Saturday, 14 June 2014

Between Iraq and a Hard Place - thoughts on the crisis in the Middle East.

It will have escaped few peoples notice that the security situation  in Iraq appears to be worsening by the day, as militia members affiliated to the Islamic State Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) continue their advance south towards Baghdad. Already several key towns have fallen, with reporting indicating a particularly hardcore Sharia law being imposed in its wake. Where the forces have contacted the Iraqi Security Forces, the outcome has been one-sided, with the numerically larger and better equipped ISF routing in short order. With senior Shia clerics making almost unprecedented calls to protect their people, and the Kurdish forces occupying Kirkuk, and with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing, the situation in Iraq appears on the brink of near total collapse. This is perhaps the most serious security situation in the Middle East in decades.

The response from the West has been mixed – a combination of well intentioned aid donations, verbal gestures of support, but little in the way of concrete action to support the Iraqi forces. At  best there may be limited airstrikes, but already the UK has ruled out putting troops on the ground, and there seems little inclination to do so by the US either. By contrast, Iran appears keen to be seen to do something, although what this might be is less clear so far. One senses that we stand on the brink of a generational shift in international relations, and the ramifications of what we are seeing here could be seismic enough to influence Middle Eastern politics for decades to come.

The issue is what can be done by the West to shore up a regime which has shown little interest in courting them for many years? While Maliki owes his elevation and subsequent survival at least in part to the efforts of the US, the relationship has long deteriorated. It is hard to sense any real affection between the Iraqi Government and the West, particularly the US. Maliki relies on the US for some military equipment and support, but since the Americans left in 2011, there is no real military link any more.

While there is some discussion of airstrikes in support of the Iraqi forces, one senses this would be part of a escalation into a wider and more dangerous situation. It is very difficult to conduct effective airstrikes unless properly co-ordinated and carried out in close co-operation. One does not get the impression that the ISF has the current ability to call in support from the US, or more importantly provide the intelligence, situational awareness and overall confidence to US commanders that they know where the ISIS militia is, and that wider loss of life can be averted. This places the US in a situation where it either has to conduct airstrikes without having full confidence of knowing what is going on on the ground, and potentially putting civilian lives at risk, or it needs to begin to put boots on the ground as forward air controllers and liaison officers. Even something as simple as forming a target list and sharing this information with the Iraqis will need face to face liaison.
ISIS Militia in Fallujah
It is hard to see the US being able to commit to air strikes without a wider ramping up of their commitment on the ground. This is before considering where such strikes would actually come from- to fly from Iraq would necessitate a substantial ground presence for support, munitions and airfield security, and would realistically need hundreds, if not thousands, of US troops deployed to the country. Alternatively, they could seek to fly from one of the neighbouring countries – but, this necessitates getting overflight rights from any of the Gulf nations, or having to stage out of Turkey, who will almost certainly sense an opportunity to call in political or military favours – particularly with a resurgent Kurdish force occupying Mosul. However you look at it, airstrikes will result in a major escalation and will almost certainly lead to boots on the ground.

It is also worrying how quickly the ISF seem to be collapsing in the face of an aggressive attack, and how much equipment is being lost. Consider the level of funding thrown into providing new equipment and support to the ISF over the last 10 years, and you realise  that there will be a proliferation of weapons out there which are now available for use by militia. While they will in reality struggle to support any vehicles or heavy armoured elements for long without access to mechanics and workshops, there is sufficient proliferation to make it immensely challenging for the ISF to go on the offensive against them. 

It is also telling the way that despite years of training and support from the West and elsewhere, there has been no real resistance. The concept of Iraq as a bonding factor for the Army to fight for seems to be missing - the polarising factor is the Shia or Sunni militias and groups, which is where the loyalty is being shown. Arguably, until the Army can replace the local Militia as a sign and guarantor of security to the ordinary Iraqi, the prospects for the long term stability of Iraq as a united country are weak. 

More widely one has to look at the phenomenally complex diplomatic situation. Some papers are running with the story that the US and Iran could find themselves allied together to stop ISIS. While this is exceptionally unlikely, it does highlight the way that Iran could convert this into a minor diplomatic coup. Its’ no secret that many Gulf states are uneasy at the gentle path of rapprochement between Iran and the West. They also see a growing Shia awareness, and threats to their internal stability – just look at the clashes in Bahrain in recent years. In a region where paranoia, plots and counter plots are the order of the day, it is easy to imagine more vivid imaginations seeing this as a plot between the Iranians and the US to support the Shia, and threaten the stability of Gulf regimes. This may sound far-fetched to Western ears, but never underestimate how paranoid the Gulf is, and how the unlikely is often deemed probable in rulers eyes. Given the decline in US-Gulf relations in recent years, this could be a situation which helps push the relationship to breaking point.

The long term worst case scenario is perhaps that Iraq as a nation will cease to have any recognisable role, and instead split into three very different places. The Kurds acquire control of the North, achieving a de facto state that the ISF and Baghdad will never again be able to control. The Sunni heartlands will become a warzone, alternating between militia and loose government control, and the four southern provinces will break away and form a federal compact with Iran, thus strengthening Iranian influence in the region, and indirectly putting Tehran onto the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

If this does occur, particularly if the Gulf nations sense that US actions had a hand in this, then there is likely to be an enormous shift in international alignment. There is a realisation in the region that while many Gulf military forces possess enormous theoretical fire-power, this doesn't translate into substantial and credible offensive military capability. For many years the intent has been to secure the support of the US, UK and France to come to their assistance – for this reason defence purchases are as much about buying insurance as they are theoretical capability. We are already seeing signs of the GCC nations introducing conscription, which although limited in nature, represents a desire to grow manpower pools. In most nations there are too few service personnel, often at too inflated a rank (for instance the Qatari Armed Forces reportedly have more 1*s than the US Army), and there is a reliance on overseas personnel from third world nations to fill out the ranks. Turning this into a coherent military force, particularly if there is a break in US support, will be extremely difficult.

Is it possible that changes in Iraq will force substantial recapitalisation of the Gulf militaries, backed up by more effective training and conscription? If there is concern about the level of US support, then equally it would be interesting to see where they would turn – Russia or China? One senses the possibility of a substantial shift in international alignment, which could be very interesting indeed.
Not just a militia now - a collection of armour too. 
More broadly there is reason to be concerned about the scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding – if reports of refugee numbers are true then Iraq is potentially on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. But unlike the previous decade, there is nowhere obvious for the Iraqis to flee to. Jordan has reportedly absorbed a nearly 25% increase in population in recent years through population fleeing, while Syria (where many Iraqis fled during the last decade) is now itself in a state of civil war. It is hard to see where the population can safely flee, or who would willingly take them – especially given Iraq's poor standing with other nations due to its actions in recent years.

So why does this matter to the UK? For starters we retain enormous trade, diplomatic and military links to the region. Many Gulf states see the UK as a ‘power behind the throne’ influencing the US and other nations actions. They will closely scrutinise UK actions to see what they may indicate, and whether there is a sense of the UK picking sides in the ongoing struggle between the Sunni and Shia, and Iran and the GCC.

There is little if anything that the UK can militarily do – this conflict is too complex, too vast and too challenging for the US, let alone any other nation to realistically intervene in with ground forces. While there is naturally a desire to say ‘but we helped break it in 2003’ in some quarters, this shouldn't be seen as a reason to commit ground forces or other assets automatically. Any UK intervention would be extremely difficult, would face identical challenges to the ones outlined above for the US, and would also pose extremely difficult questions on how to do this and also maintain effective relationships with the wider Gulf region. Handled incorrectly and the UK may find itself in a shift in attitudes and relationships which will be seen as being as damaging as the withdrawal in 1971, something which is still a sore point to this day with many senior figures in the region. Arguably, at best the UK could do what other nations are doing – send aid, whisper diplomatically in peoples ears and see what nation or nations emerges in the aftermath. It is hard to see any other nation being able to do more.

The situation in Iraq is and will remain fluid, challenging and extremely difficult to observe. It is not yet clear how things will end. But one thing is clear, Middle Eastern politics and international relations will never be the same again.


  1. "It is also worrying how quickly the ISF seem to be collapsing in the face of an aggressive attack," - it isn't - it was to be expected - read your history books.

    "There is little if anything that the UK can militarily do " - I can agree with you on that - but not for the reasons you state!

    " For starters we retain enormous trade, diplomatic and military links to the region" - We used to, when we were the iron fist in the velvet glove, but not anymore.

    "The long term worst case scenario is perhaps that Iraq as a nation will cease to exist" - I can agree with those sentiments - All those years ago when the gentlemen drew straight lines on the map I don't suppose they read their history books, or would have any inkling on how we would screw up their legacy.

    "At best there may be limited airstrikes, but already the UK has ruled out putting troops on the ground" - not according to the latest newspaper reports.

    "While there is naturally a desire to say ‘but we helped break it in 2003’ " - True - I always relied on the principle of 6 Ps. - but sadly it seems our leaders, both types, didn't then and they won't now.

    6 Ps = Prior Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance

  2. I've wasted at least a coupe of hours trying to learn some lessons out of history to illustrate the reasons for the present chaos in the Levant and then to draw some shafts of insight into possible solutions. Consequently a couple of pieces of advice for the Government: don't bother and don't draw any more lines on maps..
    Iraq is responsible for Iraqi problems and the West is responsible for Syria's problems.
    The West was determined to bash Saddam again and to do it properly this time and contributed mightily to Syria's problems by sending very strong signals that it supported the rebels. Iraq couldn't handle freedom and the Arab Spring has been shown to be another western invention.
    Both these projects were invented, supported and inflamed by the western media. Dead children were displayed for the public's outrage and faux fear spread by publicising Muslim radicalism.
    We took hammers to crack nuts and the costs have been enormous, not least upon the military personnel who were told to fight to the death for us back home only to be humiliated by the donkeys in armchairs called politicians.
    We have not the machinery or leadership for any more interventions and the Muslims should be left to sort out their own problems, but only if we can stomach the piles of dead bodies on our screens and on our front pages.
    Because that is their way and because they will never trust each other.

    "Be careful of your enemy once and of your friend a thousand times" (Arab Proverb)

  3. I say we throw our lot in with the Kurds and back them for a fully autonomous region, they seem like decent, well organised people. The way things are going they will end up controlling Kirkuk too, an important oil centre. Iraq won't work as a nation unless it's highly federalised, otherwise the Shia majority will just attempt to lord it over the rest of them. We're struggling to convince Scotland to remain part of the UK, and that's without a recent history of war or significant ethnic or religious differences. So imagine what it's like cobbling Iraq together, which as already mentioned, was a misconceived Imperial construction in the first place.
    In some places it appears ISIS are being welcomed with open arms by the local population, so useless was the rule of the central government. Even the most "well meaning" airstrikes will kill a fair number of civilians, especially due the liaison and ground-direction issues that Sir H mentions, and thus will probably just aggravate the situation and drive the locals further into the arms of ISIS. Even with airstrikes, is an Iraqi army as hopeless as the one we've seen in the last few weeks likely to exploit them? The government has failed catastrophically, and the army has failed catastrophically, and I for one don't see them bouncing back.
    And why should we prop up Iraq, just to prevent Iran from bordering/influencing the gulf? I hope people realise that a lot of ISIS's funding comes from Saudi, so in other words they're financing a fundamentalist militia which is destroying their own buffer zone. Well so be it, at least they might buy more of our over-priced fighter jets that nobody else wants to buy.

    We did "break" Iraq as a coherent state, but we have no chance of fixing it. Let the US try, alone, if they want.

  4. When have the Kurds occupied Mosul? have i missed something here?
    Mosul was occupied by ISIS, it is not in Kurdistan.
    Kurds forces have occupied Kirkuk, not Mosul

    1. Very good point! I've amended it in the article - well spotted :-)

  5. The Kurdish Peshmerga occupy eastern Mosul, with its mainly Kurdish population - this has been reported widely. They arrived when the Iraqi state forces left (I am being polite). Technically the Peshmerga are Iraqi state forces, but everyone knows their loyalty lies first to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The BBC and others have reported clashes between the Peshmerga and the rebel coalition, but not with footage from Mosul itself.

  6. "For starters we retain enormous trade, diplomatic and military links to the region." Lol. No we don't. A couple of patrol boats and a bunch of expats getting rich in Dubai is not much in the terms of influence. Nice try, though.