Thursday, February 27, 2014

Unintended Consequences of US Airstrikes in Iraq

by Dr. Adil Rasheed
Uploaded on USI Website August 20, 2014

The current US intervention to protect Americans in Erbil and the Yazidi community from an IS (Islamic State) pogrom is not only limited in its scope and objectives, but risks several unintended consequences. Firstly, the airstrikes are not part of any overarching campaign to dislodge IS from the country but appears selective,­ a knee-jerk response to the proto-Caliphate’s growing menace.

Secondly, the unilateral intervention by the US to come to the defense of a minority community, though commendable, would now demand greater US involvement across the Iraqi sectarian landscape, in order to be deemed as impartial. In the absence of a broad campaign to protect the Iraqi nation, disgruntled Iraqi Arabs will view this campaign as another instance of favoritism toward the Kurdish people.

Some observers argue that US airstrikes have already left Christians and Yazidis more vulnerable to persecution, as IS fighters now view them as easy targets to hurt the West. Moreover, extremists on social media have started exploiting the general Sunni perception that America largely ignores violence against the Iraqi Sunni community, but actively intervenes whenever its adversaries are under threat, i.e. the Shiite and the Kurds. Not surprisingly, Sunni Arab states in the region have been silent on US action in northern Iraq, and might just exacerbate the deep-rooted distrust and acrimony among the feuding Iraqi sects.

There is no denying that IS has been conducting a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing against Christians and other minorities in territories under its control, this has severely undermined the pluralistic character of the Iraqi and Syrian societies. After the mass exodus of Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh (for the first time in history), IS fanatics turned their guns on the minority Yazidi community with a population of around half a million. According to an Iraqi Red Crescent official, the extremist militia recently rounded up over 100 Yazidi families and killed all their male members. Then on August 4, IS began their assault on Sinjar in northern Iraq, the only place that Yazidis claim as their own. Predictably, Yazidis have started leaving their beloved city in droves.

However, sectarian violence in Iraq has not been restricted to the IS alone. On July 31, Human Rights Watch released a report, that accused Iraqi government of supporting militias involved in the kidnapping and killing of over a hundred Sunni civilians around Baghdad in recent months. Some of these Shiite forces were deployed by Prime Minister Maliki to defend the capital after the Iraqi military failed to stop IS forces from advancing. One of these militias, known as As’aib, allegedly carried out collective punishment of local Sunnis by shooting and kidnapping several store owners of that community. Similarly in Hilla, south of Baghdad, Shiite death squads are said to have killed about 50 Sunnis and  buried them in  mass graves.

It seems strange that in the 14th year of the global war against terrorism, the international community has allowed a terrorist state to establish itself in the heart of the Middle East, and they are still reluctant to draw a comprehensive strategy to remove them from power. In June this year, US President Barack Obama openly admitted: “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq … Ultimately; this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”

However, this position has proved unsustainable and the US finds itself being slowly drawn into Iraqi quagmire, simply because it had left Iraq, and divided it on sectarian lines in the first place. Obama’s reluctance toward intervention is an extreme blowback to his predecessor’s penchant for preemptive action. Again, the current confusion is partly the result of recent US support for the overthrow of strong secular regimes in the region, that were adept at tackling the menace of extremism and terror. Therefore, some political experts find recent US action at variance with its policies in Syria, especially when it turned a blind eye to the exodus of over half a million Syrian Christians during the extremist insurgency a few years ago. Even today, the US is hesitant to protect the same ethnic minorities in Syria, which it intends to help in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps, the US finds it embarrassing to accept Assad regime’s defense, that the latter’s “high-handed actions” were necessary to stop, and also the carnage of religious and ethnic minorities at the hands of extremists that infested Syrian opposition forces.

In addition, by US admission, the ongoing airstrikes have not been effective in halting the advance of IS forces in Kurdish areas. US officials now admit that in the wake of the aerial assault, militants have started hiding amongst the population, which has made it difficult to target them. According to a US military official, the present campaign is said to have merely “slowed the operational tempo and temporarily disrupted IS advance toward the province of Erbil,” and there is a need for a comprehensive plan to crush their offensive. A US ground operation to push the militants out of the autonomous region seems unavoidable, but the Obama administration has ruled out that possibility for now.

The horrors that unfolded during Iraq crisis, underscore the need for the US and the international community, to grab the bull by the horns, and reengage itself on the Iraqi security scene and its political process. It is high time that it sets right the sectarian premise of its present dispensation and facilitates the emergence of an inclusive administration in Baghdad. There is also an urgent need to formulate a strategy to defeat the IS menace. Under the banner of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Iraqi military would have to be revitalized not only to reclaim territories lost to the IS but also to protect every sectarian and ethnic denomination from civil strife and ethnic cleansing. In the absence of a national identity and a well-defined and carefully formulated mission, the complex security situation in Iraq and Syria could easily blow up into a major international conflagration.

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