With violence in Iraq having picked up again over the last few months – and set to further intensify with the country's general elections approaching – it is time to rethink current Western strategy in Iraq. What is needed is a regional solution to the conflict, argues Chris Luenen
British foreign secretary David Miliband, at a NATO meeting held in Edinburgh in November 2009, argued that a comprehensive strategy is needed to deal with the conflict in Afghanistan and to reach a political settlement that would allow NATO troops to withdraw without having to return in the future. This is a long-overdue observation by a leading Western politician on the main shortcoming of Western strategy in Afghanistan. But the same also applies to the conflict in Iraq, which has steadily faded from public consciousness and off the radar of Western policymakers.
Today, Iraq only makes the headlines when there has been an incident of massive carnage, killing hundreds. But resolving the quagmire in Iraq remains crucial, not just for the West's strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, but for the fate of the wider Middle East – which has gone up in flames since the US-led invasion of 2003.
"Iraqisation" and "political conciliation"
What is most urgently needed right now is not an overhasty disengagement regardless of developments on the ground, but a cool-headed reappraisal of current strategies. The West's main aim in Iraq today is essentially stabilising the security situation as a prerequisite for eventual withdrawal, resting on two pillars:
"Iraqisation" – referring to the training of Iraqi security forces so they can fill the emerging security vacuum that the progressive standing down of Western troops is creating; and "political conciliation", which Western leaders and policymakers still hope to facilitate between the various feuding factions in the country.
Both are necessary components of any Allied strategy, but there cannot be any doubt that progress on both fronts has been very slow indeed. And the recent upsurge in violence suggests that the improvement in the overall security situation since the US troop surge in 2007 was only temporary.
Astute observers of political developments in the country have warned for some time that once Allied troops have withdrawn completely, the fighting will resume and civil war will pick up where it left off. It appears that this warning is going unheeded.
Wider regional dimension of the conflict
The main problem is that the two-pronged approach adopted is bound to fail since it focuses on Iraq in isolation, ignoring the wider regional dimension of the conflict. But any meaningful and lasting stabilization of Iraq can only be achieved if embedded in a comprehensive regional framework.
A serious effort is needed to revive attempts at working towards an integrated regional settlement centred on stabilising Iraq and preventing the simmering sectarian conflict and instability within the country from spilling over its borders.
The only attempt made thus far to devise an integrated regional strategy has been a half-hearted effort by Bush administration officials to facilitate a new regional balance of power based on the Shiite-Sunni dichotomy – replacing the rather unstable balance of power that existed between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf up until 2003.
Ideological challenge posed by Shiite Iran
By portraying the rise of Iran in terms of an emerging Shiite crescent, some US policymakers had hoped to co-opt the Arab-Sunni states into an alliance with Israel and use the perceived threat of Iran to the status quo in the region as a means to transcend the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Whereas in principle this line of thought is not mistaken, it still suffered from the fact that the Arab street, regardless of how much it fears the mainly ideological challenge posed by Shiite Iran, continues to oppose any overt alliance between their governments and the much hated Israeli state.
Much more reasonable suggestions were put forth by the US Iraq Study Group of 2006 and its British equivalent, the British Iraq Commission of 2007. Although issued some years ago, the recommendations made by these two high-level expert commissions remain as valid today as they were when they were first announced.
All stakeholders to the negotiation table
Both commissions advocated a serious diplomatic effort to bring all stakeholders in the territorial integrity of Iraq to the negotiation table. Should Iraq eventually disintegrate – a scenario still very much conceivable – this could plunge the region into anarchy, possibly even a region-wide war. To be sure, the break-up of Iraq is a very unsettling prospect for most governments in the region, with the possible exception of Iran, which might benefit from its probable political influence over an emerging Shi'a mini-state in the south of Iraq.
Iraq's other neighbours, however, such as Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia have a clear interest in preventing the break-up of Iraq, as do Israel, Egypt and the Sunni Arab Gulf States: be it in order to prevent an independent Kurdistan from emerging, sectarian violence from spilling over Iraq's borders and destabilising neighbouring states, or to box in the growing regional influence of Iran.
A regional security conference
Given this common stake in the stability of Iraq, a regional security conference called for by the United States and its European allies could not just significantly contribute to stabilising Iraq; it might even serve as a basis for the creation of a new and region-wide security architecture encompassing Iraq, the Gulf states, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and even Israel.
Such a system, if it does come into being, could serve the dual purpose of stabilising Iraq and guaranteeing its borders as well as containing Iranian power and influence.
Western governments should not let the historic opportunity presenting itself as a result of the increasingly converging security interests of Middle Eastern states slip away. Their task now is to push for a serious new diplomatic offensive aimed at a regional solution to the Iraq conflict.
© Qantara.de 2010