In June when extremist militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) defeated Iraqi government forces to take Fallujah, a strategic stronghold in the province of Anbar, US Secretary of State John Kerry remarked in a light-hearted tone that Washington supported Baghdad in its counterattacks but wouldn’t send its troops into battle, because “that is their war.” Now, however, Kerry may have changed his perspective.
Since the beginning of June, Iraq’s security situation has deteriorated rapidly. The ISIL forces have conquered Sunni-dominated Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar and al Qaim in succession and are now bearing down on Baghdad. They are controlling nearly half of the country’s territory. Under the rebels’ crushing attacks, government troops fled without putting up any decent resistance. The Maliki government had no choice but to call for urgent aid from the United States. Kerry immediately flew to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and then went to northern Iraq to hold talks with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, in a desperate effort to save Iraq from collapsing. US President Barack Obama also announced that 300 military advisers would be sent to Iraq to help the government forces in counterattacks against the Sunni rebels.
Such an insignificant 300-member contingent of advisers is far from enough to turn the tide on the battlefields. And Kerry’s mediation effort (which focuses on the ousting of Maliki) is unwelcome by Baghdad. What should be done with the Iraqi government has become something of a dilemma for the Obama administration.
On the one hand, the US cannot allow Iraq to fall apart, much less the establishment of an “Islamic state” in the country by the radical Islamist forces. A collapsed Iraq means that all the US has gained and sacrificed in the country over the past 10 years has been to no avail. What is worse is that once they have gained a firm foothold in Iraq, the Islamist extremists would pose a significant threat to security in the Middle East, and even in the US and Europe. Since the US military forces invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, the country has never been devoid of riots and chaos. The Islamic extremist armed forces took the opportunity to expand, and pestered the country with terrorist attacks.
Encouraged by the “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the US troops’ withdrawal from Iraq, the destructive force of religious extremism, which was deterred by a powerful US military presence and suppressed by secular Arab regimes, began to break out. Despite the death of Bin Laden, the al-Qaida threat never stopped growing and spreading. Terrorist attacks ran rife beyond their traditional bases in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Yemen, and spread to northern Africa and even Somali, Mali and Nigeria. More upsetting for the US and Europe was the extremists’ moves to recruit new members in Western countries through the Internet. About 2,000 American and European natives are reportedly fighting alongside the ISIL.
On the other hand, the US has to be prudent about the support it’s providing to the Iraqi government, given the complicated entanglement of interests involving Iraq, Syria and Iran and the potential effect it will have on the power structure in the Middle East. The demarcation between enemy and friend has become blurred, which makes it difficult for Washington to make up its mind. For instance, the Maliki administration of Iraq, the Iranian government and Syria’s al-Assad regime are all Shiite and support one another. It was just because of the support from Iran and Iraq that the al-Assad regime has remained in power, although Washington has long been labeled as an “illegal government.” If the US joins Iran to support Baghdad in its fight against ISIL, that would translate into a direct help to the al-Assad regime, which has in recent years been fighting the ISIL forces in northern Syria. It would also irritate Washington allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom are Iran’s sworn enemies in the region. Besides, Washington also doesn’t want to see casualties among common Sunni people in any US air strike on ISIL forces, because that would incur a stronger anti-US sentiment and induce the birth of a new generation of Jihad fighters.
A number of international media outlets have strangely dragged China into the fray, even while the US, which has dominated Iraq for 10 years, has been so indecisive on how and to what extent it would intervene in the country’s domestic troubles. Those media outlets have argued that China should not look on unconcerned, as it has huge petro investment and interests in Iraq. This is implausible logic, for an economic partner does not need to be an intervener. It is true that China was deeply involved in Iraq’s post-war construction and petroleum exploration, but it has been a sheer outsider in the post-war political rearrangement and military restructuring while Washington was the dominating force. As a Chinese saying goes, he who has fastened the bell on the tiger’s neck is responsible for taking it off. The US dismembered Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 2003 war and tried to use the American way to piece it together again in the following 10 years. Now that its damage has been revealed, the US should shoulder, rather than shirk, its responsibilities.
He Wenping is a Research Fellow at the Charhar Institute and a Research Fellow at the West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences.