Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
A president elected on a platform of withdrawing from Iraq has now become the fourth consecutive US leader to bomb it. Airstrikes could compound the problems that have allowed the Islamic State to rise so dramatically.
Iraqis hold a giant portrait of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a demonstration to support him on 11 August 2014 in Baghdad after Maliki said he was filing a complaint against the president for violating the constitution. Photo by Amer Al-Saedi/AFP/GIraqis hold a giant portrait of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a demonstration to support him on 11 August 2014 in Baghdad after Maliki said he was filing a complaint against the president for violating the constitution. Photo by Amer al-Saedi/AFP/Getty Images.

Less than a year after President Barack Obama threatened airstrikes against Syrian regime targets, he has instead carried out attacks on one of the forces fighting the Syrian regime, namely the Islamic State (IS).

The airstrikes in Iraq indicate the continuing primacy of counterterrorism in the US approach to the Middle East. Certainly, there is a humanitarian disaster in northern Iraq: IS has killed (at least) hundreds, created hundreds of thousands of refugees and spread terror both among Iraq’s religious minorities and among the many Sunnis who disagree with its ideology. But neighbouring Syria has now been facing an enormous humanitarian disaster, precipitated by the regime’s crackdown on what was initially a peaceful uprising, for three years, without similar intervention. This is partly because of US fears that intervening could benefit jihadi elements, especially IS, in the deeply divided and now heavily militarized Syrian opposition. Rather, the US’s primary concern is that more than a decade after a regime change that was justified as part of the ‘war on terror’, jihadi fighters have created what the Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani describes as ‘a terrorist state’ in Iraq, one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, right next to Saudi Arabia.

The rise of the Islamic State is a symptom of the failure of governments and established political leaders - in Iraq itself and in the countries that led the 2003 regime change - to rebuild Iraq as a nation-state after it had been hollowed out by decades of war, dictatorship and crippling economic sanctions, or to move beyond the chronic patterns of militarization and external intervention that characterize modern Iraqi politics. In this context, the airstrikes could propagate rather than solve the problem.

When IS took over Mosul, its forces were estimated at just a few thousand people. The Iraqi army has 350,000. IS has plenty of money from the oil and gas fields it controls in Syria, making it one of the best funded militias in the world. But this is nothing on the revenues available to a state that has the world’s fifth largest oil reserves. Yet Iraqi troops melted away from their positions in Mosul, where they felt they had little local support, and they still have not managed a successful counterattack.

In terms of politics and ideas, the Islamic State’s intolerant worldview should also be a weakness. Just a few years ago, its ideological brethren were largely defeated by Sunni tribal militias, often paid by the US, who disliked the jihadis’ restrictions on their social freedoms. But some of these Sunni Iraqis now see IS as the lesser of two evils compared to a government that they believe marginalizes and persecutes them for sectarian reasons. A similar squandering of allies can be seen today with the Kurdish security forces, which have been the most successful at fighting IS: they have old weapons and aren’t being paid, because their leaders are at loggerheads with Baghdad (which for now still controls the country’s oil revenues) over oil contracts in Kurdish areas.

Much of the blame for this dysfunction is now being placed on Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has lost support even among his erstwhile Shia allies. Indeed, reports from Baghdad suggest that even as US airstrikes began, the special forces loyal to Maliki were busy with Baghdad politics, surrounding the palace of Iraq’s president, who Maliki has accused of plotting a ‘coup’. The background to this is that, as negotiations to form a new Iraqi coalition government after Iraq’s April elections continue to drag on, the president had not confirmed that Maliki would necessarily remain in office. Today he nominated Haider Al Abadi, a senior member of Maliki's Shia Islamist party, Dawa, to become Iraq's new prime minister.

But Maliki is hardly the only one of Iraq’s leading politicians to be perceived as incompetent, profoundly partisan, and preoccupied with personal and foreign agendas. Seeing US airstrikes - yet again - is likely to compound the perceptions among many Iraqis (especially but not exclusively Sunni Iraqis) that their government is chronically dependent on external support. Meanwhile, suggestions that the US has finally withdrawn its support for Maliki reinforce the widespread perception among Iraqis that their next government is being engineered by back room deals with the US, Iran and other regional powers. These include Saudi Arabia, whose king reportedly told US diplomats in June that his country would encourage Iraq’s Sunnis to participate in a new coalition government, but only if it was no longer led by Maliki. The chronic dependence on military means, and on the US as a powerbroker, is among the factors that perpetuate Iraq's problems.

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