Needed: An International Strategy in Iraq

Last Updated on August 21, 2014.

The crisis in Iraq poses two challenges — a humanitarian effort to rescue persecuted minorities, and a security mission to suppress the extremist threat posed by the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The U.S. is right to play a leading role in aiding the Yazidis, Christians, and other threatened minorities in Iraq. The immediate threat against the Yazidis has eased, but minority groups in the region remain endangered by violent extremism. The Obama administration should work through the United Nations to turn this into a genuine international rescue effort. The greater the degree of international participation and support for the aid mission, the more beneficial and legitimate it will be for the recipients.

The U.S. is also right to call attention to the threat posed by ISIS, but we need to do more to mobilize international pressure against the group. The Islamic State is in many respects more dangerous than al Qaeda. It has conquered Mosul and other major cities, taken control of dams and oil facilities, and is steadily expanding its sphere of influence in Syria and Iraq. It has formed a terrorist army with an estimated 10,000 fighters and is now armed with tanks and advanced U.S. weapons stolen from the Iraqi army. The group poses a significant threat to the security of the region and the world.

The Obama administration does not appear to have a coherent strategy for countering the Islamic State and has made no effort to organize effective international cooperation in this effort through the United Nations. ISIS is a global threat, and it needs a global response. The administration should join with Britain and other countries in bringing this matter to the U.N. Security Council.

In 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, the United States went to the Security Council and mobilized effective action to counter global terrorism. The Council quickly adopted Resolution 1373 (September 2001), establishing a worldwide campaign of sanctions, police, and intelligence cooperation to suppress al-Qaeda. Similar action is needed to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State.

The Security Council is now considering the imposition of more robust international sanctions on ISIS to cut off its sources of weapons and money. The sanctions should include strong financial measures against any individuals or financial institutions that provide aid for the group.

Russia and other nations share the U.S. concern about ISIS and might be willing to support a coordinated U.N. effort. Russia is worried about the Chechen fighters who have joined ISIS and the danger of Islamic extremism in its southern regions. France and the United Kingdom have indicated a willingness to participate in humanitarian rescue efforts. Other nations will be more willing to support a coordinated humanitarian, political, and military strategy against ISIS if it is authorized by the Security Council.

If military action needs to be taken to protect civilians from further ISIS aggression, it should be multilateral not unilateral. American leadership no doubt will remain important, but the authorization for any forceful measures must come from the Security Council.

Ultimately the crises in Iraq and Syria will require political solutions. ISIS has been able to grow because it has attracted the support of Sunni Arab communities facing marginalization and repression at the hands of the Alawite regime in Syria and the Shia-dominated al Maliki government in Baghdad. Issues related to local grievances and governance are at the heart of this crisis. Long-term strategies are needed to help build inclusive and accountable governance structures in the region. Outside actors cannot create these solutions, but the United States and other countries can help to foster conditions conducive to good governance by consistently supporting efforts toward democracy and human rights. The effort to ease Nuri al-Maliki out of office to establish a more inclusive government in Baghdad is a step in the right direction.

Unilateral American military action in Iraq is unwise and unsustainable over the long run and could exacerbate animosities toward the U.S. and tensions in the region. U.S. military intervention created the chaos in Iraq 11 years ago, and it cannot be a solution to the crisis now.

The administration must avoid sliding down the slippery slope toward protracted military involvement. Past U.S. interventions for supposedly limited purposes have turned into prolonged interventions and in some cases have made matters worse, creating conditions of extended chaos and instability.

The crises in Iraq and the region require international solutions. To help the people of Iraq and counter the threat from the Islamic State the Obama administration should seek international cooperation and enlist the support of the United Nations.

David Cortright, co-chair of Win Without War, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. This article was originally published in Sojourners magazine and has been cross-posted with permission.

August 21, 2014