US President Barack Obama has been widely criticised for a lack of vision in dealing with the Middle East since his appointment in 2009 and nowhere has this been more apparent than in Iraq.

The series of disastrous missteps in the rebuilding of post-2003 Iraq came to a head this year, when the northern provinces deteriorated into a sectarian battleground as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) militants seized vast swathes of territory and Washington was eventually obliged to step in.

The White House used the Nato summit in Wales on 4-5 September to form what US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel called a “core coalition” of 10 countries to launch an offensive against Isis and wrestle control of the country back into the hands of the federal authorities in Baghdad.

This group, which includes the US, the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark, is tasked with forming a larger coalition – potentially including Arab states – to execute the pushback against Isis. 

Extended campaign

Obama outlined his strategy in a televised speech on 10 September, saying the strategy will include a systematic campaign of air strikes against Isis targets “wherever they are”, including Syria, and more efforts to cut the group’s funding and prevent foreign jihadists from entering the region.

“Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting Isis targets as Iraqi forces go on the offence,” he said.

Obama stressed earlier in the week that the offensive against Isis would not constitute the US sending ground troops to Iraq, saying the strategy would be “similar to the kinds of counter-terrorism campaigns we’ve been engaging in consistently over the past five, six, seven years”. “We will not get dragged into another ground war,” he added in his 10 September speech.

Air strikes

The US has carried out more than 150 air strikes against Isis targets since 7 August to assist a counter-offensive by Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) forces to protect religious and ethnic minorities facing massacre at the hands of the jihadist militants.

Isis is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars gained from foreign benefactors, smuggling, extortion and other crimes, and has captured a large arsenal of US-made weapons from retreating Iraqi security forces and moderate rebels fighting against President Bashar
al-Assad’s government in Syria.

This US-led offensive is likely to differ from Washington’s recent incursions in the Middle East in that it could be hugely popular among regional powers.

Such disparate players as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt are keen on eradicating Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate, which is seen as a threat to their sovereignty.

The Arab League issued a resolution in early September calling for immediate measures to combat the group on political, defence, security and legal levels.

Engagement process

“It will be important to get the Jordanians, the Saudis and the Gulf states on board and get the Sunnis to turn on Isis,” says William Patey, a former British ambassador to Iraq. “It is going to take some time. It is a process of engagement. The [previous] Nouri al-Maliki government, which lacked credibility, has been replaced by one with more credibility and the Kurds are beginning to get more support.”

However, winning the backing of nervous regional leaders is likely to be more straightforward than winning the support of ordinary Iraqis, which will require some deft maneuvering.

According to Ali Khedery, former adviser to five American ambassadors in Iraq and CEO of Dragoman Partners consultancy, the West has made the mistake of looking at Isis as a homogenous group.

He views Isis’ support as a pyramid, with only the top 10 per cent comprising Isis shock troops made up of ultra-radical Syrians and Iraqis, along with foreign jihadists. Baathists – ex-supporters of Saddam Hussein’s government – make up about 20 per cent of the support and the 70 per cent majority comprises local Sunni Arab tribes who feel disillusioned with the Shia-dominated Baghdad government, according to Khedery.

“The reason why four Iraqi provinces fell in a matter of days in June was because there was disenchantment in the locals in these areas,” said Khedery in a presentation to the Capital Club in Dubai on 8 September.

Convincing locals

“The West needs to distinguish between the reconcilables and the irreconcilables. That top 10 per cent you just have to go out and kill, but the other 90 per cent you have to reconcile with. The key is to bring some of the more moderate Baathists and tribes into government in Baghdad.”

Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appears to have made a good start in realising this by forming a government with Sunni and Kurdish politicians as deputy prime ministers.

The new Baghdad government was announced on 9 September, less than a month after Al-Abadi was chosen to replace Al-Maliki. The former prime minister’s two terms were dogged by accusations of mismanagement and the marginalisation of Sunnis and Kurds from power.

The new cabinet was immediately hailed by Obama as a “major milestone” for Iraq, and is likely to have the backing of Tehran and Riyadh. But while the appointment of Sunnis and Kurds in important government positions is a positive step for Baghdad, Al-Abadi has a long way to go if he is to reverse the tide of sectarian violence blighting the north of the country.

Conditional support

“The Americans have made it clear their support for Baghdad will be conditional on an inclusive government including the Sunnis,” says Patey. “Military support will be part of the political process trying to reach out to the Sunnis. All this is going in the right direction and these are necessary prerequisites, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

While the US can provide aerial support for a ground offensive, the biggest challenge for Baghdad in diminishing Isis’ sway is to convince Iraq’s various Sunni groups that they have a stake in the future of the country and can benefit from its vast potential in the energy sector.

“I don’t think Isis is beatable militarily,” said Jaafar Altaie, former economic adviser to the Iraq oil minister and founder of Dubai-based consultancy Manaar, also addressing the Capital Club. “The problem with air strikes is if you kill two jihadists, you create another six the next day. This is not a military conflict… it cannot be won by military means alone.”

“Isis is a very logical evolution and it exposes the structural weaknesses in Iraq and the region,” said Altaie. “If you don’t have a strategy to build an energy sector and build an economy then you are not tackling the roots of Isis’ existence. For these reasons, I think the group is here to stay and definitely for the foreseeable future.”

Granting reforms

To convince Sunnis to support the government, Baghdad will need to concede to demands for reforms that were largely ignored by Al-Maliki.

One action many commentators agree would help the emergence of a more moderate Sunni populace is ending the de-Baathification policy that began after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. The programme began in 2003 with the goal of removing the influence of Hussein’s Baath Party on the new Iraqi political system, but critics say the policy has been used to diminish the political power of Sunnis as a minority group.

“I think the de-Baathification commission has outlived its usefulness and is used as a political tool against Sunnis very selectively, nothing to do with being members of Baathist parties,” says Patey. “Sunnis are also looking for [more localised] control over security in a similar way to the Kurds. But these will be very difficult things for the Baghdad government to concede.”

Sunni leaders are also demanding the release of thousands of prisoners held on terror charges, and a greater representation in the military.

Encouraging developments

While the outlook for stability in Iraq remains overwhelmingly negative, there have been several encouraging developments since Isis’ spread into northern Iraq in June and July. Al-Maliki has been replaced by a more moderate prime minister and the expansion of Isis has been checked by US air strikes and successes on the ground by Erbil and federal forces.

The US and its Nato allies should be able to help Baghdad win the military battle, but an overriding political and economic vision for the future Iraq must be put in place to prevent the country’s collapse into a failed state.