When President Barack Obama told Americans the United States was wrapping up its military footprint in Iraq after seven years of bloodshed, more than 4,000 U.S. troop deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars spent in a war he opposed, he made clear that “violence will not end with our combat mission,” and vowed that the U.S. would “provide support for the Iraqi people as both a friend and a partner.” To that end, the White House expected to leave behind a transitional force of around 50,000, but failure to reach agreement guaranteeing U.S. troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution resulted in a full withdrawal before the end of 2011.
Two years later, both countries are struggling for a response to the surge of Al-Qaeda fighters from neighboring Syria into the western Iraqi province of Anbar, where they captured Ramadi and Fallujah.
For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the images of insurgents firing into the air and flying Al-Qaeda’s black flags underscore the case he has made for years that his government needs more and better weaponry from the U.S. to counter extremists. “Hard as it is to believe, Iraq doesn’t have a single fighter jet to protect its airspace,” Maliki wrote in an op-ed published in The New York Times last year, in which he also urged the U.S. to supply attack helicopters and higher-grade weapons.
The Al-Qaeda offensive in western Iraq also challenges Obama’s narrative that the movement started by Osama bin Laden was “on its heels.” On the contrary, the latest fighting in Iraq and the ongoing turmoil in Syria are reminders that Al-Qaeda is seeking to capitalize on the regionwide proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, creating a policy conundrum for Obama: Should the U.S. bolster the ability of an Iraqi government aligned with both Iran and Syria’s Assad regime to fight its opponents? While Maliki is facing a challenge from Al-Qaeda, he is also accused of running a sectarian Shia-dominated regime that has alienated much of Iraq’s Sunni population. Then there’s the not-unrelated question of whether a thaw in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, Iran, prompts Riyadh to double down on proxy warfare across the region.
So, what are Washington’s choices?
The weapons Maliki seeks are largely on their way. The U.S. has already dispatched C-130 aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, 27 helicopters and 12 patrol boats. Others, including Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones, won’t arrive before the spring. Approval of the rest is stuck in Congress, where Senators blocking the sale of the Apache helicopters have repeatedly voiced concern that Maliki will use them not only against Al-Qaeda but also against domestic political enemies. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., says he’s reviewing a letter from Maliki in which the Iraqi premier set out plans to be more politically inclusive and guaranteed that the weapons would be used only against extremist groups.
The problem is not simply Maliki but the sectarian political balance in Iraq. A Shia strongman who is now comfortable in the projection of power that he once despised in Saddam Hussein, Maliki has worked hard to eliminate political opponents and keep Tehran close. But even if he were defeated in national elections slated for April, it would likely be by a fellow Shia politician cut from the same sectarian cloth. Iraq’s Shia majority is unlikely ever to accept a Sunni prime minister, and Tehran — which retains significant influence over intra-Shia politics in Iraq — is unlikely to allow the emergence of a Shia candidate whose loyalties it may question.
Arming a sectarian strongman, however, undermines the logic of the original U.S. intervention in Iraq, and sullies Washington’s reputation among rebels elsewhere in the Middle East.
Obama said in 2010 that one of the lessons of the Iraq effort was that “American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power — including our diplomacy, our economic strength and the power of America’s example — to secure our interests and stand by our allies.”
But U.S. alliances in the region are shifting as Washington begins to retract its military footprint in the region, and have been strained by sharply divergent responses to democratic uprisings in the Arab world. As the United States becomes more energy-independent, the strategic significance of the Middle East — and the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia — may begin to come into question. The Saudi kingdom, furious over Washington’s failure to take military action against Syria’s Assad regime, responded by rejecting a seat on the United Nations Security Council last October. Instead, the U.S. has focused narrowly on chemical weapons and is more resistant than ever to any intervention that tips the balance against Assad, fearful that this would empower Al-Qaeda and its allies.
Whether in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen or Iraq, Riyadh sees itself locked into a zero-sum regional conflict with Iran. That perspective may also have fueled Saudi skepticism of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran, fearing wider Iranian influence if sanctions are eased and Iran is able to help mediate a settlement in the Syrian civil war.
Having already signed off on weapons to Baghdad, however, Obama is highly unlikely to consider any U.S. combat role in the fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Washington’s focus may instead be on budding diplomatic partnerships with regional players. Speaking to reporters near the end of a visit to Jerusalem this week, Secretary of State John Kerry ruled out any U.S. troops returning to Iraq. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” he said, echoing Obama’s words from 2010. “This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight.”