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.