As Russia and Iran step in to bolster the government in Baghdad, U.S. President Barack Obama has no good options to help defeat the Al-Qaeda splinter group that’s proclaimed an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The White House has offered limited military assistance to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and is pushing for a coalition government to unite Iraqis as Sunni fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria and their allies pose what Secretary of State John Kerry calls “an existential threat” to Iraq.
While it’s in the interests of the U.S. to prevent one of the largest Arab states – the second-biggest crude oil producer in OPEC that’s bordered by Syria and Iran – from falling into the hands of the Sunni militants, it’s not clear what Obama can do to vanquish a militant group that may control 10,000 fighters and $2 billion in assets.
“I don’t think there is a good, obvious solution, no matter what our willingness,” said Linda Robinson, a national security analyst at the Rand Corp in Arlington, Virginia, and a former adviser to the U.S. military’s Central Command. “Any step we might take, like airstrikes, could just make things worse.”
Iran has deployed hundreds of troops from its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to reinforce its Shiite ally, and Russia last week delivered the first Sukhoi fighter jet to Maliki the day after vowing that it won’t stand by while Iraq collapses.
The swift action by two of America’s adversaries has prompted Obama’s critics in Washington – and even some members of his administration – to argue that the U.S. must act quickly to avert an extremist takeover of a country it invaded and occupied for more than eight years.
Obama’s ability to influence events in Iraq is limited, though, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
Two U.S. administrations have inspired distrust among both Shiites and Sunnis by invading in 2003, then failing to stabilize the country or compel Maliki to stop his revenge campaign against Sunnis, and finally withdrawing and leaving a polarized state at the end of 2011, the official said.
Now, the administration is exploring a three-pronged strategy, according to U.S. officials involved in the effort. It consists of providing Maliki’s government with limited military aid, pressing him to step down or agree to a more inclusive government and trying with Saudi Arabian assistance to pry Sunni tribesmen away from their de facto alliance with ISIS. The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to the news media.
The political hope is that a new prime minister would share power more equitably, lessen Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish antipathy and unite Iraqis against ISIS, one of the officials said. The sectarian divide has aided ISIS’s advance by allowing extremists to capitalize on Sunni resentment against the government and low morale in the army.
At the same time, one of the officials said, the administration remains open to behind-the-scenes diplomacy, conducted through Oman’s government, to probe whether Iran is prepared to support a more inclusive regime in Baghdad.
Providing Iraq’s government with intelligence and weapons in a time of crisis may give the U.S. limited leverage with Maliki, who until now has rebuffed all efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to form a more inclusive government.
While Obama has ruled out sending American combat troops back to Iraq, Monday he authorized sending 200 additional troops to bolster U.S. security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the city’s international airport. That brings the number of military personnel providing such security to about 470.
Two weeks ago, Obama announced that he’d also send as many as 300 military advisers to aid the Iraqi military with intelligence and training, at least 180 of whom have now arrived. Obama also said he’s “prepared to take targeted and precise military action” if it’s in U.S. interests.
Last week, the Pentagon delivered 100 new laser-guided Hellfire missiles to Iraq, part of a batch of 500 announced in January. Other pending U.S. arms sales include F-16 jet fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.
Last week, the White House announced that it also would seek $500 million from Congress to support moderate rebels in neighboring Syria, where ISIS controls substantial territory in the country’s east.
While Obama has used drone strikes extensively against suspected terrorist havens in Pakistan and Yemen, he’s reluctant to launch airstrikes that could embroil the U.S. in a deeper conflict, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, said the U.S. should send a small number of U.S. special forces to Iraq to direct targets for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS.
Any targets would have to be “limited and very selective,” cautioned Keane, chairman of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. While “air power does not win wars,” strikes may be necessary to give the Iraqi army any chance against ISIS, he said.
While Iraqi military and civilian leaders have always had a generally unfounded view of what technology could do for them, air support would be very helpful, especially given the way ISIS is operating openly, assembling in camps in the desert and driving down the highways, said a former senior commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
However, he continued, it’s instructive to recall that 165,000 well-trained U.S. forces supported by snipers, heavy bombers and everything in between, and by coalition forces and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and police, had to fight hard to defeat ISIS’ predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), during the 2007 surge of more than 20,000 additional U.S. forces in Iraq.
A single U.S. battalion combat team dropped well over 500,000 pounds of bombs one morning during an offensive south of Baghdad, the former commander said, and if ISIS and its partners become as entrenched as AQI and its associates were by 2007, much more than air power will be required.
“The government and Iraqi forces are in no position to retake territory,” said the Rand Corp.’s Robinson. “The most the government can really do right now is hold the line.”
Another idea being considered, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is reviving the CIA’s 2007 covert effort to enlist the support of Sunni tribal leaders in northern and western Iraq against the militants.
Robinson warned any effort to win back Sunni tribal leaders would be difficult. “A lot of them are thoroughly disgusted with Maliki, and we’re not there to make them come in from the cold.” Even if he were to step down, she added, “there’s no obvious political alternative.”
Faysal Itani, a Middle East fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said replicating the Sunni Awakening is easier said than done. Buying Sunni tribal loyalties “requires a physical presence on the ground,” which the U.S. doesn’t have anymore, Itani said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he’s concerned the Obama administration may be publicizing its political and military efforts “to keep critics at bay,” while failing to work all angles and think ahead to the likely next phase.
“There’s the danger they’ll fixate” on the political strategy and address other options “too gradually or sequentially,” he said. The U.S. should simultaneously be reaching out to Sunni tribes and considering short-term military action, as well as longer-term strategies such as deploying advisory teams to replicate the Sunni Awakening, he said.