The President is now stuck with the ISIS problem. It is his, not former President Bush’s. The rest of his term may be defined by how he deals with ISIS, in some ways as Bush was defined by how he dealt with Al Qaeda.
I co-authored an OP-ED with former Iraq ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie in the Washington Post July 13, 2014 addressing the ISIS crisis in Iraq. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/outside-help-is-needed-to-save-iraq-from-sectarianism/2014/07/11/60c0fba6-06a0-11e4-a0dd-f2b22a257353_story.html We stated that Prime Minister Maliki could not be part of any solution. He has now stepped down and a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi has been agreed by the new Iraq Parliament. This is a necessary, but clearly insufficient first step. Many, much more difficult steps are necessary—some by the US, some by Baghdad, some by the Kurds.
It is now generally agreed that efforts at inclusion of Sunni groups need to be made to remove the fertile ground where ISIS is spreading. I would go further. ISIS is benefitting not only from passive acceptance of a population alienated by the Shia dominated central government, but ISIS has organizational and military leadership beyond a terrorist group. Former Saddam military and Baathist officers are reportedly involved as some level. Former Saddam officers have tried to engage in dialogue over the years either directly or indirectly with the US. This has not happened so far as near as I can tell.
Why not? They are not Islamist radicals. The Saddam regime was steadfastly secular. Saddam emphasized in his debriefing sessions that he kept religion and religious leaders completely out of government. For all the horrors of Saddam, he was clearly secular. The former Baathists now operating with ISIS do not hate the West. They hate the government in Baghdad that has taken Iraq with a winner-take-all attitude about the electoral process. They do not seek (again as I hear it) to re-install a Baathist government. They want reconciliation and a respectable role.
Former Saddam lieutenant, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri or those generals and intelligence officers around him need to be peeled away from ISIS. In fact, if recent rumblings have any truth, those former Baathist and military leaders are already at odds with ISIS. Ultimately, these individuals can reverse the gains ISIS has made in the Sunni regions of Iraq.
A list of key steps that can be taken include:
- The central government should release selected members of the Saddam government who have been held in jail since 2003. Tariq Aziz, now quite ill is one candidate. This would be an important signal to Sunni groups that reconciliation is now on the agenda.
- The US should take a decision to actively engage with these groups. Optimally, it would be good if the US had a highly empowered Czar on for this issue. Someone who could make a deal and deliver. Since it is probably impossible for the Administration to do this (politically, organizationally and philosophically), they should at least not object when others follow this path.
- The Kurds, specifically the KDP led by Masoud Barzani, (and hopefully with the support of the PUK) should deeply engage with these groups. They have cut deals previously with these same people for various reasons. There were deals made to allow transport of Saddam’s oil illegally through Kurdistan during the sanctions. Both sides made money. Barzani had an understanding with the regime when Saddam’s forces moved north militarily in 1996. The Kurds will understand that there is a congruence of interests in fighting ISIS. This is natural. The US should accept and indeed support this.
- The US should, in effect support step 3 by arming and training Kurds. The Peshmerga forces have turned out to be less than their reputation. This needs to change. Moreover, the Kurds need to believe that the US will reliably protect them (recall we provided aerial protection during the 1990’s) and they will not be forced to become a protectorate of Iran.
- The US must be unrelenting in pressuring Baghdad to open up to the Sunni interests. The new Prime Minister comes from the Dawa party like Maliki. I doubt he will be any better. The corruption of Maliki’s government will not be removed by this successor. Worse, the dependency upon Iran may grow. The Qods force chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani spends much more time in Iraq than anywhere else. He is not our friend. His forces have likely killed hundreds of Americans during the past decade.
- Once the US has a strategy and actions in place for the Iraq element, it will also need a stronger approach for the Syrian side—and that may be tougher. Either the US supports a credible Syrian opposition group that can grow to compete with both ISIS AND the Bashar al-Assad government, or we in effect acquiesce to the survival of the Assad government—as the Russians have been suggesting. This is a tough choice and probably impossible for the President to address explicitly. However, providing insufficient support to opposition groups now will not suffice. ISIS has grown to the point where it is a bigger risk than a Syria ruled by Basher al-Assad.