Just six months ago US President Barack Obama deemed groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Obama’s recent speech outlining his strategy to defeat IS, including extending air strikes to Syria, underscored the gravity of the situation just a year after Obama hurried away from launching air-strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.
Obama’s revised approach is testament to the growing power and influence of IS in Syria and particularly Iraq and the foreign policy failings on Syria where a devastating civil war shows no sign of ending.
Such was the danger that just weeks ago, well-armed IS militants were advancing to doorsteps of the Kurdish capital of Erbil. US air strikes helped push back IS forces with the US and Europeans powers providing much needed arms and supplies to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
No doubt the timing of events over the past few weeks has been interlinked with the changing strategy of the US. Obama has always emphasised the importance of Iraqi unity and an inclusive government that can truly entice the disenfranchised Sunni community into the political fold and into an alliance against IS. A key precondition for the launching of air strikes and with it the resumption of military activities in Iraq, years after Obama cleaned his hand of George W. Bush’s legacy, was the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s quest to seek another term.
Just days later Maliki backed down and Haider al-Abadi was announced as the new Prime Minister. As for the Kurds, US and European support of Kurdish forces was on a clear basis – the reluctant Kurds must participate in the new Baghdad government, help in the greater fight against IS outside of Kurdish borders and preserve the unity of Iraq.
Furthermore, Iraqis were under pressure to cobble together a new inclusive government before Obama’s crucial strategy was announced this week.
Obama may have been reluctant to launch an inevitable war on IS, but aside from public shows of unity, Iraqi politicians will have been just as reluctant in forming a new inclusive government.
It was reminiscent of the days of the past, where US pressure often was a key factor for Iraqi political breakthroughs and agreements at various junctures of the Iraqi transition post Saddam Hussein. However, whilst agreements and coalitions were ultimately made, often it lacked real basis or buy-in from all sides.
Although US air power will be a significant hand, the US strategy relies heavily on Iraqi forces on the ground driving out IS militants. Whether Peshmerga forces, Shiite militias and Sunni tribal forces can be united to oust IS remains to be seen. A great deal depends on whose turf they are fighting for.
Such is the disparate and fragmented nature of Iraq, that it is doubtful whether the aforementioned forces will truly fight anywhere other than where their zones of interest lie on the ground.
The Kurds may have joined the new government, but the centralist and marginalisation policies of al-Maliki still ring in their ears. The Kurds participated in Baghdad with much scepticism that al-Abadi will succumb to their key demands or follow a different course to the policies of Maliki on oil exports, national budget, disputed territories and status of Peshmerga forces.
The Kurds negotiations with al-Abadi have already hit an impasse on Baghdad’s outstanding payment of the Kurdish share of the national budget and the status of Kurdish oil exports.
After giving successive Baghdad governments many ultimatums and agreeing various pre-government accords over the years, many of the key promises and agreements were never fulfilled. For example, there is still no official Hydrocarbon Law and seven years after the original deadline for implementation of article 140 has passed, it still remains to be resolved.
In this light, the Kurds have been somewhat predictably sceptical on further agreements or promises from Baghdad, giving al-Abadi 3 months to meet their demands and 12 months to settle issue of disputed territories.
Al-Abadi’s proposal includes a peaceful settlement to territorial disputes as well as the incorporation of the Peshmerga forces as a National Guard Force, including arms and training, a Kurdish demand that stretches to 2005.
The Kurds have received four Iraqi ministries including Deputy Prime Minister, but it is clear that Kurdish interests do not lie in titles in Baghdad, but in expanding Kurdish autonomy, self-sufficiency and security capabilities i.e. all the factors that hinge on Baghdad fulfilling Kurdish demands.
Either way, the situation in Iraq has long changed, and the Kurds are not about to give-up control of disputed territories they have secured with much sacrifice or control of oil exports only to see their economic fortunes pinned on the good-will of Baghdad.
Aside from the Kurds, it remains to be seen whether the concessions to the Sunnis will be deemed enough. The buy-in of powerful Sunni tribes and armed Sunni groups are much more important than buy-in of Sunni politicians in Baghdad. Key Sunni demands remain decentralisation of power, an autonomous Sunni region and the incorporation of Sunni tribal militiamen into the Shiite dominated Iraqi security forces.
Above all, this latest attempt at forming an inclusive government and the breathing space that the US is willing to afford Iraqi forces in battle to eradicate IS, makes this make or break time for Iraq as a state.