MESOP FOCUS : The Syria disconnect in US-Iraq policy

AL MONITOR –  Author Week in Review – June 29, 2014 – Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, told Al-Monitor on June 26, “Any air supremacy support provided to Iraq will surely have a significant effect. That to us is a key game changer.”

Faily, who described Iraq’s war against ISIS as an “acid test” for US-Iraq relations, said, “We have had offers from the Syrians before and we declined them. But it seems that the support that we sought from the US is not coming in a timely manner to deal with our urgency, which is more or less putting us in an uncomfortable position in seeking support from whoever is available on the ground.”

The Barack Obama administration deepened its engagement in Iraq but has so far held off sending military support for Iraq beyond 300 US military advisers and conducting drone reconnaissance. The absence of direct US military aid has provided an opening for Russia, which on June 28 delivered 10 Sukhoi (Su-25) fighter jets to Iraq. Paul Saunders writes for Al-Monitor that the arms sales are consistent with Moscow’s policies in Syria to date, although Russia is likely to play a “limited” diplomatic role. Maliki is also depending on Iran, which is providing drone flights, military supplies and advisers, and Syria, which may be prepared to do even more to battle ISIS.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has 21 seats in the new Council of Representatives, which will meet on June 30, said, “If we examine Russia’s influence map, we see a crescent stretching from the Crimea [Peninsula] and the Black Sea through Iran, Iraq, Syria and part of Lebanon. This Russian area of influence may expand.” US Secretary of State John Kerry met this week with US regional allies, including Saudi King Abdullah bin Adulaziz, to discuss Iraq. On June 26, the White House announced the Regional Stabilization Initiative to provide $1 billion in “investments in Syria’s neighbors to enable them to strengthen internal and border security capabilities and enhance their capacity to manage the pressures created by ongoing conflicts and the stresses on communities hosting refugees,” in addition to $500 million in military support for vetted Syrian opposition forces.  

The United States continues to call for a more “inclusive” Iraqi government when the Iraqi Council of Representatives meets on July 1, but is hedging that Maliki will not be the next prime minister. Saudi Arabia and Turkey would prefer that both Maliki, and Assad, be deposed. For the kingdom in particular, Iraq and Syria are battlefields for influence between it and Iran.

The stepped-up US support for the Syrian opposition, which is welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other countries opposed to Assad, otherwise comes across as a disconnect if the US priority is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Syria is ready to mobilize its forces against ISIS, which many US officials refer to as ISIL.  Kerry said on June 27 that the Syrian National Coalition (SOC) has “the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence. They have been, not just in Syria but also in Iraq.” A State Department official the next day clarified that Kerry “was not suggesting … that the Syrian opposition would have any role in any fighting inside Iraq.”

The ramped-up opposition strategy includes the risk of the slippery slope for deeper US involvement, as it is unlikely that the expanded force will be able to reverse its battlefield fortunes against both Syrian government and ISIS forces without more substantial external assistance. And then there is the twist of Syrian armed forces actually striking ISIS, and ready to do more, while the United States and its allies consider alternative options. In light of the uncertainties of a ramped-up opposition strategy in Syria, an immediate, overdue step in combating ISIS is intensified cooperation on border security, as described in the Regional Stabilization Initiative proposed by the Obama administration.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on June 20, in his six-point plan for Syria, “Syria’s neighbors should enforce a firm prohibition on the use of their land borders and airspace for arms flows and smuggling into Syria.” If Turkey had taken meaningful border security measures sooner, ISIS might not have amassed the capability to project its forces into Iraq.  Semih Idiz writes this week that the potential blowback from the ISIS expansion has “forced Ankara to return to its policy of taking cautious steps in the Middle East, and steering away from the ambitious — and in hindsight adventurous — policies spearheaded by [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu until only a few years ago,” especially its failed regime change policies in Syria.

When US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh about Iraq on June 26, there was little or no discussion of new efforts to shut down ISIS financing or facilitation of terrorist networks, at least according to State Department briefers after the meeting. There should be immediate, if not around-the-clock, working groups among the regional players to strengthen border security and counterterrorist policing. There are no easy or quick solutions, but the opportunity for a new approach to regional security, including engagement, on some level, with Iran, is overdue.  The crises in Iraq and Syria will not be solved whether Maliki and Assad stay or go. Assad in particular does not seem to be going. We are where we are in Iraq today 11 years after US forces overthrew Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal dictators of his time. And for those who prefer lessons from more modern history, there is Libya, a failing if not failed state, dominated by militias and armed groups, three years after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

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