A stalemate: The least bad option in Iraq

Perhaps the best option available to the U.S. in the ongoing Iraq debacle is one straight out of the Kissinger playbook: playing the role of a balancer

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Any such thing as a happy ending in Iraq?
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Fabio Rafael Fiallo
On 20 June 2014 22:16

The control of a large swathe of Iraqi territory by the Sunni terrorist organisation branded Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (Isis) is a matter of serious concern. Should Isis manage to establish, as it intends to, an Islamist state (or caliphate) covering parts of Iraq and Syria, the entire region will enter into a period of chaos of unprecedented proportions.

At the same time, however, the most brutal autocracies of the region, namely Shiite Iran and Syria – which fund and get support from terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza – have much to worry about in regards to Isis’s military breakthroughs of recent week.

Furthermore, Isis is a breakaway offspring of al Qaeda, and the prospective rivalry between these two terrorist groups portends deadly internecine fighting. A conflict is already underway in Syria between Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

It is not ungrounded to assert that while the Iran-Syria axis, Isis and Al Qaeda are busy fighting and decimating each other, they will have little or no energy and materiel left to take on other regional players or the U.S.

The Hezbollah experience is a case in point. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah’s priority has been to assist the Syrian regime. It has redeployed militants and weaponry to the Syrian front, thereby diminishing its ability to launch a major attack against its historical enemy, Israel. For similar reasons, the standoff in Iraq and Syria likely will force Isis as well as the Iran-Syria axis to concentrate resources on that two-front battlefield.

All things considered, what may suit best America’s interests and those of its allies would be a prolonged standoff between Isis and the Iran-backed government that rules Iraq. In other words, the right course of action for the U.S. would be to play the role of balancer and prevent both Isis and Iran from securing an all-out victory against the other.

This objective can be attained through counter-terrorist strikes that are powerful enough to contain and weaken Isis, but not so devastating as to remove in full the Damocles sword that Isis represents for the Iran-Syria axis.

A similar point, namely that of maintaining a stalemate as a foreign-policy objective, was made by political scientist Edward Luttwak with regard to the Syrian civil war.

Even on humanitarian grounds, a resolution of the standoff in Iraq doesn’t seem to be a better tack than maintaining the stalemate – for the victory of one of the two sides (whether Isis or a pro-Iran government in Iraq) is likely to trigger brutal reprisals against the civilian population associated to the losing side.

The present stalemate can further be used as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis Tehran. As Iran frets about a victory of Isis in Iraq and Syria, it will be more forthcoming than has thus far been the case in other issues if that is the price it has to pay in exchange for U.S. action against Isis. The magnitude of an eventual U.S. participation in the fight against Isis can thus be made proportional, and conditional, both to Iran’s concessions in the ongoing nuclear talks and to its putting an end to the support it provides to Bashar al-Assad.

True, a protracted stalemate will likely increase the risk of an implosion of Iraq. It is a fact, however, that such risk exists since well before the Isis blitzkrieg – not the least because of al-Maliki’s divisive governing methods.

Be that as it may, the disintegration of states shaped by frontiers drawn by former colonial powers is not a new phenomenon and, like it or not, is bound to continue. The independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the partition of Somalia and Sudan and the impending implosion of Syria and Libya form part of this trend.

Iraq, too, is driving in fragmentation mode. Ask the Iraqi Kurds – who have profited from the present standoff to consolidate their autonomy and seized control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – and the Sunnis – who have collaborated with Isis in the hope of getting rid of al-Maliki – whether they are prepared to accept a return to the status quo ante and live in an Iraq dominated by an Iran-backed regime.

Their reply will be a clear ‘no’— hence the need to start thinking what the contours of a fractured Iraq could and should look like, and what to do to secure so.

There exists a conspicuous example of the U.S. playing the role of balancer with success. It relates to the strategy put in practice in the 1970s by Henry Kissinger, who carried out the rapprochement between the U.S. and Mao’s China, to the displeasure of the USSR, and promoted the détente with the Soviet Union, to the displeasure of China.

Less than two decades afterwards, America came out as the winner of the Cold War, an outcome for which Kissinger’s moves deserve a good deal of credit.

To play the balancer again, this time in the ongoing Iraq debacle, is likely to yield similar positive results.

Fabio Rafael Fiallo is an economist and a former UN official. The author of four books, he writes on issues related to international politics and the world economy

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