As the U.S. starts deploying special operations forces in Iraq to assist in the fight against the Islamic State, its efforts are likely to create issues that will work to the advantage of the transnational jihadist group. It will reinforce the perception that the west is in cahoots with the Shia, including the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and the Kurds against Sunni Muslims in the region. At the same time, American military involvement is also bound to create problems within the anti-IS camp.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said that Washington is to deploy special operations forces (SOF) in Iraq to build pressure on the Islamic State, in cooperation with the Iraqi government. This special operations task force would carry out raids, free hostages and capture IS leaders, while also conducting “unilateral operations” in Syria. No details have been provided on the number of SOF personnel that are to be deployed or where they will be based in the country. Shortly after this news broke, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement saying that, while his government welcomes international support for the struggle against IS, there is no need for foreign ground troops.
IS’ recent losses of territory in the Sinjar and Ramadi areas show that the Islamic State’s position in Iraq is much weaker than it is in Syria. The key difference between the two neighboring states is that, in Iraq, there is a political structure in the form of the post-Baathist republic, which, despite all its weaknesses, is seen by all stakeholders as the base upon which the struggle against IS can be waged. Strengthening Iraq’s political system by getting its Sunni minority to join it and reaching a settlement between the Shia and the Kurds is seen as the best way to push out the Islamic State. In sharp contrast, in Syria, there is an international effort to affect regime change, which makes it very difficult to create an effective anti-IS coalition.
The American strategy for Syria relies primarily on Turkey to do the heavy lifting. The Syrian battlespace is increasingly becoming convoluted, given the number of state and non-state actors engaged in fighting. The Russian intervention in late September followed by Turkey’s decision to shoot down Moscow’s warplane on Nov. 24 is only going to complicate the Syrian conflict. Success against the Islamic State in Syria is, therefore, quite difficult to realize. At present, U.S., Iranian and Russian interests tend to converge, at least in so far as Syria is concerned. That said, the United States has an interest in making sure that Russia and Iran do not interfere in American objectives, especially given that Tehran enjoys a disproportionate amount of influence in Iraq and Baghdad has also been reaching out to the Russians.
Therefore, the immediate U.S. focus is to work towards uprooting IS from Iraq where the international community has far more options. From a military point of view, the United States has ample space to operate in Iraq, given that Baghdad and Erbil control the bulk of the country’s territory. Furthermore, Washington has ample experience in operating militarily in Iraq given the presence of American troops in the country from 2003 to 2011. The Obama administration, which is under immense pressure to show progress against the Islamic State, would thus like to be able to capitalize on the recent gains that Iraqi and Kurdish forces have made against the jihadist movement.
While happy to take American advice, training and equipment, the Iraqi central government is opposed to having foreign troops on its soil. It is not so much worried about U.S. troops, given their limited numbers and the fact that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term deployment. However, the Iraqis want to make sure that regional powers, particularly Turkey, do not find an excuse to send in troops to the region. The Iraqis opposed Arab states engaging in airstrikes in Iraq when western and regional powers began bombing raids against IS in Syria. Meanwhile, Baghdad’s main ally, Tehran, is the loudest voice against any foreign forces coming to Iraq to fight IS and, given its influence over the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, this makes it difficult for the United States to pursue this strategy of deploying a specialized expeditionary force.
The U.S. will thus have to carefully navigate this complicated landscape so as not to exacerbate existing divisions within the anti-IS camp in order to avoid allowing Islamic State more room to maneuver.