Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

What are we walking into in Iraq?


Islamic State maze graphic

President Obama has now made it clear that the United States, and consequently Australia, will take military action against ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria. His decision has been applauded. But it should give us pause that this is the outcome desired and provoked by ISIL itself.

The goals of military action are unexceptionable. There is nothing to be said for the totalitarian regime that ISIL wishes to create in the Middle East or for the brutal ways in which it wishes to impose it. It should be checked. The difficulty is with the means. The limited United States action in defence of threatened people in one region of Iraq was a legitimate means to a modest goal. The crushing of ISIL across borders is a much more ambitious goal subject to rhetorical inflation.

President Obama has recognised the only way in which the United States forces can effectively work against ISIL is in coordination with local partners. He did not identify the partners with whom he would work. History suggests that the devil will be in the detail.

It is chastening to think back over the partners with whom the United States has previously chosen to work. They include the nascent Taliban in the resistance to the Russian forces in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussain in the marshes war against Iran, assorted warlords against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a Shiite regime in Iraq whose partisan brutality has garnered support for ISIL. Each of these partners welcomed United States support and used it for its own ends. Each alliance spawned the next crisis and the next military action against former allies.

Why would one expect it to be different on this occasion? The Iraqi Government can be expected to take part. It is mistrusted as a Government for and by Shiites by Sunni and Kurds. Already much of the support for ISIL comes from Sunni groups alienated from the Iraqi government. Iraqi partnership with the United States might be expected to strengthen the support for ISIL, as indeed seems to be the calculation behind the executions of United States citizens.

Other partnerships are also problematic. Military support for the Kurds in Iraq will inevitably concern Turkey and Iran. President Assad of Syria has been excluded as a partner. The forces opposed to him are fragmented, each supported by other nations in the region which are hostile to one another.  Each will be happy to use United States military power to weaken its enemies, and to use its enemies’ association with the United States to strengthen its own position.

The diplomatic initiatives taken by Obama are important in dealing with ISIL, and are central in creating an environment in which it will not flourish. But they are designed to support a war. The military action adumbrated will certainly weaken the immediate military threat posed by ISIL. But after the bombers go away, the fields they have harrowed and ploughed will be fertile for the seed of ISIL or its more radical descendants, as they were in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.Andrew Hamilton

Image via shutterstock.

Topic tags: Iraq, Obama, ISIL



submit a comment

Existing comments

Nineveh is empty of Christians for the first time since before the reign of the Emperor Constantine. In historical terms, that should give us pause for thought. In both Rwanda and Bosnia, genocide occured in part because the Americans did not act until it was too late. This fact haunts the Democrat White House. While we watch the scenes inside Syria and Iraq in global terms, we also have to appreciate that many lives could be saved, Muslim, Christian and other, if proper action is taken now, rather than not at all.

CLOSE READING | 13 September 2014  

On September 1, 2013 a group of Italian Trappist nuns now settled in Syria wrote an open letter to Obama. They have lived amongst the local people as a glimmer of hope in an exploding world. While the world was debating whether to bomb Syria they, despite the horror of the Assad Regime’s actions exhorted Obama to hold back the bombers. Because: “The problem is that it has become too easy to pass lies off as noble gestures, to pass ruthless self-interest off as a search for justice, to pass the need to appear [strong] and to wield power off as a “moral responsibility not to look away…” On the day after the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, where we place the crucifixion at the heart of our theology we should reflect upon media images of enemies of ISIL crucified on the backs of trucks – still a punishment with repulsive power. What to do? At a minimum let’s have a full Parliamentary debate. The recent ABC series on the War That Changed Us has demonstrated how stifling debate on weighty issues of war is no way to conduct a democracy.

Mike Bowden | 15 September 2014  

This ISIS is not Islamic but seems to be revenge of the Baath Party against Baghdad as well as part of the Wahhabi campaign against Shia Iran and the Iraqi sectarian government. Western troops attacking will help recruit extremists and the disaffected to ISIS so Muslim troops should take the lead against them. Only Islamic leadership can defeat these criminals.

Bilal | 15 September 2014  

Andrew, I could not agree more! Once again a complete misreading of the situation in the Mid East by the Western Powers who started this a century ago, is sowing the seeds for more conflicts as you so rightfully point out. A Political/Ethnic/religious solution by the peoples of the region is needed, not more militaristic responses . Abbott's foray into tis situation is absolutely fool hardy!

Gavin O'Brien | 15 September 2014  

I was against military intervention in 2003 and marched at Wollongong with hundred's of others including Bp. Peter Ingham whose speech against the war was excellent. This time I am torn between a strong feeling that the proposed military action is foolhardy and not thought through, to say the least, and with a desire to see ISIL stopped. I am alarmed that Australia is once again rushing to war when countries around Iraq are holding back and I agree with Bilal "only Islamic leadership can defeat these criminals". I am also congnisant that US intelligence agencies don't have an impressive track record presenting conclusive evidence for military action. In 2003 US agencies claimed Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (how can we forget!), which proved to be untrue. Faced with contrary evidence, they still maintained the fiction. Perhaps the architects of that failed war should face judicial inquiry before we, once again, commit to another.

Jeff | 15 September 2014  

" President Obama's decision to take military action against ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria has been applauded. But it should give us pause that this is the outcome desired and provoked by ISIL itself." Of course, ISIL, ISIS, IS, AL_CIA_DUH.. all were, are, created and funded by the West, they are a contructed enemy used as an excuse through badly produced propaganda fake beheading videos to keep the public anxious and willing to accept any draconian laws and wars in order to keep them all safe. what are we walking to in iraq? surely recent history would be a guide.. just like with all western backed illegal immoral wars in iraq, afghanistan, libya, egypt, etc etc etc.. just more of the same.. death, destruction and deception. keep calm, carry on.

Blind Freddy | 15 September 2014  

There are deep historic reasons which, to my mind, would have led to Iraq, created as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement after WW 1, splitting into separate Shia; Sunni and Kurdish entities. The fate of the Armenian and Assyrian Christians, which had been dire under the Ottoman Turks, with separate massacres of both groups, never looked good. I had not envisaged something as awful as the Islamic State arising, nor it attracting the numbers of supporters it did, both long term jihadists from Chechnya et sim and newbies like the Australians. The Islamic State would not have succeeded without the current support of many of Saddam Hussein's old Ba'athist forces and the powerful Sunni tribal leaders. This support is not guaranteed to last. The Ba'athists were secular and tribalism is very strong and all pervasive in Iraq. There are, indeed, signs that this support and the terrified compliance of many in the occupied areas is wearing thin. I suspect much support is due to the fact Iraqi Sunni Arabs are more distrustful of the Shia (who control the government) and the Kurds (mostly Sunni but antipathetic to Sunni Arabs). President Obama and General Dempsey have been extremely wise. The West needs to exercise extreme caution in doing more than it has recently. The Middle East is a witches brew we don't need to become further embroiled in.

Edward Fido | 18 September 2014  

Similar Articles

Thinking beyond gender equality etiquette

  • Zac Alstin
  • 26 September 2014

The message of a recent VicHealth survey is that changing attitudes to gender equality will have the biggest impact on attitudes to violence against women. But what about those of us who already have positive attitudes to gender equality? We can go beyond a superficial and reactive focus on key outcomes and cultivate a deeper appreciation of a person's individual worth.


The Kurds as cannon fodder

  • Paul White
  • 26 September 2014

Once again the West has found a way to use the Kurds for its own purposes and the biggest losers will be the ordinary Kurdish people. The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq comprises two rival armed groups. Their struggle to compete with each other for US patronage has left them open to manipulation by unscrupulous Western politicians.