Tuesday, June 17, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — A surge in violence by Sunni insurgents that is endangering lives of Iraqi citizens and risking the stability of the country and the Middle East likely needs to be resolved through diplomacy, rather than use of military force, according to local and national observers.
But there are no simple, short-term solutions to deal with the militias calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which are aligned with the Sunni populations and have captured cities in northern Iraq without significant challenge from the Iraqi government.
David Mednicoff, a professor of public policy and director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, said one option for the Obama administration would be multilateral diplomacy involving Iran.
AP Slideshow: Iraq Jue 14-16, 2014
“If there’s anything that has a chance to make this better, that is it,” Mednicoff said.
The problem for the United States and others who have an interest in promoting stability, Mednicoff said, is that the insurgents are a disciplined military force capable of holding territory.
“You’ve got this kind of confusing, chaotic zone where there is either no government or people not content with the status quo,” Mednicoff said.
President Obama announced Monday that the U.S. would deploy 275 troops to protect the American embassy in Baghdad and may also send a contingent of special forces into Iraq, but he has ruled out placing any combat troops on the ground.
Mednicoff said realistic options don’t involve military strikes.
The first option would be pushing the Iraqi government to find a mechanism for either Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign or to encourage him to have a more inclusive government that brings in the minority Sunni population, along with the Shiite and Kurdish people.
Part of what has caused the current situation, Mednicoff said, is that the al-Maliki-led government has not been inclusive to non-Shiites, causing Sunni resentment.
Michael Klare, the Five College professor of peace and security studies at Hampshire College, attended the Council on Foreign Relations national conference last weekend in New York, where he listened to top national policymakers, most of whom said getting al-Maliki to embrace the Sunni population would diminish support for the insurgents.
“They don’t feel particularly loyal to the government or opposed to the insurgents,” Klare said.
The second option is to work with other countries in the region, like Iran, which has its own interest in de-escalating the situation.
Klare said coordinating with the Iranian government makes sense because it is equally frightened by a Sunni insurgency.
“The geopolitical reality of the situation is that may be the only way to accomplish something,” Klare said.
The growth of the Sunni militia, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which seeks to create an Islamic state that encompasses Iraqi and Syrian territory, marks a continued degeneration of the Iraqi government, which has been sporadically stable.
“Iraq has never been, since the fall of Saddam, completely stable,” Mednicoff said.
But Iraq’s northern areas have suddenly become a confusing conflict zone, Mednicoff said, because cities there fell into the hands of ISIS so easily.
“That came as a bit of a surprise, but what’s not surprising is that they’ve been growing,” Mednicoff said.
Klare said he worries that the situation could ignite sectarian violence and potentially lead to widespread slaughter.
“Iranians are very worried about that,? Klare said.
Like working with Iranians, another option that may prove controversial is providing the Syrian government with military capabilities that would allow it to deal with insurgents. Klare said one idea contemplated would be to provide Syria with anti-aircraft missiles and other devices that could thwart ISIS.
As the Obama administration considers its options, the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts will have international travelers and peace activists Kathy Kelly and Milan Rai discuss the situations in both Iraq and Ukraine Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Friends Meetinghouse, 43 Center St.
Kelly, who has visited Iraq 27 times as co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, said there is fear and anxiety among families who have been displaced and forced to flee to escape the torture, suffering and death.
“In some cases, people literally have no place to turn,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the deteriorating situation in Iraq is not shocking.
“Analytically, it’s so very difficult to even describe what is happening and why. And yet in other ways it’s entirely predictable,” Kelly said.
It goes back to the 2003 U.S. invasion and the American government arming Iraqis, and even previous administrations issuing embargoes that were designed as punitive measures against the Iraqi government, but instead hurt civilians.
“I do lay blame on the (policies of) United States’ successive administrations that Iraqis deserved to be punished,” Kelly said
She said the government should issue an apology for the war and suffering, offer reparations to people displaced and work with the United Nations.
“The United States could say ‘we’re looking forward to a weapons-free Middle East,’” Kelly said.
No magic bullet
Experts agree that the Obama administration can’t put combat troops back in the region.
Klare said with an Iraqi government that is both corrupt and unloved, there is no way for the military to stand in for a functioning regime.
He expects that this will remain a hot-button issue for the foreseeable future and the problems will fester for a long time.
“I’m very pessimistic about what the United States can do,” Klare said.
Mednicoff agrees that while there is no magic bullet and that resolving the issues will take time, decisions will be made by cooler heads than ones arguing for immediate military intervention.
“The United States, as a country that led the invasion to topple the political system, does bear some responsibility for what happens afterward,” Mednicoff said. “For me, the main thing is to approach this soberly and for this not to turn into a referendum on Obama, a referendum on Bush, or how we should use our forces.”