As sectarian violence between Shiite armed forces and Sunni insurgents boiled over in Iraq this week, leaving dozens killed in some of the fiercest fighting since American troops left the country in 2011, the Obama administration and its allies could only look on nervously and urge the government to seek a political solution to the long-simmering conflict.
Without a major military footprint, the West is finding its leverage with the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more limited than ever as it seeks to ensure the Iraqi military does not respond too aggressively to what are essentially democratic aspirations from a marginalized minority group. Not only are there humanitarian implications, but a misstep by al-Maliki could hemorrage Sunni members of the armed forces — a Thursday New York Times report suggest this is already the case — a dynamic that played out in Syria when the Assad regime demanded its own troops put down peaceful protests. A collapse of the military would serve as an invitation to the kinds of extremist groups working against Assad next door, as well as a final humiliation to the U.S.
To be sure, there was never any expectation that sectarian conflict in Iraq would simply evaporate in favor of the heady fragrance of post-occupation parliamentary democracy after the troops that removed Saddam Hussein went on their way. But one persistent problem for the White House’s side is now increasingly worsening the other — the fresh violence in Iraq serving to underline the urgency of finding a way to push the anti-Assad rebellion over this final hump, if only to have a real hand in the outcome there (and prevent Islamic militants from gaining too much influence in the new Syria).
We know from White House sources that the specter of the Iraq debacle haunts the Obama administration’s Syria thinking, and one has to suspect the reverse is the case as well, that the desire to avoid adjacent, simultaneous civil wars tops of the president’s list. The political aspirations of the Sunnis driven to arms across Iraq and Syria are getting harder and harder to ignore. This second-term American president, still the same one skeptical of foreign entanglements but also free to do as he pleases without fear of electoral backlash, must find a way to engage them in dialogue — or in the case of Iraq, perhaps use economic incentives to pressure the government into doing so. That’s one carrot the administration definitely still has at its disposal, and the one step Obama has not hesitated to take in Syria, where American donations to relief have been generous even as military aid has been denied. Then again, sequester or no, it’s a safe bet that if money were sufficient to overtake the Assad regime or stabilize Iraq, Obama would have coughed it up by now.