by ISIS.

The White House and the Department of Defense are currently compiling a list of policy options to address the crisis in Iraq. Although President Obama's administration has asserted that no US troops will be deployed in the country, the option of military intervention through the use of drones and air strikes is still on the table. As ISIS continues to wreak havoc in Iraq on its march toward Baghdad, the US and its partners will have to act swiftly within the next few weeks in order to diffuse an already hostile and volatile situation.

A Regional Strategy

While some officials criticize and denounce US military intervention in Iraq, it is inevitable if states in the Middle East fail to develop a regional response plan to stabilize the current situation in Iraq. However, tensions are rising as both Iraq and Iran have blamed Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting ISIS with the intent of strengthening Sunni influence and power in the region. In the past, the Gulf states have been apathetic in addressing problems in Iraq, but Iraq has become a “multilayered problem” threatening regional security and stability. The Gulf states should cooperate and develop a regional response plan to contain the situation in Iraq before military intervention becomes an inevitable reality.

A Need for Action

The violence in Iraq has escalated as sectarian tensions worsen and ISIS continues its march towards Baghdad. This week, ISIS released graphic photos of Iraqi soldiers being brutally murdered, and claims to have killed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers and violence against civilians has increased as well. As days pass and ISIS continues its violent rampage, it is becoming increasingly urgent for the international community to act and address the crisis in Iraq.