Iraq’s Collapse, or Why Putin Isn’t Abu Bakr

While Barack Obama and his G7 mates were busy trying to teach Vladimir Putin the do’s and don’ts of international law in Ukraine, an epic failure was unfolding in Iraq, which had been touted as a major success of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

While Barack Obama and his G7 mates were busy trying to teach Vladimir Putin the do’s and don’ts of international law in Ukraine, an epic failure was unfolding in Iraq, which had been touted as a major success of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general and its Middle East policy in particular.

Three years after US troops left the country in the care of Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the Shia majority, Iraq is now falling to pieces. We are witnessing the inevitable continuation of the civil war with sectarian overtones that has ravaged the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Last year alone, over 8,800 people were killed in terrorist attacks and other fighting.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda splinter group of Sunni Islamists that now claims to be the main jihadist force fighting the West, has built up strength in the parts of Syria outside Bashar al-Assad’s control. They have benefited from direct military aid provided by US allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and indirect assistance from the United States as it continues its relentless quest to topple Assad.

In Iraq, Washington and its allies oversaw the shift of power to the Shia majority (60% of the population), which inevitably led to violence against Sunnis. The Maliki government has treated Iraq’s Sunni population with contempt, purging them from high-ranking positions and turning them into a second-rate minority.

It should be noted that Iraqi Christians, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands before the war, fared even worse – they either fled to Syria, ironically, or were murdered. The Western press did not lament the harassment and destruction of Iraq’s Christians. After all, it’s not like the Russian bear was trampling Ukrainian democracy.

In fact, the events in the south-east of Ukraine provide an illuminating counterpoint. While urging Maliki to resolve the domestic political problems that have led to this standoff, Obama is also encouraging Poroshenko to deal with the separatists with force, as if what is going on in Ukraine is not also rooted in domestic political problems.

No more than 6,000-7,000 Sunni Islamists invaded Iraq, according to some estimates, compared to up to 900,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army. Faced with the advancing enemy, half a million Iraqi army troops fled.

ISIS encountered only token resistance as they seized Iraq’s second largest city Mosul and dozens of other cities to the north of Baghdad, including Saddam Hussein’s home town Tikrit. These predominately Sunni areas were the source of the ruling elite under Saddam.

The number of refugees is approaching one million. But people are fleeing not to the Shia south but to the Kurdish north, which is more capable militarily of holding off the Islamists. The Kurds and their Peshmerga forces have already established control over Kirkuk, which they consider their capital, and the province of the same name. There are no government forces to speak of in the region.

Iraq may break into three parts – Kurdish, Sunni (mostly to the north of Baghdad) and Shia (mostly to the south).

Unlike the self-defense forces in Donbass and Lugansk, the Sunnis in Iraq have immediately set about organizing governing bodies, dealing with local economic issues and forming their proto-state, perhaps with Mosul as its capital. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria already holds more territory than any other jihadist organization in history.

To complete the picture of the epic failure of the years-long “reconstruction” of Iraq, we only need to know who leads the Islamist offensive. His name is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, alias Abu Duaa. At one time he was held by US forces at Camp Bucca in Iraq as an al-Qaeda terrorist. In 2009, the Obama administration shut down the detention facility to highlight the progress made to consolidate democracy and security in Iraq. Washington made a deal with the Iraqi government under which all prisoners were released, including Abu Bakr, who went on to fight against Assad but has not become America’s “own son-of-a-bitch.” This brings to mind the Russian proverb about trying to tame cockroaches.

Obama has limited options. The most radical would be to order air strikes on ISIS positions. What isn’t an option is a ground operation. Public opinion will not stand for the US getting dragged into this mess.

Meanwhile, Iran is poised to intervene within days. Tehran won’t wait for the next massacre of its Shia brethren, and may send troops to Iraq to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Forward-deployed units of up to 2,000 men are already in Baghdad. Iran and the United States will likely partner for the first time in decades to shore up Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. That combined with the imminent nuclear deal will result in the lifting of the sanctions against Tehran. To advance the US goal of “deterring Russia,” Iran will be given unrestricted access to energy markets, in part to offset Moscow’s influence, as well as the right to enrich uranium.

With the help of Shia volunteers, almost 100,000 of which have already answered the call of the prominent Iran-born cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Maliki’s “Right Sector”) to join the fight, Iraqi government forces will likely be able to repel ISIS. However, there is no military solution to the underlying problem, and the same will be true in Ukraine even if the self-defense forces in Lugansk and Donetsk are defeated.

The most absurd part is that the United States and the West continue to portray Russia as its main enemy, an exporter of terrorism in Ukraine.

After all, Putin is not some Abu Bakr. And in many respects Ukraine has become part of the “big chess game” that Brussels and Washington are playing against Moscow. The chessboard spans eastern Europe and the entire post-Soviet space, and the game has continued in defiance of common sense since the end of the Cold War.

The 9/11 attacks made clear that Islamic terrorists are the mortal enemy of both the West and Russia – from Chechnya and Afghanistan to New York and London, Syria and Iraq.

While Putin was the first world leader to call George W. Bush on September 11, I doubt he will offer Obama any help now. There has been too much damage already, too many double and triple standards. There is too much mutual resentment, misunderstanding and even personal antipathy.

But the longer we delay talking about what we have in common and where we can cooperate, the faster the world will descend into what some politely call a clash of civilizations and others simply call World War III.

This is abridged version of the article, published in Russian on

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