Iraq: Clash of coalitions or a shared endgame?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

After the disaster of last year’s terrorist onslaught, Iraq is now landing heavy blows against the so-called Islamic State. But it needs its allies to stop bickering to truly defeat Daesh.

In my recent meeting with Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in Baghdad, the premier clearly expressed his frustration with the division among forces arrayed against ISIS (hereafter Daesh) which is delaying the common goal of defeating the terrorists.

This division relates not to the United States and Iranian competition, but to two opposing international coalitions that are not coordinating with each other, giving the terrorists vital breathing space. These coalitions should be like two parts of a vice crushing Daesh, but it is not happening.

Abadi’s disappointment is not surprising. In the past month, Russia and Turkey have been on the brink of war, both accusing each other of backing the terrorists. Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for a massive Coalition ground force in Iraq, which was immediately rejected by Iraqis. Meanwhile, the U.S. has bristled at the suggestion of Russian intervention in Iraq, the Kurdish KDP have invited Turkish troops into Iraq (to Baghdad’s fury) and Turkey’s President Erdogan has continued to attack Kurdish forces of the PKK in Iraq.

Despite this colossal headache — what amounts to a clash of coalitions, Abadi remains adamant that victory will be achieved in the war on terror whilst fighting a parallel battle to reform a rigid bureaucracy that has cost Iraq hundreds of billions of dollars. As much as he fights Daesh, he battles the legacy practices that he inherited from past administrations and regimes.

Managing Coalitions

Building large coalitions to fight tyrants is always sound policy; something Colin Powell understood when he travelled the Middle East to build an international coalition against Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War.

But in the murky unconventional war on terror, things get far more complex when nobody can decide who the enemy is, or who should be taken down first.

When that happens, it seems only super powers in collaboration can muster the decisive resources required to find a way out. As such, President Barack Obama’s assertion that the West’s coalition in Syria and Iraq is more legitimate — because of its size — is questionable.

In fact, the U.S.-led Coalition is failing in Iraq and Syria precisely because it is such a broad tent. The reticence of some members to truly crush Daesh has slowed progress. Why, for example, has it taken the US so long to demand that Turkey closes its border with Syria? Meanwhile, it has taken the UK 18 months to decide to strike a Daesh controlled oil field in Deir ez-Zor.

Another way of looking at it is through layers of complexity. Take the number of participating countries in the failed Geneva II talks on Syria in 2014 (42) or the “coalition of the willing” in 2003 (38) or the anti-ISIL western coalition today, 62 (with 17 directly involved).

In the end, dozens of countries with a shared endgame have all been weakened by fundamental disagreements on how to get there, with widely varying differences in commitment.

This is one reason why many Iraqis welcome the prospect of the lean, strong coalition of Iran and Russia to come to their aid, with Assad trailing third as the man who has hung on in the face of Daesh, because Iraqis have waited so long for decisive results from the West. Why would you wait, with Daesh suicide bombers often killing dozens of civilians in a single strike?

Iraqis are also afraid that their country will become the battleground of fighting coalitions, and in some ways Iraq has been the arena for proxy battles for a long time now.

The good news for Iraq is that the situation there is far less complex than in Syria. This makes an opening for West-Russia-Iran coordination more straightforward than on the battlefields in Hama and Aleppo in Syria, where the situation resembles an insane all against all.

To begin with, Russia, the U.S. and Iran all support the government of Haider al Abadi, unlike in Syria where Assad’s role is a serious sticking point in peace plans. This has allowed the Iraqi PM to shepherd the vast resources these countries have to the fight against Daesh, to the benefit of Iraq.

Some argue there can be no “military solution” to Daesh. Although true but misleading in the case of Iraq, where the government understands this: major units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (aka sectarian Shi’a militias to the Western media) have strong Sunni components, with the pro Grand Ayatollah Sistani Ali Akbar Brigade having 16 percent Sunni membership and the Iranian backed Asaib ahl al Haq having an entirely Sunni unit. Iraqi official sources claim to have employed over17,000 Sunni tribesmen within the PMF.

Elsewhere, the governors of Sunni majority provinces Salahaddin, Anbar and Ninewa are firmly pro Abadi, and in Anbar, tribal leaders have not only asked for the support of Shi’a paramilitaries – unthinkable 5 years ago – but even asked for more coalition air strikes in Ramadi. That is how hated Daesh are, that some Sheikh’s want more strikes to get them out of their home town.

Subsequently, Iraq is a completely different picture to Syria, where the majority of rebels will not stop fighting unless Assad is removed.

New Resolve

In the wake of the Paris attacks, with resolve hardening to destroy Daesh, the stage is set for greater cooperation between Russia and the West in Iraq. What has been holding leaders back for so long?

One obvious problem is that Abadi is caught between nations that tentatively support him, but are wary of the “other coalition” in Iraq — so the U.S. is wary of Iran backed Hashd al Shaabi units, while Iran is wary of US forces working with Sunni tribes, and (so the conspiracy theory goes) supporting Daesh. The smart move for Abadi is to delineate the areas of responsibility for these coalitions so they can work to the same goals.

This should be relatively easy to achieve now that France, Canada and Germany are stepping up support for anti-Daesh forces in Iraq, but these countries, who have closer links to Iran, must open up greater channels of coordination with the Iranians.

Ending this clash of coalitions begins with proving to the Iraqis that the West is truly in the fight to destroy Daesh. Therefore, it is galling to know that certain U.S. support for Iraqi forces at the battle of Ramadi did not materialize until an entire year had passed after the fall of Mosul. With minimal U.S. intervention, Obama is seen to be unfortunately fighting this war to appease Republicans, not to destroy Daesh.

With that in mind, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has announced the creation of a new U.S. Special Forces strike force for Iraq — hardly something Obama welcomes, but Paris has changed the scene.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, although it would undoubtedly hurt Daesh, troops on the ground in direct action is a step too far. Iraq is a sovereign country now and the relationship must be one of understanding. As such, Abadi has declined the new U.S. offer of troops, but will no doubt solicit as much support as possible.

Here is where countries like France can step up. Where the U.S. has been slow to transfer arms, France can provide some of the higher end gear needed to defeat specific Daesh threats, such as the nightmarish armoured car bomb — without a guided anti-tank missile, the defender is doomed against this weapon. Britain can provide more surveillance technology. Again, coordination here is key.

But if the political endgame is improving — e.g. more Sunnis being brought into the anti-Daesh fight, some may argue that is more reason to step away, since Iraqis are finding their own solutions for these problems.

Unfortunately, while Iraq has made some progress in the fight, the war is sapping Iraq’s already drained finances, taking up 20 per cent of GDP.

Furthermore, Abadi has so far refused greater Russian help, under US pressure. The Americans may be worried that heavy Russian air strikes on Ramadi (where the US effort is centered) would complicate the battlefield, already crowded with Sunni tribes, Iraqi police, soldiers, Iraqi special forces and of course, civilians.

But if the US had their ear to the ground in Iraq, they would understand the weight of public opinion supports Russian involvement. Not only this, but if Russia are held back from the fight and the Iraqi army suffers another defeat, the political pressure on Abadi could be immense.

The result could be the collapse of the Abadi government and a leadership far closer to Russia and Iran. This won’t happen for now, because even Abadi opponent Hadi al Ameri (leader of the Badr Brigade) supports the PM in this time of emergency. It’s a testament to Abadi’s ability to bring people together.

Therefore, the U.S. and EU partners of Iraq should not simply relent on this issue of Russian and Iranian involvement. Iran has helped the Kurds for some time now, and was the first to come to rescue for all in response to the Daesh onslaught in June 2014, two months before U.S. intervention.

The EU must work with Abadi to coordinate Russian involvement. We see now in Syria that the battlespace has been “deconflicted” between coalition and Russian strikes to great effect: between them, U.S. and Russian aircrafts destroyed hundreds of Daesh oil tankers in a single week. Only a fool (or a Daesh) in Moscow, Washington or London would fail to see this as a major victory. The Daesh fuel tanker obliteration is a model of cooperation that Abadi must push for.

Why does so much international support for Iraq matter? After all, according to one recent analysis, even with the limited containment strategy it seems likely Daesh will eventually fail on account of their own strategic madness and economic ineptitude.

A more sobering outlook views it this way: Daesh is eating away at weak governance around it. It preys on the weak, as it did in Syria and may do so anywhere else economic collapse rears its head. Hugely vulnerable is Iraq, the fastest growing supplier to the global oil market, since as mentioned 20 percent of the country’s GDP is going on the war, the same amount as the size of Iraq’s deficit.

Major battles lie ahead, not just in Mosul, but also rebuilding liberated areas and healing the wounds of Iraq’s wars, bringing the Hashd al Shaabi (PMF) under greater state regulation. Moreover, the KDP and PUK Peshmerga wings need solid coordination with the federal ministry of Defence, as more effective cooperation will be problematic to Daesh. This will help to deconflict disputed territories within Iraq, which is a legacy of Saddam’s “Arabisation” campaign. Failure to address these challenges will put greater pressure on Iraq and jeopardise any post Daesh peace.

Iraq’s ministry of planning estimate as many as 19 million jobs must be created by 2020, something only a viable private sector environment could offer. Failure to absorb Iraqi youth into civilized institutions could lead to more economic migrants, or a young generation will resort to joining sectarian armed groups.

Ultimately, the world needs to support Iraq in this fight, not only militarily but also in terms of “capacity building” and partnering with Iraqi higher education institutions and ensuring that, once Daesh are vanquished, there is a political and economic future, lest we find ourselves dealing with yet another crisis in Iraq down the line.

This should begin with Abadi, a man that both coalitions can agree on. In Baghdad today, he is a lightening rod for global support for Iraq — and there is no time to waste.

The year 2016 will not only be critical one for Iraq and Syria, but for the whole region and international security. There is no easy solution in this ideological war or a pleasing way out for all. A shared endgame, however, is not an option, but the only way to end this costly and unnecessary clash of coalitions in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.