America Must Prevent Iraq From Falling Apart Again

Outsiders in Iraq are advancing their own interests under the guise of fighting ISIS. Only Washington can help the country survive the chaos.


The battle for Mosul, however difficult, will end the Islamic State as a significant political and military force in Iraq. The jihadi organization will be reduced to a rump state centered in Raqqa, Syria, with potent terrorist capabilities.

But questions about Iraq’s future, once it is finally free of this existential threat, loom large. The stakes are huge. The country sits at the center of the Middle East and boasts oil reserves more than half the size of Saudi Arabia’s. Its constitutional system, which manages to unite — if uncomfortably — Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab components, has the potential to serve as a model for a region threatened by dictatorship and sectarian violence.

In practice, even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to keep the Iraqi state stable, given its history, internal divisions, and over-reliance on oil income. And these are not the best of circumstances.

Some of Iraq’s allies in its war against the Islamic State don’t improve its odds of emerging as a healthy state. The United States remains the essential ally, but other key states such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran largely pursue game plans that are incompatible with each other and not necessarily in line with the national vision shared by most Iraqis, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, and Washington.

In supporting this national vision, Washington must thus deal with each state’s particular goals. Just as America’s World War II partners began maximizing their own postwar interests while the United States concentrated on defeating Germany and Japan, regional players are prioritizing not the war against the Islamic State but what they all see as the bigger issue — the conflict of Iran and its allies versus a loose coalition of anti-Iran states.

Saudi Arabia leads the regional anti-Iran coalition, but its role in Iraq has been hampered by its disdain for any Shiite-led government, however independent of Iran, and over-reliance on its weak Sunni tribal relationships. Riyadh’s immediate goals are to keep the Iranian-backed Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) out of northern Iraq, while maximizing local Sunni Arab control there, and to minimize the authority of the central government, which it views as “Shiite,” not “Arab.” But given the Saudis’ poor hand, they could be persuaded to work through the United States.

Turkey’s game plan begins with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for a powerful regional role. These ambitions inevitably place Turkey in competition with Iran — an echo of centuries of Turks and Persians fighting over Iraq. Turkey’s goal is to deepen its already robust relations with Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which Ankara sees as a barrier to the Iranians, the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government. The KRG offers Ankara lucrative oil and gas deals and provides Turkey two military bases to “play” in Iraqi security and politics.

The Turks also have traditional ties to the Sunni Arab and Turkmen populations near Mosul and sponsor their involvement in the operation to liberate the city and its “day after” governance. But unless Turkey, which is still reeling from the July coup attempt, wishes to spark a war, its options beyond bolstering the KRG and working with Washington are limited. The Iraqi government remains fiercely opposed to Turkey’s military deployment north of Mosul, and the PMU’s hostility to Turkish “meddling” is even fiercer.

Iran is the most influential outside actor in Iraq but is constrained by its unpopularity among many Iraqis and opposition from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and sometimes the United States. Iran’s goals in Iraq seem compatible at first glance with those of Washington: Tehran wants to defeat the Islamic State, eliminate the rise of any threat on the magnitude of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and keep Iraq unified and governed by Shiites and Kurds friendly to Tehran. This latter point, in particular, meshes with the U.S. goal of building an Iraqi democracy, as Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis constitute a majority of the population.

But in Iraq — as in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen — Tehran is also aiming to advance its regional ambitions. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, is pursuing a policy that includes the erosion of the state and the regular military in favor of political and militia forces allied with Tehran. In short, he aims to create a new version of Lebanon’s Hezbollah — a paramilitary organization controlled by Iran, with the goal of dominating Iraq and suppressing its Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Iran’s intentions with such a broad goal are murky. Often Tehran has been cautious in its political dealings with Baghdad, in part because some Iraqi Shiites, including the clerical establishment, are wary of it. Thus, Iran did not protest strongly the removal of its ally in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the re-entry of U.S. forces to fight the Islamic State, or Iraq’s overtaking it as OPEC’s second-largest oil exporter.

But at the end of the day, Iran does not support the regional status quo. Although Washington’s partners make difficult allies, they accept the status quo and an American presence in the region. Tehran, by contrast, seeks an end to the U.S. role in favor of an Iranian sphere of influence that promises to undermine state authority in Iraq, Lebanon, and wherever else possible, to the benefit of its local surrogates.

Whatever the Iranians’ motivations, they are using the campaign against the Islamic State to push a maximalist agenda targeting Sunni Arabs and even the KRG. One theory recently put forth by Martin Chulov in the Guardian is that Tehran seeks a land route to Lebanon — control over a stretch of land going up the Tigris River and through Syrian “Kurdistan” to Aleppo, Damascus, and the sea, bypassing western Iraq and eastern Syria, which are dominated by Sunni Arabs. Such a corridor would complement Iranian air routes, which are vulnerable in times of crisis to U.S. air superiority.

It might seem daunting to build a viable state amid these international rivalries and competing ambitions. But in the midst of these tensions is opportunity: If Washington recognizes that keeping Iraq stable and containing Iran are as important as defeating the Islamic State, it will find allies inside and outside Iraq. As many have rightly emphasized, the risks in the Mosul operation are significant, as are the challenges of providing humanitarian relief and promoting reconciliation between sectarian groups in its aftermath — both in the city and the country at large.

But these challenges invite the United States to demonstrate its unique influence. Washington can show that only it can drive the Islamic State out, mediate between the three major Iraqi factions, and effectively support oil sector growth and integration into the global financial sector. An America “leading from the front” can win over the Turks, Saudis, and the larger international community to buttress Iraq’s development and deter Iran’s subversion.

But victory in Mosul is the prerequisite for such an American role. President Barack Obama’s “light footprint” military deployment — which consists of advisory and training units, intelligence assets, special forces, and air power — is fine. But this is not some “proof of concept” exercise; the priority is to win, with whatever brute American force necessary, short of tens of thousands of ground troops. Likewise, Washington must coordinate the “day after” relief operation openly if needed and the governance efforts behind the scenes.

It will be the next U.S. administration’s central task in Iraq to build on the Mosul success. That means establishing a residual military presence and supporting economic development, as well as opening a channel to the Iranians to clarify each sides’ intentions. It’s true that such an “all elements of American power” approach was previously unsuccessful in Iraq. But that effort, from 2003 to 2011, was tantamount to a mission impossible in its sweeping goals to transform the Iraqi state and society and heal historical fissures.

This post-Mosul approach is more modest. Although it will not be easy, it has worked in countries such as Jordan, Bosnia, and Colombia. And if this and the next administration focus on it, it can also work in Iraq.


James F. Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Iraq, and Albania.

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