Obama’s options for Iraq

President Obama has chosen the tough-love option: American assistance to meet the challenge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) blitzkrieg moving towards Baghdad will be conditional on a more inclusive political settlement within Iraq. Only a major U.S. combat deployment is ruled out. Here is my list of possible additional options, with some cons:

1. Air attacks (drones or conventional aircraft): Hard to identify and hit the right targets, little likelihood of impact inside urban centers, collateral damage could be significant. A variant of this option would include hitting ISIS bases in Syria as well.

2. Beef up military aid: The Iraqis have a large army and lots of equipment, which is already falling into ISIS hands. It will take time to train them to use anything new. The Iraqi army failure is one of will, not equipment. Aid could include American military advisors, some of whom are already in Iraq, but using them effectively would mean putting them at risk, including "green on green" violence.

ADVERTISEMENT
3. Intensify intelligence support: A no-brainer it would seem, except that the Iraqi army has clearly been infiltrated, so any information passed may go to the wrong people. It may also be used for nefarious purposes, including settling scores or sectarian strife.

4. Make assistance conditional on specific political moves: Some in the pundit class would like Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to step aside or commit to specific political moves intended to accommodate his Sunni opponents. But he got an enormous number of personal preference votes in the late April election and won by far the largest number of seats in parliament on the strength of his hostility towards Sunnis. He would remain powerful even if he stepped aside. Any move of this sort will be seen as unjustified and undesirable interference, especially among the Iraqi Shia. Intensifying sectarian strife is not what we ought to be doing right now.

5. Push for a national dialogue or national reconciliation: This would be seen by many in Iraq as fiddling while much of the country burns. There will be time enough for dialogue and reconciliation once ISIS is out of the way.

6. Encourage Turkish and Kurdish intervention: The Kurdish peshmerga have already taken Kirkuk. They (or the Turks) could be encouraged to counterattack ISIS in Mosul and perhaps even Tikrit. But advances of this sort are hard to reverse and could have long-term consequences, making it hard to prevent Kurdistan's independence. Certainly Turkey should be doing what it can to limit transit of extremists across its southern border.

7. Make common cause with Iran: Tehran already has Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers and fighters inside Iraq. Anything the U.S. does will need to take into account Iranian moves but could also solidify already strong Iranian influence in Iraq and be viewed by American allies in the Persian Gulf as hostile to their interests.

8. Block funding and supplies for ISIS: Many believe funding comes mainly from individuals in the Gulf; military supplies likely come mainly from Turkey. It will be difficult to track and block this support without support from Ankara and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, neither of which is inclined to help Maliki out of a fix.

In addition to these overt options, there is covert action: clandestine use of special forces or CIA assets to advise the Iraqis or even fight ISIS or disrupt its operations. This will almost surely get a number of Americans killed. It would be seen in a negative light by many Iraqis, who don't want to see the return of U.S. forces.

Iraqis in Shia-majority parts of the country, including Baghdad, will find good reason and sufficient will to fight off ISIS, whose draconian governance includes prohibiting smoking (not to mention prohibiting women from being seen in public, cutting off limbs, and arbitrary killing). Only if ISIS moderates its habits will it find itself welcome, even in Sunni areas. Moderated, it will still have enormous problems trying to feed and govern in major population centers.

Whatever we do or do not do about ISIS, its military advance is creating another major humanitarian crisis, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and putting Kurdistan in particular in dire straits. Maliki will need to unblock finances for the Kurdistan Regional Government if he wants Erbil to welcome the displaced, and we will need to redouble our already multi-billion dollar budget for relief.

Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America and also blogs at peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.