The current explosion of violence in Iraq, as militant extremists march toward Baghdad, has Iraqis fleeing in droves and everyone in the region worried about what happens next. In this context, the political class in the United States is one of both barely contained horror at the sight of the Iraqi government on the ropes and a search for what to do next. President Obama on Friday told reporters that Iraq needs “additional support” to help beat back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — but the U.S. will not be sending troops back into combat. Instead, Obama said, he has asked his team to provide him with a set of other options.
Here’s a look at the possible solutions Obama will have before him — and why deciding among them is going to be a matter of choosing which is the least horrible:
The fact of the matter is that taking no action in Iraq is still a choice that the United States could make. The last U.S. soldier pulled out in Dec. 2011 due to the Iraqi government’s unwillingness to extend the Status of Forces Agreement dictating the conditions in which American forces could stay, leaving us on the outside looking in.
Pro: Not taking action means not risking American lives in Iraq. It also would prevent more backlash towards the U.S. — a possibility given the complexity of the sectarian struggle that has been reignited in Iraq. The American people are also less supportive of U.S. global engagement than at any point in the history of Pew Research’s polling on the matter.
Con: Not taking any action at all is politically improbable at least, if not outright impossible. Already members of Congress and conservative pundits have begun to attack the Obama administration for letting the Iraqi government come close to falling, blaming him for pulling troops out of Iraq. It would also implicitly condone ISIS setting up stronghold in the Middle East should they actually succeed in their goal of setting up a state in the territory its seized from Iraq and Syria.
Pressure al-Maliki to reform his government
Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki has been in charge of Iraq since 2006, but has long been accused of ignoring the concerns of the Sunni minority in favor of his own Shiite majority. He’s also been referred to by his opponents as a “dictator” for his unwavering stances and history of taking out his political enemies. Already the Iraqi parliament, even with ISIS capturing multiple towns, was unable to gather the two-thirds majority needed to grant him emergency powers under the Iraqi constitution. Leaning on al-Maliki to either reform his government — or outright resign — could be a way forward in this crisis.
Pro: Encouraging al-Maliki to take the steps necessary to have a political solution in Iraq has long been a goal of the United States. Getting him to actually do so would also be the start of a long-term solution to the gridlock that has kept Iraq from effectively governing in the last few years. Having a new leader step in would also ameliorate some of the reasons why Sunnis would back ISIS over the government in Baghdad.
Con: In the most recent set of parliamentary elections, al-Maliki’s governing coalition won big, leaving him in a much stronger position than before. Given his previous reluctance to reform, getting him to do so now would be even more difficult. Also, were he to actually step down, there’s the problem of finding a replacement who wouldn’t be seen as a proxy of either American or Iranian interests and would still have the skills needed to govern. It also doesn’t solve the immediate issue of ISIS capturing territory.
Back the Kurds
Kurdish forces on Wednesday took control of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk from ISIS, as peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq’s autonomous north, swept into bases the Iraqi army had previously vacated. The United States could choose to back the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) directly, given their effectiveness on the battlefield.
Pro: The Kurdish peshmerga proved much more effective than the Iraqi army at fighting against ISIS. Providing them with more weaponry and the political space to operate could be a strong move to beat back ISIS in nearby Mosul. The Kurdish region has also been the most stable location in Iraq, and they could use more support to feed and shelter the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing violence who crossed into Kurdish territory.
Con: Backing the KRG over the central government in Baghdad would be a clear sign that the U.S. has lost almost all confidence in Baghdad’s ability to manage Iraq’s affairs. Doing so would also likely inflame the very sectarian strife that the U.S. is hoping to tamp down. Also, regional ally Turkey would be furious, given their own long struggle to prevent their own Kurdish population from forming an independent Kurdistan.
Increase military aid to the Iraqi government
The al-Maliki government has been calling for increased military aid from the United States for months now, asking for attack helicopters and more and greater arms. Iraq has even requested that the U.S. provide them with their own drones so as to not have to rely on American unmanned air support.
Pro: The weapons the Iraqis are pushing for may actually help in the fight to retake Mosul. Among the weaponry that are already en route to Iraq are new Apache helicopters, which would certainly be useful in clearing areas ISIS is holding. Iraq has also seen 30,000 volunteers come forward to help fight against ISIS and a replenished weapons cache would be useful for them.
Con: Iraq’s troops didn’t exactly distinguish themselves as a group worth providing more support to when confronted with ISIS in Mosul. In that instance, they not only fled in the face of fighting, shedding their uniforms as they did, they also turned over weapons stores and vehicles to conquering militants. As $20 billion has been spent to train and equip the Iraqi Army already, the idea of throwing more money at the security forces there doesn’t sound promising.
Launch airstrikes against ISIS
One option currently being bandied about is the U.S. utilizing its resources still in the region to launch air strikes against ISIS not only in support of the Iraqi government’s efforts to retake the cities under the militants’ control but also against ISIS positions in Syria. Al-Maliki reportedly asked for these strikes last month, when ISIS was only in control of Fallujah, but was rebuffed by administration officials. Now that the situation is more dire, the option is back on the table.
Pro: One of the principal arguments in favor of airstrikes are that they are quick and relatively cost-free. According to the Daily Beast, launching such an attack would be doable within hours after a go-order is issued. Given the support of the Iraqis in using their airspace, the U.S. would have certainly air superiority over ISIS — even though the latter did capture several aircraft this week, their flight skills are likely lacking. This would make it easy to pummel ISIS positions, based on information relayed from both unmanned drones and whatever troops remain on the ground. It would be a strong show of support for the Iraqi government and the U.S.’ Tomahawk missiles are much less likely to inflict civilian casualties than the barrel bombs the Iraqi army has been using.
Con: Air strikes, while often effective in the short-term, are not a long-term strategy for defeating ISIS. It’s also far more expensive than many realize. There is also still the chance of accidentally killing civilians, which would provide backlash so soon after a decade in which the United States occupied the entirety of Iraq. There’s also the risk that air strikes could lead to mission creep and a full reinsertion into Iraq.
Cooperate with Iran’s cooperating with Iraq
According to reports, Iran on Thursday deployed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) into Iraq to help retake the city of Tikrit, which had fallen to ISIS the previous day. Combined Iraqi-Iranian forces managed to take back most of the city, the Wall Street Journal said, adding that they were also “helping guard the capital Baghdad and the two cities of Najaf and Karbala.” The Obama administration could work with Iran to aid Iraq in taking back the rest of the country.
Pro: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has increased its ties with Iraq substantially, giving them a large amount of leverage over the country. They’re also a Shiite-majority country, making them more able to work with the Shiite militias that are gathering to help repel the Sunni-led ISIS. The U.S. letting Iran take the lead on the ground would also help incrase the impact of any bombing campaign that American forces undertake. Having a common foe in the form of ISIS also could be a much needed opening to improve American-Iranian relations.
Con: Again, the spectre of increased sectarian violence keeps this solution from being ideal. A spokesperson for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, called on his fellow Shiites to take up arms and defend their country against ISIS. While his words and Iran’s operations are targeted at ISIS, there’s the threat that the violence spreads to being against Sunni communities writ large. Also, the domestic politics of aiding Iran — who still remains an adversary on many issues throughout the Middle East — solidify its foothold as a regional leader would be a lot for the Obama adminstration to overcome. It would also be worrying to allies among the Sunni-majority Gulf States that the U.S. would back their archrival, even on so important a matter.
Obama speaking on Friday completely ruled out the chance that the U.S. will send troops back into Iraq. Though not even Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), one of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s actions on Iraq, is calling for boots on the ground, it does still remain an option that the United States has.
Pro: There is no pro to this option, given that even with more than 100,000 troops on the ground we were unable to completely defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS.