This blogs reviews the US decision to launch limited air strikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq.
First, targeted airstrikes to protect American personnel in Erbil from the imminent threat posed by ISIS in Northern Iraq. These personnel, he explained, are considered vital to joint operations with the Kurds and the Iraqi government.
Second, a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped on the Sinjar mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death. As part of the humanitarian effort he authorised limited airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces that are fighting to beat back ISIS’s siege on the mountain and to protect the civilians there.
The immediate goals then are to protect US personnel and facilities and to prevent a potential act of genocide. As presented, this is not the start of an open-ended military campaign aimed at defeating ISIS. Nor is it the start of a wider humanitarian intervention to protect all innocent civilians from murder or displacement at the hands of ISIS.
Obama used the 7 August statement and his televised address to the nation 2 days later to place these limited operations within a wider political strategy, namely empowering Iraqis to confront this crisis by reconciling their differences.
Obama noted: “Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like ISIS”. Once a new government is in place the US would then “work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge.”
Seen from this perspective, the designation of Haider al-Abadi as the new Prime Minister of Iraq is a significant step towards opposing ISIS in Iraq, but given the depth of sectarian polarisation this will clearly be no easy task. The challenge could yet be significantly complicated by Maliki’s initial refusal to give up office. A intra-Shia conflict though possible is unlikely, but an uncooperative Maliki could still make the politics of reconciliation that much harder.
In a subsequent op-ed interview with Thomas Freidman for the New York Times, Obama explained that pursing a more ambitious military campaign would mitigate against the wider political strategy as it would invite the Iraqi government to avoid facing the difficult question of how it developed an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished. There is a clear understanding here that the best way, maybe the only way, to defeat the ISIS threat in Iraq is by reconstituting the Iraqi body politic in such a way that it provides for the common good of all.
The emphasis that Obama places on inclusive government explains why in part he has been willing to work with and through the Kurds. In his interview with Thomas Freidman, Obama notes:
“I do think the Kurds used that time that was given by our troop sacrifices in Iraq. They used that time well, and the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see. It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force. I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”
Although the US has taken the lead to date, you only have to look at the White House website to see the efforts the Administration has taken to internationalise this campiagn. These efforts have met with some success with plenty of countries coming forward to assist with or contribute to the humanitarian effort.
Several countries – France, Turkey and the UK included – have moved beyond humanitarian assistance to provide logistical military support. In the case of France, this has now extended to arming the Kurdish forces in Iraq. Not surprisingly there remain diplomatic sensitivities and political divisions, as illustrated by the inability of EU member states to agree yesterday on a common policy on the question of arming the Kurds.
It remains unlear, however, whether this internationalisation will in turn see an intentional or unintentional widening of the military campaign, or whether the internationalisation is itself predicated on the campaign remaining narrowly defined and in support of the wider political strategy that Obama has set. To date it appears the latter. As per David Cameron’s announcement today’detailed plans’ are being put in place to assist stranded Yazidi in Iraq, but there appear to be no plans at this stage to widen the focus.
It is certainly possible that any success achieved in blunting the advance on Erbil and preventing a genocide on the Sinjar mountain might lead to the modus operandi being applied to other areas in Northern Iraq. Yet, even if that were to happen there are natural limits to this pattern of operation which will thwart wider efforts to combat ISIS.
It is difficult, for instance, to see this model being extended easily beyond Iraq to combat the ISIS threat in Syria. Assad has shown himself to be far less malleable than Maliki and unlike Kurdistan the US and its allies still has no reliable opposition partner in Syria.
It is revealing here that in his interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama acknowledged that the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.” Yet, even if they did exist, Western governments remain reluctant to take ownership of the fight against Assad.
Highlighting the transnational character of ISIS and widening the lens of focus beyond the Sinjar mountain top is to suggest that our efforts to safeguard the territorial integrity of Iraq and to help protect its people from the evil that is ISIS will remain incomplete so long as the there is no coherent international strategy to deal with Syria.
That is not to say that the use of force against ISIS in Northern Iraq is not necessary or timely, merely that we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the deployment of military force can resolve fully the horrors we are currently witnessing.