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Strategic partnerships, not air strikes and advisers, matter most in the new war on terror

President Barack Obama is one of the first to admit the current crises in the Middle East are largely due to American policies in the region.“ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that grew out of our invasion,” he said in a recent interview with Vice News. Recognizing the loss of U.S. credibility amongst many of its allies in the Middle East, Obama has set about reversing the tide of war in the region since being elected president in 2008. However, the results in Iraq at least have led to nothing but further conflict.  

In Obama’s most recent move to counter ISIL, he has sent 450 additional military advisors to Ramadi to help expel ISIL fighters from that city. This was a city which American and Iraqi tribal forces had held in 2007 and was stabilising through to December 2011. The cyclical nature of conflict in Iraq is hugely disappointing. It also illustrates the short-termism of former Prime Minister Maliki who sent the decision to extend legal immunity to residual U.S. armed forces and contractors left in Iraq beyond 31 December 2011, (when the Status of Forces Agreement expired), to the Iraqi parliament, knowing it would attract a majority vote against. The decision meant a total drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, rather than a residual presence which could have held the city, and others like Mosul which have also fallen into the hands of Islamic State. 

{mosads}Despite a renewed commitment to multilateralism and mending fences with the Arab World, Washington has been puzzled over how to project power into the region during the Arab Spring and how to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program while trying to limit its influence in the region. For example, the Obama administration has been largely supportive of the Saudi-led air strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and has stepped up its own air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

This policy, coupled with very limited training for Syrian opposition figures in Jordan is too little too late. If the U.S. rationale is to avoid conflict escalation and spill over effects, that boat has already set sail across the Mediterranean in the form of the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking a new life in Europe. It is time for a strategic rethink and avoid Syria in particular turning into what David Miliband, former British foreign minister, calls ‘background music.’

The U.S. needs to continue to engage a range of allies internationally and in the region, especially major stakeholders in the region such as Europe, the Gulf states (with the national interest and wherewithal to deploy advanced weaponry), such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Russia which was vital in securing an agreement for the Syrian government to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal. Russia might be under western sanctions, but there is still room for diplomacy to advance a common agenda. By accessing a full foreign policy toolkit: ideological (important in countering ISIL references to Islam), economic and geo-strategic, the USA will be in a better place to deploy a full range of coercive diplomatic measures and resolve the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The Obama team has made admirable efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran and thwart any possible break-out capability, partially addressing the insecurities of Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—its key allies in the region—and begin managing a possible change to the regional balance of power. It could yet bring the region back from the brink.

Mason is lecturer in Political Science at the British University in Egypt and visiting fellow in the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. He is author of ‘Foreign Policy in Iran and Saudi Arabia: Economics and Diplomacy in the Middle East’ (I. B. Tauris, 2015).

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