The price of wading back into Iraq 

Brian M Downing 

When Barack Obama became president in 2009 he inherited the Bush administration’s wars. The new president had good reason to think he’d be entirely rid of the one in Iraq, After all, the Baghdad government had ordered all US out even before he took office. Obama could concentrate on the economy and the war in Afghanistan. Or so he thought.

Sunni-backed bombings worsened in Iraq and the Baghdad government asked for and received US counterterrorism forces. ISIL coalesced a formidable conventional army out of the old Sunni resistance and Saddam’s demobilized soldiers. When it swept across northern Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, Obama sent more and more troops into both countries. Air support, weapons, trainers, and advisors went to a slew of Kurdish and Arab forces.

The extent of Obama’s reluctance and foreboding about wading back in is unclear. Both may have vanished when the ISIL capitals fell and Obama left office. Nor is it clear how President Trump will handle the consequences of those involvements. He will face fractious military forces and conflicting foreign pressures, more than he could have imagined from a New York skyscraper.


The Iraqi army fled in disarray as ISIL neared Mosul. The Kurds did not initially stand and fight either, but they soon did. They halted the ISIL offensive, drove it back in places, and wore it down. Position after position fell and ISIL headed for the wastelands of western Iraq and eastern Syria.

It was the most recent strategic partnership between the US and Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga tied down several divisions of Saddam’s troops in the first Gulf War, after which the US (and NATO) established an aircap over northern Iraq. American airpower prevented the return of Baghdad forces and effectively created a Kurdish autonomous region. The Kurds repaid the US by tying down Saddam’s troops again in 2003.

With Baghdad in turmoil and ISIL’s caliphate gone, the Kurds pondered independence. They did not do so wisely. Their leadership badly misread opposition from Turkey as well as divisions in their own people. The US was of no assistance and Kurdistan’s hopes of independence have been ruined once again. Kurds throughout the region are weighing Washington’s reliability, though perhaps the matter’s clear.

Sunni Arabs

The US has a convoluted history with the Sunnis of Iraq. They’ve changed suddenly from enemies to friends more than once. The US defeated the Sunni-dominated army and state in 2003 and helped make them an oppressed minority. Sunnis eagerly supported the insurgency. A short-lived truce came a few years later but brought no reconciliation with Shia rulers.

Some Sunni Arabs supported ISIL or preferred them to the Shia rulers, at least until they experienced the rough hand of ISIL government. After that, their tribal levies fought ISIL with the help of American weapons and trainers. With ISIL reduced to another underground terrorist group, the Sunnis of Iraq will oppose the reimposition of Shia rule. They will wonder if American support for them will be any stronger than it was for Kurdistan.

The US may accede to Baghdad’s effort to impose its authority on the Sunnis. However, the prospects for foreign support to the Sunnis are brighter than they were for the Kurds to the north, surrounded as they are by the hostile forces of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

Iraqi Sunnis can ally with Syrian Sunnis, who also oppose Shia rule, and with Syrian Kurds, who prefer autonomy to Damascus’s rule. Iraqi Sunnis are concentrated in the west, near the Sunnis and Kurds in eastern Syria. However, Syrian Sunni and Kurdish groups are deeply fractious. Their armies are umbrella organizations comprising scores of tribal elders, warlords, and ambitious soldiers. The potential for unified action, let alone a viable political system, isn’t promising.

Help may come from abroad. The Sunnis and Kurds may find support from the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are hostile to Iran and concerned by its recent success in thwarting Kurdistan’s independence. The foreign powers face a dilemma. Support for Sunni and Kurdish autonomy in and near Iraq will anger Baghdad and strengthen Iran’s position – and perhaps Russia’s as well. The US will face the further prospect of embedding itself in a sectarian conflict throughout the Gulf.

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Barack Obama inherited a mess from George W Bush. He did well in organizing forces that have all but defeated ISIL. In doing so, however, he further ensnarled the US in sectarian and ethnic animosities that date back many centuries and will persist for many more. The present administration will have to wade through the problems, and in all likelihood so will future ones.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.