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US Policy Options for Iraq and the ISIS Threat
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By Andrew Kelly

Tensions in the Middle East have reached new heights in recent weeks as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized further control over the Northern regions of these two countries. The Sunni extremist militant group appears intent on marching towards Baghdad, ousting current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reforming Iraq and its neighbouring areas into a pro-Sunni Islamic state. Facing yet another crisis in Iraq, the United States cannot rely on the al-Maliki government to repel ISIS forces alone, nor can it again risk committing US forces to such an uncertain and hostile situation in Iraq.

For the United States, ISIS thereby presents difficult and limited policy choices. Returning US combat forces to Iraq has been rejected categorically by US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, preferring instead to encourage local Iraqi forces to lead counter-offensives against ISIS. Alternatively, Obama stressed in a press conference last week that US airstrikes are still a possibility “if and when” the ground situation in Iraq might require such retaliation. To be sure, neither response is ideal for the Obama Administration. After the disastrous US occupation of Iraq during the 2000s, the American public will certainly be anxious to avoid any further military involvement in the Middle East unless it is absolutely necessary to protect US interests in the region. America’s past involvement in Iraq also demonstrated that there is no guarantee that future US military involvement will ensure long-term, or even short-term, peace and security for the embattled country.

To combat the ISIS threat, US military involvement should not extend further than assistance in surveillance, information gathering and strategic planning for Iraqi forces. So far, Obama has heeded this message. He announced that the United States will deploy up to 300 US military advisers to train and support the Iraqi government in repelling the ISIS advance. Pentagon Spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby also announced that the US has begun air surveillance missions over Iraq—up to 35 per day—to monitor ISIS movements. These efforts are perhaps the best military courses of action available presently to the United States government.

ISIS also presents a unique convergence of interests between the United States and Iran. Washington and Tehran rarely see eye to eye on strategic issues in the Middle East, although there is a growing consensus that ISIS represents a mutual security threat that might be dealt with co-operatively. While the US remains rightly unwilling to deploy combat forces, Iran has already planned to send Revolutionary Guard divisions into Iraq to safeguard Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and prevent the dissolution of the country into either sectarian factions or a pro-Sunni extremist state. On the other side of the coin, the United States’ advanced military reconnaissance technologies offer Iraqi and Iranian forces surveillance support that both of their militaries currently lack.

US-Iranian cooperation, however small, should be welcomed. Increased bilateral dialogue between the two countries might repair some of the trust lost recently over the contentious development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Co-operation might also provide a foundation for a future multinational agreement in the Middle East over a regional fight against terrorist organisations. However, if the United States government plans to work with the Iranians over a solution in Iraq, American policymakers must take an incremental approach and tread cautiously. Steps toward rapprochement with Iran would concern US allies in the region and raise unwanted questions about the US stance against Sunni and Shia political differences in the Middle East. As Obama warned on 19 June, if Iranian intervention is based solely on “an armed force on behalf of the Shia and if it is framed in that fashion,” the situation would most likely “worsen” and damage the prospects for long-term government construction.

In the end, the United States again finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place on policy options for Iraq. On the one hand, doing nothing is simply not an option. ISIS forces move closer to Baghdad daily and are already looking beyond the Iraqi capital to expand its area of influence. Moreover, any failure to act would undoubtedly open the Obama Administration to domestic criticism over its inability to protect US interests abroad. On the other hand, full scale military intervention would be too costly, risky, and unlikely to meet long-term US objectives in Iraq. Uncertainty over Iranian involvement also complicates matters further for Washington, especially in any potential exchange of military information. With minimal options available, the best course of action is military assistance limited to ISIS surveillance and advising the Iraqi government. US-Iranian cooperation should also be explored, but done so incrementally and cautiously.

Andrew Kelly is a doctoral student at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Mr. Kelly holds a BA and an Honours degree in International Relations and History. His research interests include US diplomatic history in the Asia-Pacific, Australian foreign policy, and contemporary Middle Eastern politics.




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Tue, March 06, 2018 06:36 PM (about 55949 hours ago)
When was this posted, I want to reference it in a research paper.
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