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Ten Things to Watch for in the ISIS War

A guide to the spin, empty gestures, and behind-the-scene players that will determine the fate of America's re-entry into Iraq.
Tariq al-Hashemi

Obama’s new war in Iraq and Syria will fail. Why? As events tumble forward in Iraq, here are 10 things to keep an eye on that will tell the tale.

1) “Inclusive” Government

A cornerstone of any longer-term resolution in Iraq is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, equitably shares oil revenues, creates safety for each, and allows future decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, ostensible handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the delegation of real power to those ministers.

The ministries to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad. Prime Minister Abadi remains acting minister for the Ministries of Defense and Interior, as did Maliki before him, since his parliament has failed to approve candidates for either post.

2) For-Show Sunnis

Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of Sunnis who were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck (or a million bucks), or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the Americans didn’t.

Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clear whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.

3) Gestures

Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.

Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @iraqoilreport, and just for laughs, @USEmbBaghdad.

Allowing the former Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who remains in exile under a Maliki-issued death warrant, to return would be a big deal, but is an unlikely gesture. A huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.

4) War-Making

Any signs that Shia militia are being reined in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone play nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another, and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Any force called a “National Guard” is just a re-branded militia. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit helps out a Kurdish unit.

Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and U.S. air power is somehow unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.

Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul, and especially Fallujah, there is still a long way to go in this struggle.

5) U.S. Bombing

More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causus belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.

More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signalling that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict’s successful resolution per se. It is also will only add to Iraqi mistrust of America’s intentions.

Another bad sign: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and inside Baghdad International Airport with a small number of helicopters. This means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments of bombs and spare parts. Every person and plane becomes a vulnerable target that can expand the conflict overnight—imagine a service member beheaded on video. Yep, it is that slippery slope again.

6) That Coalition

If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, it will be bad news. No one in Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but you never know.

7) Turkey

Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the fuzzy end of the lollipop because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on the disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq and fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population. They are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the pumped up refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria.

Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.

8) Iran, Part I

Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Watch everything Iran says or does.

American influence over Baghdad is mostly bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. protection and quiet assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-a-vis Baghdad.) However, the foreign power with the most influence over the Iraqi government is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval from Tehran. Iran has funded and retains connections with many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.

As a tip of the hat to Iran, which supports Assad in Syria, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi spoke in only lightly-coded terms of his support for Assad: “As a neighbor, I don’t want to be party to the disintegration of Syria or to have diminished sovereignty of Syria.”

9) Iran, Part II

And while the U.S. and Iran are ostensibly on the same side, fighting ISIS, their goals are very, very different. The U.S. seeks some sort of unity government in Iraq and to maintain American influence, while Iran seeks to support a powerful Shia government and maintain Iranian influence. The American-Iranian cooperation while inevitably come into conflict.

Iran is also using Iraq for its broader goals in the region. As an example of just how messed up things can get, Iran and the U.S. are sharing the same Iraqi airspace. However, Iran is using it to fly weapons to Syria’s Assad, while the U.S. is using the airspace to bomb rebels in Syria opposed to Assad. This is much more than another case of politics making strange bedfellows; it is an indicator of Obama’s near-total short-term thinking.

10) Iran, Part III

Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.

While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, overt discussions would be a very good sign. A bad sign would be pop-ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.

What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. It is likely to be a key point of failure in the Obama plan. Watch for it.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now.



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