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What’s Next for the CrISIS in Iraq?

Andrew Szarejko contributed to this post.

On June 17, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted a conversation on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the regional implications of Iraqi and Syrian instability. The panel of foreign policy experts consisted of:

  • Dr. Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University and Member, BPC Turkey Initiative
  • Ambassador Eric Edelman, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Co-Chair, BPC Turkey Initiative
  • John Hannah, Former Assistant for National Security Affairs to the Vice President and Member, BPC Turkey Initiative
  • Moderated by James Oliphant, White House Correspondent, National Journal

The discussion touched on recent developments in Iraq, such as the fall of Mosul to ISIS militants, the Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk, and Iranian movements into Iraq. Highlights include:

American Interests

Over the past two years, President Obama has attempted to more clearly delineate American interests in the Middle East. These include fighting al-Qaeda and preventing it from gaining a safe haven from which to operate, energy security, and the security of American allies in the region. The panelists unanimously agreed that these core U.S. interests are at stake in Iraq—the general stability of the region, the unity of Iraq, and the security of the U.S. and its allies all hang in the balance as ISIS militants drive further toward Baghdad. The security of less immediately affected allies like Jordan and Israel, as John Hannah pointed out, may be at risk if the situation is not quickly contained. Ambassador Edelman stressed that it is not in American interests to allow Iran to emerge from this situation as a dominant actor in the Middle East.

The Tools Available

The range of options is bad. It ranges from bad to worse. …An absolutely critical part of this is the political part and figuring out what it is, if anything, we can do at this very late date to get some kind of new Iraqi government. – John Hannah

The panelists agreed that the U.S. has a limited range of tools, at least in part because since 2011 year, America no longer has a military presence in Iraq, but also due to lack of sufficient political engagement with the Maliki regime. With no attractive options on the table, a short-term red line should be to prevent the collapse of Baghdad. The Iraqi government must first show to its own people that it can fight back, Dr. Henri Barkey argued, as American military action can best be used to supplement Iraqi strength. Regional actors will necessarily be involved, but the U.S. may be the only state with the capability to substantively change the facts on the ground. Nonetheless, the panelists warned, the U.S. should be wary of actions that would give the appearance of siding with the Shiites of Iraq and Iran as such moves could provoke further sectarian conflict.

Fault Lines in Iraq

The Iraqi constitution provides for a degree of devolution and decentralization, but the present crisis puts the country at risk of being split into three parts. ISIS seized a sizable portion of Iraqi territory, Kurdish ambitions for independence have been spurred amid the crisis, and the central government led by Nouri al-Maliki could soon govern a Shia rump state. Even if ISIS is repelled and the Kurds do not seek independence, the Iraqi state will have to address numerous fractures that Maliki has deepened to a great extent. It would be preferable to see an Iraqi government headed by someone else, according to the panelists, but Maliki is unlikely to leave of his own accord, and the U.S. has limited leverage.

What’s Next?

The situation in Iraq and Syria is likely to worsen before it improves. With a large part of Iraq is effectively becoming a no man’s land, there will almost certainly be terrorist plans hatched within the contested territory. As John Hannah emphasized, this situation presents a direct threat to the American homeland. And the worst case scenario, in Ambassador Edelman’s view, would be a nuclear cascade across the region as states that had previously been content to work through proxies take an increasingly public role in the conflict. Although the U.S. has an interest in preserving a unified Iraqi state, it is unclear if Maliki will be able to hold the state together amid the pressure from ISIS.

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