The large territorial gains in northern Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will not last, writes Edward Burke.
Iraqi air power, backed by the United States, will ultimately force ISIL to conceal itself in large urban areas. Far more critical is how the local Sunni population will respond to the Iraqi government’s attempts to re-establish its writ in areas now under the control of ISIL. ISIL has many local allies, among them Sunni tribal leaders desperate to take revenge what they regard as a vicious and sectarian regime in Baghdad.
From 2006 -2008, Sunni militias drove out al-Qaeda militants from much of the north and west of Iraq. They did so following US assurances that Sunni parties would have a real say in the governance of Iraq, in its military and in other institutions.
That bargain no longer exists: within weeks of the departure of the last US combat troops in 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – leader of the Shia Dawa faction – moved against the most senior Sunni political leaders, civil servants and military officers. The Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi fled to Turkey; the head of the country’s intelligence service and the governor of the Central Bank were dismissed.
In 2012 the Sunni Minister for Finance, Rafe al-Essawi, complained about attempts by Shia militias to extort money from his ministry; a few weeks later Iraqi troops set fire to the ministry. Essawi escaped an assassination attempt but 150 of his ministerial staff including aides and bodyguards were arrested on terrorism charges – some were killed, many were tortured. Civil society activists and journalists have also been arrested, tortured and generally harassed; prospects for democracy in Iraq are increasingly bleak.
The Iraqi military has been thoroughly politicized – its professional ethos has been steadily eroded by al-Maliki who has promoted political stooges. Such a force is unlikely to win many ‘hearts and minds’ in the coming battle to retake Mosul and other cities from ISIL.
Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Kurdish regional government have seized the long-disputed, oil rich and ethnically fractured city of Kirkuk – which they have long claimed as part of Kurdistan. They will be in no hurry to give it up, fueling another potential conflict with local Sunni militias and the Shia dominated government in Baghdad.
The grievances of the Sunni population require urgent attention. A continuation of fighting could lead to a spike in energy prices. Europe has a large population of Iraqi birth or descent, including thousands granted asylum since the 2003 war – in 2008 the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a Swedish citizen. The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague believes that hundreds of British citizens may be involved in the fighting in Iraq. The possible radicalization or ‘blowback’ effect is also clearly in evidence in Spain and Germany where alleged ISIL recruiters have been arrested.
There are a number of steps Europe should take to respond to the fighting in Iraq. First, supporting al-Maliki is no longer an option. He has proved to be too brutal, inept and corrupt to continue in power. His days in power may be numbered; that decision is up to the Iraqi parliament, which has yet to ratify a new al-Maliki-led government since parliamentary elections in April. But once the immediate ISIL offensive has been blunted, European leaders should make it clear that they favour new leadership in Iraq. European diplomats should engage in intense dialogue with Iraqi political leaders and regional power brokers towards that end.
Second, urgent mediation is required between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Iraq. Much of the funding for ISIL comes from the Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states must act to cut off the money supply to ISIL and other extremists such as the al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Iran plays a pivotal role in Iraqi affairs and is close to the Shia parties in power – Syria has become an intractable proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh. There is still an opportunity to avoid such a bloody stalemate in Iraq – but a structured dialogue is urgently required.
Europe should urge the appointment of a high level UN representative to lead talks at the regional level on Iraq. Current UN Special Representative for Iraq, former Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Nikolay Mladenov, should continue to lead the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), including delivering urgent humanitarian assistance to those affected by the recent fighting.
Third, the dispute over Kirkuk will not go away and is likely to escalate in the coming weeks – European leaders should urge caution on the part of Kurdish leaders, many of whom have strong political and economic ties to the EU. The UN Security Council should strongly warn Kurdish leaders against a de facto annexation of Kirkuk and urgently convene a dialogue between all Iraqi parties on defusing the situation.
Finally, Europe should re-engage politically in Iraq. Too many European embassies in Iraq barely function – with minimal diplomatic staff and almost no attention from political leaders in European capitals. Iraqi parliamentarians complain that they almost never meet, nor hear from the Europeans except when it comes to energy interests. The European countries that were part of the US-led coalition in 2003 have lurched from hyper-activity to non-entity in less than a decade. Meanwhile, countries such as Germany and France continue to barely engage except to seek commercial advantage. Such an attitude is deeply irresponsible.
New thinking and leadership is required in Iraq. The status quo will only lead to disaster. Europe can continue to observe from the sidelines in Iraq or it can take a stand against the deliberate sectarian policies that have led to the disastrous rise of ISIL. Passivity is the worst option.
Edward Burke is an Associate Fellow at FRIDE, the Foundation for International Relations, a European foreign policy think tank.