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A Calibrated Response To ISIL

Posted by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake on


ISIL militants

The ISIL-induced crisis in the Middle East is a major one with regional implications. With several years of dynamic change in the region, and the failure to create a stable Iraq during the period after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, ISIL has functioned like a match thrown into a gas can. What  should we do?

We tried occupation and unification via support of an Iraqi Army controlled by Baghdad. That did not work, but what are realistic alternatives which can be pursued with realistic means and are appropriate to the evolving situation?

This is about ends and means; it is not about replaying the past decade. There is little doubt that a transitional opportunity was missed by the Obama Administration, but with a new Republican Congress we clearly do not need to hear simply that Obama was wrong or that he had no choice and that we need to repeat the past decade.

We need Congress to consider realistic policy options and to debate those options in an open manner to gain the trust of the American public, which has every right not to be handed an ultimatum from the Administration or be simply dictated to by events.

Let us start with the simple proposition: Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003. In an earlier article on Breaking Defense, we argued that the President can build on two important realities providing him opportunities in Iraq. First, Iraq in 2014 is not the Iraq of 2003. Not the least of the differences is the embrace of allies in the effort. Second, secular forces in Iraq are fighting for their very lives, one which provides the force on the ground and which can anchor sanity in the region, namely the Kurds. Even more significantly, the first trend intersects with the second.

But Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003 in another key dimension: directly dealing with the failure of the Baghdad government to govern Iraq instead of using its assets to try to dominate Iraq in the interests of the Shia.  This means that the Iraq Army, a central focus of attention for the US Army in stability operations and nation building, is an inherently flawed instrument of power.

An alternative path needs to be highlighted and supported. The US and its allies can commit to the territorial integrity of Iraq but also to one which is federal in character, rather than one dominated by a Shia Baghdad. In the current environment, there are three key players, each of whom is playing a key role and which can anchor a federal Iraq.

The Kurds are clearly focused on fighting and protecting their region and can be counted open to play a key role in any future Iraq federation. The US and its allies have clearly seen the value of working with the Kurds, and training and operating from Kurdish territory.  But there is a limit to what the Kurds will do with regard to the integrity of Iraq.

The Turkish President is playing a deadly game of leveraging the ISIL crisis to augment his internal power and to seek to play a role in shaping the future of Syria but doing precious little to help deal in a concrete manner with ISIL. To be clear, this is more about domestic politics and the efforts of the current President to reverse course in the classic Ataturk solution set for Turkish identity.

Amatzia Baram, a leading Israeli expert on the Middle East and Iraq, underscored the dire regional implications of dealing with ISIL. Baram provided some guidance on what the US could do to deal with Turkey, which is clearly at a crossroads of either supporting NATO or befriending ISIL, notably pushed by the question of the Syrian Kurds.

“What to do about support for the Syrian Kurds? Here Turkey comes into play; the support of the current Turkish administration for ISIL is making the Obama administration absolutely furious, but not quite furious enough to provide weapons and other supplies to the Syrian Kurds. And as far as the Turkish reluctance to allow the use of their airbase, it may come to choosing sides between ISIL and NATO. This crisis is that serious.”

The airbase issue is a crucial one in determining Turkey’s role in dealing with ISIL and policies generally in the region. There are reports that an agreement may emerge between Turkey and the US that would allow agreement to proceed in dealing with ISIL. The proposed agreement would allow U.S. and coalition aircraft to use Incirlik and other Turkish air bases to patrol  a protected zone along a portion of the Syrian border that would be off-limits to Assad regime aircraft and would provide sanctuary to Western-backed opposition forces and refugees.

If this agreement does not happen and the current Turkish government fails to execute a serious effort to deal with ISIL, then the US could build a new airbase in north-eastern Jordan (or expand the existing one there) to alleviate its reliance on the Turkish base.

The second key player is the Iraqi Shia. They will fight to defend Baghdad. The target of the ISIL leadership is clearly Baghdad and the fight between Sunnis and Shia could revolve around the current capital city. But it is very likely that the militia and the fighting remnants of the Iraqi Army can defend Baghdad when aided by US and allied air strikes and the Iranian Quds Force.

So this leaves the crucial Sunni factor to be dealt with in determining the future of a federal Iraq. Here the US and its allies face no easy choices. The Sunnis simply do not trust the Baghdad government. To broker a federal Iraq, Mosul needs to be captured and managed by an honest broker, not the Iraqi Army. The Sunnis are crucial to a federal Iraq, and need to be enlisted for their help.

Clearly, the Sunnis do not want to be dominated by a Baghdad Shia government. It must be demonstrated that simply playing out of a Baghdad Shia Army coming north and conquering Mosul is not the only option. The Sunnis seek ways to provide for their own ability to defend themselves against other forces within Iraq and outside of it. The re-taking of Mosul needs to be done by an honest broker and not seized by the armies of Baghdad. And in so doing, the shaping of Sunni self-defense forces can be facilitated as the way ahead in shaping a federal Iraq.

One way to achieve this is to return the 101st Airborne to Mosul to start the recovery process. The performance of the 101st its last time in Mosul was outstanding and it is crucial to return the same unit to make the same point – we are here to manage in the interests of the citizens of Mosul, not the rulers of Baghdad. As an airmobile force, there is no group of “boots on the ground” better suited to return to Mosul, help throw back the ISIL and to broker peace than the 101st.

They would be part of a new approach whereby the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis could have autonomy within a federated Iraq. Guard units would be funded from a national account to provide security in each of the federated territories and able to ensure that each of these territories could be defended against security threats of the sort constituted by the ISIL.

And one could toss into the mix the notion of moving the capital from Baghdad. When the US was created we could not agree on a capital so a swamp was picked we got a new national capital in a territory no one wanted. Perhaps something equally drastic is necessary to break the stranglehold of Shiite-dominated Baghdad on Iraq.

The 101st could broker the Sunni transition and then leave. The Kurdish effort would be supported with training and engagements to a level which makes tactical and strategic sense.

Either an ability to use Turkish bases or he new air base in Jordan would in part support the military side of this, sea-based capabilities to insert force as necessary. Add perhaps an airstrip in Kurdistan for military operations in support of the Iraqi Federation. Only a light footprint would remain to support military operations with political support to the Federation of Iraq as the core political objective.

What is clear is that air strikes without clear strategic objectives is not enough.  And “boots on the ground” to do the past 10 years all over again is not on offer and makes no sense. There is a way ahead, which can build around a federated Iraq, assisted with targeted military aid and assistance, but not a repeat of an Iraqi occupation.  Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003.

Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website. While a member of Bush Administration, Ed Timperlake authored a major study on contraband weapons and dual use technologies in Iraq.

What do you think?