A grand debate is gaining traction in a virtual war for the eye of Washington policy analysts about the nature of the threat facing Iraq. The stakes are high: Whoever can define the threat can help shape the policy response.
On one side are counterterrorist analysts. Because of risks, they are unable to conduct field research embedded with terrorist groups. In the other camp are those who emphasize political factors in Iraq among Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and moderate Shiites.
The press defines the threat to Iraq as the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. If the threat is mainly the Islamic State, then military options, such as airstrikes, are feasible, though risky because Islamic State fighters embed within populated areas.
Indicative of those whose focus is on the Islamic State is our Shadow colleague Paul Miller. He states that, "The Middle East is now a more favorable operating environment for jihadist groups than ever before … [and they operate in] a wide swath of territory across Iraq and Syria that is essentially safe haven for jihadist militants." Miller is correct; at issue, however, is emphasis.
Miller favors coordinated and simultaneous counterinsurgency strategy and counterterrorism strikes by Iraq and Syria against their common enemies, although he doubts the viability of this strategy. Even if practical, a political approach would disfavor this strategy for now, but keep the threat on the backburner.
Sunni policymakers and analysts who have conducted interviews with Sunni Iraqis often place the Islamic State threat in the political context of a wider Sunni revolt against the suppressive practices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He is prompted by the Iranian advisers like Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force in Iraq.
Consider Iraq’s exiled Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, as reported in the Daily Beast: "We shouldn’t look at this development of ISIS as apart from the uprising of the Arab Sunni provinces over two years," he said. "Definitely we consider all this military support to Nouri al-Maliki an alliance with Iran against the Arab Sunnis."
As I wrote, "Though the media focuses on nonstate extremists, the threats to Maliki are his domestic political opponents in the Sunni tribes." Blame is on Iran as the main threat to the stability of Iraq via Suleimani.
Hashimi is in accord with my interview with him during 2013 in Brussels. Consistent with Rogin’s reporting, Hashimi’s bottom line was that in the event of civil war breaking out between Sunnis and Shiites, President Obama should refrain from providing military arms or forces to Maliki because doing so would signal U.S. support of the Shiite side of the war.
Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford — now Senior Fellow at The Middle East Institute — also weighs in on the side of downgrading the Islamic State peril to Iraq in relation to the political threat from Baghdad’s failure to strike a deal with Sunnis. Writing at the Middle East Institute, where he is now a senior fellow, he says, "The first thing that [President Rouhani of Iran] might do would be to help Iraqis quickly get to a broad agreement in Baghdad about how the Iraqi central government will improve relations with Sunni Arabs so that Sunnis will help join the fight against ISIS."
Although I am in general agreement with Ambassador Ford’s analysis favoring a broader central government in Baghdad, I take issue with his prescription for Rouhani — his government does not wish Bagdad to improve relations with Sunnis to engage the Islamic State. Iran wants Sunnis to assist without paying the price. Tehran and Baghdad are the main culprits responsible for the policy of isolating Sunnis and hence contributing to the political vacuum in which the Islamic State operates. Sunnis also want more autonomy rather than inclusiveness under the central government.
The growing threat of civil war in Iraq is a proxy battle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiites of Iran. Maliki is but a sycophant of Tehran and his Shiite-dominating government is making Iraq a satrap of Iran in this regional proxy battle between Sunnis and Shias.
Having conducted interviews in Iraq during October 2008 with many of the leaders of Sunni tribes who joined the fight against al Qaeda of Iraq that year, I seriously doubt if any of the tribal chiefs would repeat their participation in 2014. Because of the shoddy way Maliki treated them once American forces departed in late 2011, it is unrealistic to expect Sunnis to bail out Baghdad again without payment in advance — departure of Maliki from the prime ministerial position and granting autonomy for Sunnis that Kurds have.
Getting back to the war for Washington, the political narrative is more consistent with President Obama’s penchant to avoid taking sides with airstrikes against Islamic State positions than the counterterrorist approach. A more robust U.S. arms supply posture to the "moderate" Syrian opposition is in order to place pressure on Islamic State forces that move freely between Syrian and Iraq; doing so would reinforce the hand of Iraqi Sunnis as they continue to distance themselves from the jihadists in their midst.