Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Iran more likely than US to intervene in Iraq crisis

[Originally posted at NOW]

Analysts tell NOW Iran is already acting to counter surprise jihadist gains in Iraq, while US involvement will likely be limited.

In a rapid coup that has alarmed Middle Eastern and international capitals alike over the past 48 hours, an Al-Qaeda spinoff known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has overrun virtually all of northwestern Iraq, including the country’s second city, Mosul, and has made further advances southeast toward the capital, Baghdad.

While few expect the group to make it that far, that it was able with just a few hundred men to so easily rout an estimated 30,000 Iraqi soldiers raises serious questions about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s grip on the country and has prompted fears of further and bloodier sectarian warfare – not only in Iraq, but also neighboring Syria, where ISIS already controls significant and contiguous territory. Since capturing Mosul Tuesday, the group has acquired unprecedented stocks of US-made military hardware, some of which has already reportedly been taken back to eastern Syria, and looted an estimated $480m in cash while freeing as many as 2,500 prisoners.

So acute is the crisis that an imminent military response seems to be a question not so much of “if” but rather “by whom.” One scenario, supported by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, would make use of militants from the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdistan province, who took control of their much-coveted city of Kirkuk Thursday following the Iraqi army’s flight. At the same time, the United States is said to be contemplating launching drone strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, something Maliki has reportedly been privately requesting since May.

Yet analysts with whom NOW spoke said the most likely form of intervention was also the most potentially dangerous: that of Maliki’s Iranian ally and its various Shiite Islamist proxies, setting the stage for a repeat of the horrific sectarian warfare that engulfed Iraq in 2006-2007. Already, the Islamic Republic has dispatched an elite military unit of its Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, reportedly including its commander, Qassem Suleimani, while Shiite Islamist leader Muqtada al-Sadr has hinted at a revival of his once fearsome Mahdi Army militia.

“What I’m afraid of is that this is going to be an increasingly sectarian and Iranian-proxy-led [military campaign],” said Kirk H. Sowell, an Amman-based political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. “And this is already happening. […] The US is equivocating, but Iran is not going to hesitate. They’re already directly involved.”

“My fear is that the Iranian regime will attempt to swoop in and offer an alternative strategy in which the Quds Force commanded by Qassem Suleimani deploys in force to advise and direct a Shiite sectarian solution resembling what they have done in Syria,” concurred Colonel Joel Rayburn, senior research fellow at the National Defense University. “If Maliki and the other parties accede to this Iranian solution, it will mean the partition of the country into three or four warring sectarian states – just as has happened in Syria,” Rayburn told NOW.

Direct intervention by Shiite Islamist militants would likely further polarize an already fractured nation, dragging a Sunni community that has already for years complained of marginalization further toward the extremists among its own ranks, including ISIS, according to Lebanese analyst Mustafa Fahs.

“The [Sunni] region could even support ISIS and ex-Baathists, and gather troops who are against Iran and the Maliki government,” Fahs told NOW. Already, evidence has emerged of collaboration with ISIS by former Iraqi Baathist Sunni militias in the capture of Mosul.

Despite these risks, Rayburn told NOW he “fear[ed] that a desperate Maliki may choose this course as his best means of holding onto power.”

A much preferable alternative, in Rayburn’s view, would be the utilization of Kurdish forces, though historic tensions between them and the government render it unlikely.

“In my view, partnering with the Kurdish Peshmerga would be the best military course of action for Maliki. Many of the Peshmerga units are well-trained and well-led and know the territory, and they are already based nearby the danger areas. […] But to do this would require a political accommodation between Maliki and the Kurdish parties that it is unclear Maliki is willing to undertake,” Rayburn told NOW.

Moreover, with Kirkuk – sometimes dubbed the “Kurdish Jerusalem” – already in the Peshmerga’s hands, they would have little incentive to take the fight elsewhere on Maliki’s behalf, added Sowell.

“I would be surprised [if the Peshmerga intervened in Mosul.] The areas where they’ve made a move have been areas they wanted to take over anyway. […] They will make their contribution by providing refuge to Arabs” fleeing ISIS-held areas, he told NOW.

As for the United States, despite the possibility of a certain degree of military involvement, up to and including limited air strikes, according to Sowell, President Obama is unlikely to radically revise his traditionally non-interventionist Middle East policy.

“[The US] will definitely be providing arms, ammunition, and what not [to the Iraqi government],” said Sowell. “But air strikes, I don’t know. Air strikes within Mosul would not be effective anyway. We don’t have the intelligence to do this with sufficient precision. It would have to be on a very selective basis: let’s say we have a satellite pickup, there’s a convoy of ISIS guys that leave Mosul, and once they’re outside the city we hit them.”

“But I’m not sure Obama would be willing to do even that,” he added. “There’s a sort of allergy in the Obama White House [against] doing anything related to Iraq, frankly. The 2008 campaign is still determining Iraq policy, even though circumstances have radically changed.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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