In an effort to understand what is happening in the very important battle to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit in Iraq, now approaching its climax, I consulted yesterday’s news and editorial coverage in the Washington Post, (‘Iraqi forces break militants’ hold on Tikrit in major battle against Islamic State’),
CNN, (‘Battle for Tikrit: Despite billions in aid, Iraqi army relies on militia, and Iran’),
Al Jazeera, (‘Why the US is sitting out Iraq’s most important assault on ISIL’),
and the Christian Science Monitor (‘The non-military victories in Iraq’s battle of Tikrit’ – editorial).
Here is what emerges. A powerful Iraqi offensive is gaining ground against ISIL forces still occupying Tikrit, a major Sunni city in central Iraq. The offensive is likely to succeed because it has superior forces. At its core are well-trained, well-motivated Iraqi Shia militia forces, allied with a well-led force of Iran’s battle-hardened Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Units of the re-building Iraqi National Army, and a very few anti-ISIL Sunni militia force elements, are going along for the ride as it were.
Curiously, US air power elements are sitting out, or giving very quiet behind-the-scenes support (it is not yet clear which), to a campaign shaping up as the most important and successful military counter-offensive against ISIL since ISIL’s sweeping advance through Sunni areas of Iraq last year .
The strategic dilemma facing the US is apparent from reading these four articles. The US fears two things.
First, that an Iraqi recapture of Tikrit – now seemingly imminent – may be followed by uncontrolled Shia militia sectarian revenge killings against Sunni civilians found in the retaken city (where ISIL killed and brutalised many Shia during its occupation). The US does not want to be seen as a leading part in this, because it is pressing a message of sectarian reconciliation under the present Iraq National Government . The Christian Science Monitor editorial puts the most positive possible gloss on the hope of achieving sectarian peace in a recaptured Tikrit, but other media sources are much less sanguine. Al Jazeera comments that ISIL , as it withdraws from Tikrit, is regrouping in Sunni cities elsewhere, e.g., Mosul and Ramadi, and is projecting itself as the only credible military force that can protect Iraqi Sunnis from Shia revenge.
The second US fear is that, with the Iranian Army and pro-Iranian Shia militias playing such a powerful and well-publicised role in this offensive, Iran will claim all the political credit and further cement its influence over Shia regions of Iraq and the Iraq National Government – to the detriment of US influence.
On this, I am persuaded by a comment by a MIddle East analyst reported in the Al Jazeera article:
‘ Concern has been expressed that the US risks losing Iraq to Iran in the fight against [ISIL]. But it is probably more accurate to say that the US has already lost Iraq to Iran.’
Amen to that. I believe the US should now be making its peace with Tehran, including on nuclear industry safeguards, as the least bad alternative in this situation where there are no good choices and no entirely trustworthy allies. This is where Israeli PM Netanyahu’s and the American pro-Israel lobby’s strong influence on American policy, especially through the Republican Party’s ascendancy in Congress, is most unhelpful at this important moment. Politicians like John McCain want the US to get more deeply militarily and politically involved in Iraq, to confront Iranian influence there at the same time as stepping up its military campaign against ISIL.
Such advice is, frankly, terrible. ISIL’s secret backers in the Sunni regions of the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, especially Qatar – would simply dip into their deep pockets to keep ISIL afloat in the Sunni-Shia proxy war, as they see it, in Iraq. Such a forward military policy would leave the US propping up a weak national government in Iraq in a war it cannot win, and where the real power will inevitably be the Shia majority community . It will leave the US exposed, with no ally in the Middle East except Israel (and maybe this is what Netanyahu and the Lobby really want).
When we look across the border to Syria, the US and its Western allies like Australia face equally dreadful choices. A country that was once a model of intercommunal harmony and tolerance is rapidly destroying itself. Ancient Christian minorities in the north-east have all but been obliterated by ISIL fanatics. In the West, sophisticated multicultural cities like Aleppo have been ravaged. Millions of refugees have fled across the borders, into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The non-sectarian Alawite government of President Assad looks increasingly like the least bad alternative (and this has always been Moscow’s consistent view).
But the US and its Western allies have backed the now all but defunct democratic opposition against Assad, operating out of a Turkish border town, and they now do not know how to reconstruct a working alliance with Assad against ISIL. Again, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington would be arguing strenuously against this course – the present bloody chaos in Syria suits Israel quite well, at least in the short term.
But I hope that Obama will continue to resist the siren songs of those in Washington who argue for a stepped-up US military role and more assertively challenging Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Before it does this, the US first needs to sit down and think clearly about what it really wants, and with whom it wants to be most closely allied, in this volatile and often treacherous region.
Tony Kevin is former Australian Ambassador to Poland and Cambodia.