This was originally published on June 12, 2014
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The war currently raging in north and central Iraq – with armed insurgents from a faction connected to Al-Qaida in pursuit of fleeing Iraqi army units – seemingly is the most important strategic development in the Middle East in recent months.
The fighting may not end in a conclusive outcome, but it is already sending shock waves through all the neighboring countries, and also requires the United States to rethink its policy in the region. A record number of players have been participating in the Middle East chess game in recent years, many of them new. But the shock being produced by this week’s occupation of the Iraqi city of Mosul could bring about a real change in the opposing deployment of forces and alliances in the region.
On Tuesday, fighters of the Sunni jihadist organization the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (better known by its Arabic acronym, Daash) took over the large city of Mosul in northern Iraq, and Wednesday expanded its gains to two cities not far north of the capital Baghdad – Baiji and Tikrit. The panicking Iraqi army left responsibility for another important city – the northern oil city of Kirkuk – in the hands of Kurdish forces, who are deploying for defense against another attack by the jihadists.
At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has issued a comprehensive call-up in Baghdad and urged citizens to help in defending against the advance of Al-Qaida forces. Presently, the areas already occupied by the factions identified with the organization – on both sides of the border, in Syria and Iraq – create a kind of Sunni crescent that controls a considerable portion of the territory of both countries, and threatens both Baghdad and – perhaps to a lesser extent – Damascus.
Iraq is more disturbing to the international community than the terrible and prolonged slaughter in Syria, if only because recent events are new and surprising. Iraq is also a huge oil exporter, and damage to its production network could have a negative effect on the world economy. However, the rapid collapse of the regime’s forces has additional implications on other countries.
Jordan is already inundated with about a million refugees from the civil war in Syria, and is anxious about an influx of Iraqi Shi’ites into its land and attacks by Sunni jihadists from the Iraqi border. Turkey, which on more than one occasion has flirted with the most extreme organizations in the Sunni camp as part of its attempts to topple the Assad regime, will also have to rethink its policy because of the effect on the Kurds of events in Iraq. But perhaps even more important is how the two biggest players active in the region, the United States and Iran, behave.
The Americans, at least officially, are calling for the toppling of the Assad regime in Syria, and recently began to transfer weapons to the moderate Sunni factions. Now, however, it is possible that a mutual interest has developed for the Americans and Iranians. The last thing Iran wants on its western border is a Sunni theocracy from the school of Osama bin Laden. The United States also has no interest in this.
Maliki has asked for urgent military help from the United States, but is yet to receive an answer. It is clear the White House has no desire to send more American soldiers for the sake of “Iraqi Freedom” – as the second Gulf war was officially titled in 2003. The most Maliki can probably hope for is American drone attacks from afar on Al-Qaida’s camps.
But perhaps there is room here for a certain confluence of interests between Washington and Tehran – for example, new understandings regarding negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, in which the United States has recently been taking a more belligerent line. Or a joint attempt to rein in, to some extent, the killing in Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, three thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, Israel has to do all it can to continue to bolster Jordan. The survival of the Hashemite kingdom is an Israeli interest of the highest order. The strategic coordination and economic ties between the two countries surged forward during the years of the Arab Spring, and it seems now that Amman needs Jerusalem more than it did in the past.
Secondly, new developments in the Middle East are occurring at such a dizzying pace, it is very difficult to predict changes and processes. Israel, too, needs to take into account similar surprises – including, among other things, the ambitious Al-Qaida attacks in the Golan Heights, even though at the moment it would seem the organization is more preoccupied with its war on Assad and Hezbollah.
The third point has to do with the nature of the security arrangements the Americans are leaving behind. The Iraqi army’s collapse is the second of its kind on the part of an Arab army that was established by the United States in recent years. It was preceded in June 2007 by the collapse of the Palestinian Authority forces and their hasty retreat from the Gaza Strip, after a few days of Hamas-led attacks. Since then, the Americans have upgraded the level of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, and the PA’s security coordination with Israel has improved considerably.
Nevertheless, the question arises as to what could happen in the West Bank without an American (and, de facto, Israeli) security umbrella when the PA is finally left to conduct affairs entirely on its own. Interestingly, the Iraqi army and PA security mechanisms share a common denominator: The same American officer, Gen. (ret.) James L. Jones, participated in the preparations of the operational plans for both these forces.