When we talk of widespread unrest in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, we must not dismiss Iraq after US troop withdrawal in December 2011. The Obama administration failed to found a sound partnership with Iraq, which led to resurgence of Al Qaeda and growing sectarian violence there. Furthermore, worsening security in Iraq inflicts tremendous negative impacts on Syria. Sunni extremists from Iraq join the civil war, and Iran uses Iraqi air space to support the Assad administration. Moreover, Iraq experiences pose psychological constraints to R2P intervention in Syria. Therefore, it is necessary to assess security in Iraq after US withdrawal and its spill over effect in the neighborhood, including Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
To begin with, we must understand the overview of security in current Iraq. The public in the United States and the most of the world regards that the war in Iraq is over, but Senator John McCain endorses deep engagement with Iraq after December 2011. Retired General Jack Keane of the US Army and Director of the Critical Threat Project Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute, both of who are the architects of successful surge to defeat insurgents in Iraq, explored strategic implications of the unrest in Iraq along with Senator McCain. Let me mention their panel discussion at the AEI on March 19. See the video below.
In this panel, Senator John McCain, Retired General Jack Keane, and Director of the Critical Threat Project at AEI Frederick Kagan, assessed security in Iraq. The three panelists are top architects of the Iraq War and the surge to defeat insurgents, and they stress that Iraq policy must be beyond the partisan storm in a tea cup. While the public regards the war in Iraq is over after the withdrawal in December 2011, sectarian conflicts still continue there. In view of this, the three panelists argue that policymakers must learn lessons from Iraq and define the role of the united States.
For the lesson, we must understand that current turmoil in Iraq is a consequence of poor security coordination under the Obama administration. When the Bush administration signed the security pact with Iraq in 2008, the Maliki administration was ready to accommodate US 20,000 troops. However, quoting a comment by General Martin Dempsey, McCain said that the Obama administration “cascaded down” the troop level to 3,000, and such tiny scale was no worth for Iraq to maintain security. The problem is not just total pullout of US forces. The Los Angels Times reports poor contacts between Iraqi tribal leaders and US troops in the Gulf area allows the rise of sectarian violence and penetration of Iranian influence (“Ten years after Iraq war began, Iran reaps the gains”; Los Angels Times; March 28, 2013). The United States failed to show enduring will to defeat insurgents, and that has invigorated the enemy. Successful intelligence against the enemy is another lesson to be learnt from Iraq. Misinformation about Saddam’s nuclear weapons gives rise to psychological hesitation for active intervention, and helps widespread annoyance of war grow among the public.
As to the role of the United States, Keane pointed out that the Obama administration failed to respond to the Arab Spring, unlike in past historical cases like the collapse of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s invasion to Kuwait, undermines American leadership in the Middle East. Quite devastatingly, Iraq has become Al Qaeda’s new safe haven and Iran’s pathway to provide chemical weapons for Syria. Those weapons can be handed to extremists like Hezbollah from Assad. The spillover effect of Iraq so great that it is necessary to assess how much reliable Baghdad is as an ally of the United States.
The most critical issue to Iraq’s neighborhood is Iranian military aid to Syria through Iraqi air space. When Secretary of State John Kerry met Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to stop arms supply from Iran on March 24, he was simply frustrated because the Iraqi side was not so cooperative (“10 years after Saddam, is Iraq a U.S. ally?”; Foreign Policy—Passport; April 9, 2013). This is primarily due to insufficient armament and training of the Iraqi security forces. Former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker comments that the Obama administration’s precipitous pullout has ruined achievements made by the surge from 2007 to 2008, and Al Qaeda has come back to refound their bases in Iraq. Crocker says the clash in Hawija near Kirkuk on April 23 this year very illustrative, because Sunni protesters harbored insurgents against the security forces. Some Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq like Jabhat al-Nusra, send combatants to Syria to prevail extremist influence among the rebel (“Iraq on the brink, again”; Washington Post; May 1, 2013).
The number of casualties rose dramatically since then. Emma Sky, Political Advisor to General Ray Odierno of the US Army, says similarly “Driven by an imperative to end the war, the U.S. strategy for Iraq became lost in the transition as America disengaged rather than changing the basis of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship to a nonmilitary one,” in a commentary piece for the Center for a New American Security (“Iraq’s Sectarian Violence: Bombings Plunge Country Into Deadly Spiral”; Time; May 21, 2013). In July, the death toll number exceeded 1,000, which I the highest record since 2008 (“Over 1,000 Iraqis killed in July, highest monthly toll since 2008: U.N.”; Reuters; August 1, 2013). See the table below.
As Hezbollah does in Lebanon, a Shiite power broker Abu Mehdi Mohandis acts to help Iranian influence grow in Iraq. A proxy like him raises critical concerns among Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats (“Ten years after Iraq war began, Iran reaps the gains; Los Angels Times; March 28, 2013). For Iran, Syria has been the only consistent ally since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Most of the Iran’s Arab neighbors supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran Iraq War, for fear of Shiite revolution expansionism. Iran gives military and financial aid to Syria, including chemical weapons program, because Iran needs an ally along with Hezbollah to resist the United States and Israel, according to Karim Sadjapour, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (“Iran’s Unwavering Support to Assad’s Syria”; Combatting Terrorism Center; august 27, 2013). Considering such indispensable strategic interest, there is every reason for Iran to conspire unrest in Iraq to maintain the passage for Syria.
A destabilized Iraq poses spillover effect to another big neighbor Saudi Arabia. Domestic sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites are brought to Saudi Arabia. Economic inequalities intensify Sunni-Shiite clashes in Saudi Arabia. Shiites reside in oil rich Gulf areas, rather than in urban areas like Riyadh and Jeddah. However, they are marginalized to live in mud brick houses, while oil companies earn petro-dollars. Quite alarmingly, Shiites are more loyal to their religious leaders than to the state of their citizenship (“Iraq conflict reignites sectarian rivalry in Saudi Arabia”; Baltimore Sun; April 27, 2013). This implies that insecurity in Iraq can prevail throughout the region, and the rise of extremist populism as seen in Egypt can augment the crisis furthermore. The Geostrategic importance of Iraq must be understood from historical perspectives. Abbasid caliph al Mansur moved the capital to Bagdad in 762 to expand the sphere to Iran and the Mediterranean area, while maintaining contacts with the Arabian Peninsula.
In order to improve security in Iraq, Former Ambassador Crocker suggests that the United States strengthen the leverage on Iraq through providing training and armaments to the Iraqi security forces, and facilitate secretarial level communications based on the Strategic Framework Agreement between both countries. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Washington mid August in view of the worst death toll record since 2008 in July, and said “There is greater realization in the Iraq government that we should not shy away from coming and asking for some help and assistance”. He is critically concerned that Sunni terrorists from Iraq join the rebel to fight against Allawite Assad regime (“Iraq seeks help from U.S. amid growing violence”; Military Times; August 16, 2013).
The experience in Iraq has made the global public reluctant to intervene Syria. In an interview with BBC, Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair comments that the Commons vote against the attack to Syria gave a blow to the alliance with the United States and R2P mission in the face of mass murder with chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Unlike Iraq, the use of chemical weapon is apparent in the case of Syria. Therefore, Blair focuses on the problem of extremist participation as he talks about psychological hurdles for intervention (“Tony Blair: Iraq War made UK 'hesitant' over Syria intervention”; BBC News; 6 September 2013). Actually, war opponents in the US Republican Party are extremely concerned that Obama’s attack against Assad will help extremists rather than pro-Western freedom fighters. The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt startled conservative citizens in the West as Morsi enacted the Sharia law.
Regarding the Iraq effect on Syria, Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfovitz also says the use of chemical weapons is apparent in Anderson Cooper 360 of CNN on September 4. He advocated that America act in accordance with the Reagan Doctrine to assist those who are fighting for the American side, and help their endeavor by arming them. Wolfovitz says that “boots on the ground” is not necessary in Syria, in reply to war annoying public opinion. Quite importantly, he said that the United States should have responded to Saddam’s repression against the Kurds shortly after his loss in the Gulf War. This is a critical point to think of the moral case for American interventionism. See the above video.
When we talk of the risk of intervention in global crises, we must also consider the risk of non -intervention. Obama’s disengagement policy in Iraq worsens the civil war in Syria and political transition in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Considering the geostrategic position, stability in Iraq is the key to the war in Syria, democracy promotion after the Arab Spring, and American preeminence in the Middle East. Furthermore, comprehensive Middle East strategy is necessary, rather than acting on stopgap and country specific basis.