June 19, 2014
Suzanna Maloney, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Kenneth M. Pollack, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Director of Research, Brookings Institution
Despite having made promises during his most recent presidential campaign to withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and to “pivot” away from the Middle East, President Obama is once again being forced to involve the U.S. in another regional crisis. In little over a week the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded outside of Syria and made significant gains in Northwestern Iraq – capturing the city of Mosul and rallying the country’s Sunni militants and tribes against the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Despite requests for air strikes by the Iraqi government, the U.S. has not decided how it will respond to the unfolding crisis. However, as has been seen in Syria, some type of response is needed, as even inaction will undoubtedly have consequences.
Unfortunately, the way Mr. Pollack sees it, there “aren’t good options left to [the U.S.]” as the unfolding violence is, in his mind, “a revival of the civil war of 2006-2008.” Going forward, there are only two ways he believes Iraq can remain intact: either one side will have a clear and bloody military victory, or a peaceful reconciliation process will be established. Although the latter option is undoubtedly more difficult, it is the country’s best option. With that in mind, Mr. Pollack believes that, should the U.S. take action in the conflict, it must expand its involvement beyond military action. Political reforms must also be put on the table. Among his suggestions, Mr. Pollack advised that the U.S. seek to limit the prime minister’s powers, push for an inclusive national unity government, and also depoliticize the Iraq security forces – as they were in 2009. It is his hope that this recent surge in violence will serve as a wake-up call to Maliki and force him to rethink his policies.
However, when speaking as an “analyst” rather than a “policy advisor,” Mr. Pollack is skeptical that such a drastic change in policy will occur. What is more likely is that Iraq will be in a state of “de facto partition” for the foreseeable future. Neither ISIS nor Maliki have the manpower to control the entire country. Although violence is bound to continue, the two sides are seemingly at a stalemate; neither is able to make significant gains without outside help.
Fortunately, although ISIS has managed to gain significant ground, it has not made any impact on the global energy market. Oil prices have only seen a small price increase – partially due to the fact that Iraq’s northern oil fields are primarily used for domestic consumption. However, Ms. Maloney suggests that a prolonged conflict will end up putting pressure on other oil producing countries and could end up bolstering Iran’s own economy and global influence. In turn, a strengthened Iran would only further exacerbate fears from the Gulf States and further incentivize them to fund sectarian militant groups in order to destabilize Iranian interests. This path is unsustainable. It is how the Syrian conflict got to where it is, and it is ultimately what made the recent developments in Iraq possible.
In order for there to be peace in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, there needs to be an unprecedented level of dialogue between the region’s leaders. Like Maliki in Iraq, they will have to address their own shortcomings, and acknowledge the errors they made in stoking sectarian tensions. In these efforts the U.S. can be of assistance, but it cannot force any results. The ultimate solution to ending conflict in the Middle East must be a domestic initiative. Mr. Pollack and the other speakers are skeptical that such a dialogue can actually occur. The ideological divides are too great now. At this point, all the U.S. can do is work with partners to contain and end the violence. This will mean having to refocus and reinvest in new strategies for Iraq and Syria. Although President Obama has expressed a desire to let U.S. allies take more of a lead in the region, it is apparent that greater U.S. engagement is needed. In the face of increasing violence, inaction is not a viable strategy.