A grand debate is gaining traction in a virtual war for the
eye of Washington policy analysts about the nature of the threat facing Iraq.
The stakes are high: Whoever can define the threat can help shape the policy
On one side are counterterrorist analysts. Because of risks,
they are unable to conduct field research embedded with terrorist groups. In
the other camp are those who emphasize political factors in Iraq among Sunni
Arabs, Kurds, and moderate Shiites.
The press defines the threat to Iraq as the Islamic State (formerly
the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. If the threat is mainly the Islamic
State, then military options, such as airstrikes, are feasible, though risky
because Islamic State fighters embed within populated areas.
Indicative of those whose focus is on the Islamic State is our
Shadow colleague Paul Miller. He states
that, "The Middle East is now a more favorable operating environment for
jihadist groups than ever before ... [and they operate in] a wide swath of
territory across Iraq and Syria that is essentially safe haven for jihadist
militants." Miller is correct; at issue, however, is emphasis.
Miller favors coordinated and simultaneous counterinsurgency
strategy and counterterrorism strikes by Iraq and Syria against their common
enemies, although he doubts the viability of this strategy. Even if practical,
a political approach would disfavor this strategy for now, but keep the threat
on the backburner.
Sunni policymakers and analysts who have conducted
interviews with Sunni Iraqis often place the Islamic State threat in the
political context of a wider Sunni revolt against the suppressive practices of
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He is prompted by the Iranian advisers like
Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds
Force in Iraq.
Consider Iraq's exiled Sunni vice president, Tariq
al-Hashimi, as reported
in the Daily Beast: "We shouldn't
look at this development of ISIS as apart from the uprising of the Arab Sunni
provinces over two years," he said. "Definitely we consider all this military
support to Nouri al-Maliki an alliance with Iran against the Arab Sunnis."
As I wrote,
"Though the media focuses on nonstate extremists, the threats to Maliki are his
domestic political opponents in the Sunni tribes." Blame is on Iran as the main
threat to the stability of Iraq via Suleimani.
Hashimi is in accord with my interview with him during 2013
in Brussels. Consistent with Rogin's reporting, Hashimi's bottom line was that
in the event of civil war breaking out between Sunnis and Shiites, President
Obama should refrain from providing military arms or forces to Maliki because
doing so would signal U.S. support of the Shiite side of the war.
Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford -- now Senior Fellow at
The Middle East Institute -- also weighs in on the side of downgrading
the Islamic State peril to Iraq in relation to the political threat from
Baghdad's failure to strike a deal with Sunnis. Writing at the Middle East
Institute, where he is now a senior fellow, he says,
"The first thing that [President Rouhani of Iran] might do would be to help
Iraqis quickly get to a broad agreement in Baghdad about how the Iraqi central
government will improve relations with Sunni Arabs so that Sunnis will help
join the fight against ISIS."
Although I am in general agreement with Ambassador Ford's
analysis favoring a broader central government in Baghdad, I take issue with
his prescription for Rouhani -- his government does not wish Bagdad to improve
relations with Sunnis to engage the Islamic State. Iran wants Sunnis to assist
without paying the price. Tehran and Baghdad are the main culprits responsible
for the policy of isolating Sunnis and hence contributing to the political
vacuum in which the Islamic State operates. Sunnis also want more autonomy
rather than inclusiveness under the central government.
The growing threat of civil war in Iraq is a proxy battle
between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiites of Iran. Maliki is but a sycophant of
Tehran and his Shiite-dominating government is making Iraq a satrap of Iran in
this regional proxy battle between Sunnis and Shias.
Having conducted interviews in Iraq during October 2008 with
many of the leaders of Sunni tribes who joined the fight against al Qaeda of
Iraq that year, I seriously doubt if any of the tribal chiefs would repeat
their participation in 2014. Because of the shoddy way Maliki treated them once
American forces departed in late 2011, it is unrealistic to expect Sunnis to bail
out Baghdad again without payment in advance -- departure of Maliki from the
prime ministerial position and granting autonomy for Sunnis that Kurds have.
Getting back to the war for Washington, the political
narrative is more consistent with President Obama's penchant to avoid taking
sides with airstrikes against Islamic State positions than the counterterrorist
approach. A more robust U.S. arms supply posture to the "moderate" Syrian
opposition is in order to place pressure on Islamic State forces that move
freely between Syrian and Iraq; doing so would reinforce the hand of Iraqi Sunnis
as they continue to distance themselves from the jihadists in their midst.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images