There will no doubt be many who see the US sending 300 military advisers to Iraq, along with 275 soldiers to protect its embassy in Baghdad, as the beginning of a US re-intervention in that beleaguered country. Added to the placement of a US aircraft carrier offshore, they would be half correct.
The US is deeply concerned about unfolding events in Iraq and has a bottom line position of not seeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIL/S) seize control in Iraq. But, having extricated itself from the unholy mess that was the US’ Iraq war, US President Barack Obama and a majority of US people have no desire to go back there. In this, the US is caught in a bind.
The bind that the US now finds itself in is made vastly worse by the incompetent, sectarian government of Nuri al-Malaki, which has openly favoured Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to the exclusion of the country’s Sunni minority. The US has made it a condition for any direct support that the al-Malaki government re-engages with the Sunni minority so as not to create further fertile ground in Iraq for ISIS/L.
Despite increasingly desperate appeals for help, al-Malaki has not yet indicated that he is prepared or able to make any meaningful moves towards a re-accommodation with Iraq’s Sunni population. Any moves made by a-Malaki now might also well be seen as window-dressing – just enough to re-engage the US without any longer term or substantive commitment.
At this stage, the US would, however, probably just settle for a public promise. Should ISIL/S be successful in toppling the al-Malaki government, ISIL/S would probably be halted as it encroached into the southern Shia heartland. Not only would it face Shia militias, it would also face the possibility of direct support from or intervention by neighboring Iran, which would be happy to have southern Iraq as a vassal state.
That would, however, leave the centre of Iraq in ISIL/S hands, providing a base for its future operations in the region and more permanently linking with territory it controls in Syria. With Iraqi forces now being concentrated nearer to Baghdad, Iraq’s border with Jordan is now essentially undefended, and Jordan could well be the insurgent group’s next target.
The other area of instability in the region is in Iraq’s north, in the Kurdish area. The Kurds, already autonomous from the Baghdad government, have taken control of the oil producing town of Kirkuk. In contrast to just a few years ago, the Turkish government has reached a détente with the Kurdish regional government.
In exchange for limiting support for Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey, Turkey now appears prepared to see the establishment of an independent Kurdish state to its east. The establishment of an independent Kurdistan may now, perhaps, be inevitable. But the break-up of Iraq that it would imply is not something that the US wants to see.
So, the US is left with a disintegrating state led by a dysfunctional, sectarian government on one hand and on the other a redrawing of the map of the Middle-East with the possibility of what amounts to an outlaw state in its middle.
It remains very unlikely that the US will commit to a full-scale ‘boots on the ground’ campaign. But at some point in the near future, it will seek to cripple ISIL/S’s capacity. Substantial US air strikes in Iraq are, thus, now all but inevitable.
From his output, ASPI’s Anthony Bergin likes nothing if not to test ideas in relation to Australia’s strategic positioning. His recent proposition that Australia is not so much a ‘middle power’ but a ‘pivotal power’ is a case in point . http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/is-australia-a-pivotal-power/
Bergin’s argument is that the common strategic descriptor for Australia as a ‘middle power’ does not accurately reflect its military size or capability, the size of its economy or its strategic reach. In each of these he is correct.
However, the term ‘pivotal power’ is complex. One understanding has it meaning more than just being relatively strategically strong. Indeed, Oxford Analytica defines it not as a quantitative assessment of strategic power but as being a geographic arbiter.http://www.oxan.com/analysis/dailybrief/pivotalpowers/default.aspx
Australia relative to Turkey, as Bergin notes, classifies them both as middle powers. But Turkey’s role with its neighbours, particularly Syria, Iraq and Israel, also mark it as a key regional actor and it is, thus, also considered to be a pivotal power. Closer to home, Indonesia occupies an arbitrating role in the ASEAN regions as well as in relations with Timor-Leste and Australia.
By comparison, Australia is a regional strategic power in the Southwest Pacific, but perhaps less so than it has been. In part this is due to the increasing sense of independence of some of the Pacific island states. In part it is also due to the more active soft power role being played by China in the region, which in turn buttresses this sense of independence – at least from Australia.
Timor-Leste, though geographically close to Australia and a major recipient of Australian aid and, at times, military assistance, has carved an increasingly independent path. If one can define Timor-Leste’s foreign policy, it is one of having a number of strong friends, so that it remains cosseted by some should relations with one turn sour.
Australia’s status in Timor-Leste has diminished, while that of Indonesia has increased. Timor-Leste’s police now train with Indonesian police, and there is an agreement that their armed forces also train together. Australia provides training to, but it does not train with, Timor-Leste’s defence force.
Australia’s strategic status is, on balance, perhaps slightly stronger, or perceived as such, than it has been, given its active participation in recent multilateral conflicts and as a preferred site for training by regional military officers. In another sense, in a strategic environment always in a state of flux, the precise status of any state will remain variable and, more to the point, interpretable.
But if Australia was to suddenly disappear from the strategic stage, the question is the extent to which it might matter. Bergin may be correct and Australia is indeed a pivotal state, if in its own peculiar way.