On June 10th, some 1,500 fighters from the Jihadist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) seized Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. Half a million citizens fled to the Kurdish areas. ISIS then moved further south, towards Baghdad, and took the cities of Tikrit and Samarra, a sacred Shia site.
On June 13th, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called on all Iraqi Shia to fight the invaders, who are Sunni.
Internationally, Iran sent para- military forces to assist the Baghdad government, which like Iran is almost exclusively Shia.
Also on June 13th, President Obama, having acknowledged the gravity of these events, stated: “The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together”.
The next day it was announced that a US carrier and two guided missile destroyers were being sent to the gulf. The Pentagon’s press secretary stated that this move “will provide the commander-in-chief additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq”. He did not say additional to what or what specifically would now be at the disposal of the commander-in-chief, but such a carrier based battle group would typically include cruise missile capability and airborne weapons systems.
The grave circumstances now being faced in Iraq are; complex, years in the making, involve an elemental confessional dispute between Shia and Sunni Muslims but have now taken on a dimension that has been shaped by external intervention in the region and seriously corrupt governments. On the origins of the current problems, the relentlessly historicist Tony Blair has stated: “You know we can rerun the debates about 2003 – there are perfectly legitimate points on either side – but where we are now in 2014, we have to understand this is a regional problem” and even without the eight-year occupation by the US and UK, “you would still have a major problem in Iraq”.
This is such tendentious nonsense. There is no longer any debate, even in strongly conservative circles, about the gravity of the error and the mendacious deceptions involved in the Bush/Blair decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The Economist, not remotely a pink paper, states in its current editorial: “No doubt his predecessor’s decision (G. W. Bush’s) to go to war – which we mistakenly backed at the time – was a disaster”.
Many things can be discerned, with clarity, about the present circumstances. Key ones are: the Maliki Government in Baghdad has put the very existence of Iraq at risk by its refusal to meet its obligation to ensure that Iraq is managed on a basis of inclusion of Shias and Sunnis; it is widely recognized as being corruptly managed and of deeply dubious competence; the US/UK invasion of 2003 is in good measure responsible for this situation but more particularly, for region wide disrespect for western motives, no matter what the west says about those, and determination by groups such as ISIS to establish islamist societies.
Then there are the interests of other powers external to the region: Iran’s support for Maliki in Baghdad and Assad in Damascus; Russia’s support for Assad; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States’ support for Sunni and anti-Assad causes and groups.
It’s about as messy as international relations can be, with horrible human consequences, and the hard won principles of the Charter of the United Nations, such as the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are nowhere to be seen.
What is visible is the determination of a fanatical, religion based group, ISIS, which is considered so extreme, so odious that its original source of motivation – Al Qaida – has disowned them. ISIS is seeking to establish a fundamentalist Islamist state incorporating eastern Syria and north western Iraq and the ultimately south west to Jordan and possibly Israel. A new Caliphate may be in prospect.
Notwithstanding their successes in the past week, they are relatively small in numbers, and should be able to be defeated – if there is a will to do so. This latter question is, yet, unanswered.
Think of the bitter irony involved in President Obama’s words on June 13th about the relationship between military action and a political plan. The 2003 invasion was just that: a military action, contrary to international law, unaccompanied by any remotely, thoughtfully considered, political plan. This led, in good measure, to the circumstances now being faced, in addition of course, to the clearly bogus nature of the reasons given for the invasion and the access it gave to US companies to profit from the invasion, such as the Halliburton Company, over which Vice President Cheney had presided.
The possible dissolution of Iraq, which has been predicted for some time, and in some cases recommended, as the only viable means to avoid confessional conflict in Mesopotamia (and may also prove to be true for Syria), is something which cannot and should not be imposed from outside.
As the President noted in his June 13th remarks; Iraq is, after all, the business of the Iraqis. But he faces powerful sources of pressure to take flawed decisions, to repeat the past.
In the domestic polity the Republicans, seem to be led on such matters by Senator John McCain. The Senator, defeated candidate for Obama’s job, seems never to have seen a war he didn’t want to join and if possible expand; never saw a US foreign policy problem that he believed could not be solved by US military action. He and his like seem determined to live out Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts.
The President must resist this. As he must the Israel lobby, which has been smart enough to keep its counsel on the Syrian events, at least publicly, but remains ever hawkish on anything Iranian.
One cannot know what level of apoplexy they will experience, or what pressure they will bring to bear on the White House when they see that one important step in containing the present Iraq crisis will be for Washington and Tehran to talk about it and, directly cooperate.
Richard Butler AC, formerly: Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq, now a Professor of International Relations at Penn State University.