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As Iraq Unravels, Few Good Options Seen For Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Iraq on the South Lawn of the White House on June 13.
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Iraq on the South Lawn of the White House on June 13.
As President Barack Obama considers how to respond to a powerful offensive by Islamic militants in Iraq, he may find that his options are limited – and that none of them are good.

Obama on June 13 ruled out sending American troops to Iraq but said he will evaluate how the United States will respond to the crisis, adding that any U.S. effort would have to be done in concert with political reconciliation by Iraqi leaders.

Airstrikes, supplying arms and pressuring Baghdad to implement political reforms all carry risks as a U.S. strategy to stem advances by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, analysts and former officials say.

Doing nothing could prove the most perilous of all, said Michael Knights, a fellow and Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Allowing ISIL to expand unchallenged could result in a “huge jihadist emirate” at the center of the Middle East, he said. The group could seize massive amounts of military hardware enabling it to control the territory it has carved out.

“Things like that, they’re what turn an insurgent movement into an army that can actually defend itself and can actually hold an enclave – an enclave that’s full of oil, an enclave that’s full of oil refineries,” Knights told RFE/RL.

Kenneth Pollack, a security expert with the Brookings Institution, told RFE/RL that if Washington chooses to do nothing or launches an insufficient response, Iraq “is going to move in a very bad direction.”

“If we don’t [respond adequately], it is very hard to see how the situation in Iraq improves, and I think the far more likely scenario is one where the Sunni community becomes further radicalized, groups like ISIL get stronger and stronger,” he said.


U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement following Obama’s comments that the United States should immediately launch drone attacks against militants.

“We shouldn’t have boots on the ground, but we need to be hitting these columns of terrorists marching on Baghdad with drones now,” Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement.

But airstrikes also carry the risk of killing civilians and could prove ineffective if on-the-ground support is insufficient, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“They could fail unless we have very good coordination on the ground and a good political framework within which to conduct the military operations – that is, a reformed Iraqi government,” he told RFE/RL.

Charles Wald, a retired U.S. Air Force General and the former deputy commander of European Command, told “USA Today” that airstrikes “could be helpful if things are getting out of hand” but warned that U.S. teams may be necessary to prevent civilian casualties.

“You have to have somebody on the ground you trust,” Wald said.

Political Pressure

The Obama administration should use the leverage of aid to Maliki’s Shi'ite government to ensure “greater political concessions to the Sunnis,” who constitute a majority in areas being overrun by Sunni ISIL militants, O’Hanlon told RFE/RL

Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, wrote in the “The Washington Post” this week that the United States should try to “attach political conditions to any military aid” but that there are no guarantees such an approach will work.

“Such leverage is going to face an obvious problem: It will be virtually impossible to force any meaningful political moves in the midst of an urgent crisis, and any promises made now will quickly be forgotten once the crisis has passed,” he wrote.

Arms Supplies

Discussions of a potential boost in U.S. arms supplies to Iraqi security forces come after Iraqi police and soldiers abandoned their positions in Mosul and fled advancing ISIL fighters, raising questions about whether fresh weapons shipments would have any impact.

James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told CNN that the Iraqi military is currently "ill-trained, badly led and not particularly competent."

"They clearly cannot fire and maneuver," Jeffrey told the cable network.

Knights, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst, suggested the Obama administration could send special-forces personnel into Iraq – potentially under diplomatic cover – and embed them at Iraqi military headquarters to help Iraq’s army get “back on its feet.”

Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told PBS Newshour, however, that without political deals in Iraq, there can be “no military solution to the problem.”

“If the United States, in Iraq for 10 years, with all the weaponry and all the intelligence assets that it has, was unable to defeat the insurgency without political resolution – or political deals, the Iraqis will not be able to do it,” he said.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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