How to best externalize the R2P in Iraq?

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

Ever since the bearded fighters under the Prophet’s banner rode into Mosul in June this year, the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, has been on the radar of the international community. What had long been ignored as a local phenomenon in Iraq’s al Anbar Province and parts of Northern Syria, now grasped the attention of military strategists, analysts and the intelligence community from Tehran and Riyadh over Tel Aviv to Washington. Yet, it was not so much the horrific images of barbarism circulating on social media that concerned the international community as much more the implications of IS’ seizure of strategic positions in Northern Iraq and Syria. The negative integration witnessed in the Middle East uniting Israelis and Saudis as well as Americans and Iranians, was not founded on a genuine concern for the tens of thousands of individuals exposed to ethnic cleansing, mass executions or barbaric torture, but revolved around the strategic interests of those seeing the Levant as their sphere of influence. Now the suffering of the Yazidis has become the graphic testimony to the international community’s failure to protect individuals from the inability and unwillingness of regimes in Damascus and Baghdad to provide security inclusively. The international community responds reluctantly, ignoring its duties under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), by propping up the Kurds as a surrogate to act as a force multiplier. The long-term solution to this humanitarian disaster, however, cannot be found in Kurdistan, but lies with Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq who out of feelings of abandonment by the international community and arising despair have been the backbone of jihadist advances.

In the shadow of civil-societal outcries over Israel’s recent Gaza campaign, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of the Islamic State has deviated so far from the righteous path of Islam that the horrors of its reign have alienated Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Chopped off heads decorate town squares in Northern Syria, women are being stoned publicly for adultery, prisoners of war beg for their life before being mass executed in desert sandpits, men are being crucified for apostasy. The Islamic State spurns Islamic traditions of peaceful coexistence and tolerance by cleansing its area of responsibility of Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and of course, all other Muslims not ascribing to a 7th century Islamic lifestyle. The most recent tragedy of Yazidi men, women and children being trapped on the Sinjar Mountains, is just another result of the Islamic State’s ruthless attempt to catapult the region back to medieval times. In face of these atrocities that essentially root in the international community’s strategic failure to deal with the Civil War in Syria, the UN Security Council has missed the opportunity to go beyond merely ‘expressing grave concern’ about the humanitarian situation in the ‘Islamic State’. Consecutive Security Council Resolutions, including the most recent resolution 2169, have ignored the de facto reality on the ground by affirming the de jure sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. The Islamic State operates transnationally providing quasi-state functions within its area of responsibility beyond any reach of the government in Baghdad, which merely controls the capital and the Shite South of the country. The territorial integrity of Iraq is history, its sovereignty undermined by the direct interventions of the US and Iran. Instead of accepting this reality, the UN Security Council beats around the bush, failing under the pressure of Western war fatigue to affirm the R2P:

“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect”[1].

Although it might be premature to speak of genocide, the crimes against humanity being committed on a large scale certainly constitute a serious threat to individual security in the region and would justify a Chapter VII intervention. However, the state-centric nature of international law seems to favour international abstinence as the current crisis is not just international but transnational and occurs in a vacuum of insecurity beyond the reach of the failed states of Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State is barely a state either – neither under international law nor by any social contractarian standards. This legal ambiguity allows the Security Council to pay lip service to the R2P without giving the international community an obligatory mandate to do something to not just contain the spread of IS but to protect those individuals under threat of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Without a clear mandate, the international community is left to deal with the Islamic State as they see fit weighing the severity of the threat against the costs of acting. The Arab World preoccupied with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has remained silent. The GCC, the only Arab consortium militarily and financially strong enough to make a difference on the ground is divided over ideological disagreements on the role of political Islam in the Middle East. Qatar’s recently more expansive foreign and security policy has come to a halt amid the protests of its neighbours in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, although generally eager to provide assistance to suffering individuals in the region, will not make any moves in Iraq or Syria without consulting Riyadh. Iran has directly intervened in Iraq by protecting an almost exclusively Shite patronage network with Maliki as its disposable figurehead. The West after drawing repeated red lines in the desert sand, has decided to use the Kurds as both a military surrogate and force multiplier for sporadic US air strikes. The US sends arms and military advisors, France provides lethal military kit, Germany non-lethal military aid and the UK air lift capability. Israel although silently, has sent military advisors to support the Kurds as a regional ally with which it maintains a constructive long-term relationship. Yet, in face of austerity, defence cuts and public casualty sensitivity, the West is reluctant to reopen a front in Iraq from which the US and the UK hastily retreated in 2011. As high-altitude air power can neither protect civilians nor defeat IS as a military organization using hybrid strategies, the West relies on the Kurds and to a lesser extent on the Iraqi Armed Forces to deliver the punch on the ground. However, looking at current capabilities of the Islamic State, Western support at current levels will, if anything, only manage to protect those civilians who already found their way to Kurdistan.

Instead of propping up the Kurds as a Western military surrogate only able to fight IS from the outside, the international community should support the Sunni tribes of Iraq who by pragmatically rather than ideologically pledging allegiance to the Caliphate constitute its strategic centre of gravity. The solution in Iraq and Syria lies with those Sunnis who have been systematically marginalized by their respective governments and who have jumped on IS’ jihadist bandwagon to achieve more political self-determination – or at least autonomy. Creating a disconnect between those Sunnis and the mostly foreign mujahedeen of IS would be an approach that would undermine IS’ momentum and deprive the organization of its ability to enforce its medieval customs on a fearful civilian population. The international community would have to distant itself from the idea of Iraq as an integral nation state, would have to accept Sunni claims for autonomy, would have to rely on strategic partners in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to establish links of communication and oversight with Sunni tribesmen, would have to be ready to provide financial and military assistance to these tribesmen, and would have to put boots on the ground as military advisors to train, equip and monitor these tribesmen in establishing stability and security in those areas lost by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to IS. The international community’s current reluctance to accept strategic risks will gradually deteriorate regional insecurity and most importantly endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals living in the conflict zone.

[1] ICISS, (2001). The Responsibility to Protect. The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa: International Development Research Center. (p.IX)


9 thoughts on “How to best externalize the R2P in Iraq?

  1. Jordan says:

    Dr. Krieg,

    An excellent article, but I do have a couple questions and concerns. The Iraqi tribesmen have thrown their support behind IS because they feel disaffected by years of sectarian rule from Baghdad, and IS has been the only significant unified Sunni resistance against Baghdad since the surge. Undermining IS’s position as the lesser of two evils in the minds of Iraqi Sunnis by providing a less radical (and murderous) alternative is hugely important in engineering a long-term solution to the IS threat.

    You briefly mentioned this at the end of your article, but I believe it to be hugely important in considering your point: It seems to me that any tribal uprising in Iraq is doomed from the outset if it is uncoordinated and unsupported. IS is already busy crushing the divided opposition and tribal elements in Syria. The gulf states have shown plenty of willingness to funnel weapons and money to rebel groups in Syria, but have seemingly done little to coordinate the resistance to Assad (and now IS). Without any serious coordination will a Sunni tribal uprising in Iraq face the same fate of as the FSA, Islamic Front, and al-Nusra? Are there any existing organizations or bodies that could realistically serve to coordinate and unify Sunni tribal resistance to IS?

  2. Andreas Krieg says:

    You are absolutely right on that. As I say in the article, it is very important for this support to Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq to be coordinated, monitored and channeled via trusted non-Western sources. While the West can provide guidance, training and equipment, contacts need to be established by GCC countries. Both Qatar and the UAE have done so quite effectively in Libya. And Saudi and Qatar have done so less effectively in Syria. In both cases, however, there was no concerted effort of those engaged in the crises to pull together. In Iraq, however, there seems to be an agreement within the GCC that IS needs to be stopped and that Sunnis have to be strengthened. Thus, both the GCC and the West have to find a common strategic approach to IS as a common threat.

    A high degree of coordination between the West and the GCC built on Arab consensus, which in the case of IS is not that hard to come by, is necessary for this approach to succeed. The problem is usually that Qatar supports different parties to a conflict than Saudi and the UAE. In the case of Iraq that would not happen as at least Saudi and Qatar have an agreement on a common approach when it comes to IS. Both the GCC and the West have to offer something to the Sunnis that makes supporting IS more costly and less beneficial. Financial, political, economic and military support has to be granted to make Sunni Iraq self-sufficient, autonomous and socially just. This is a long-term effort of state building, capacity building and security sector reform. Thereby, IS will lose its fertile ground to feed off and its raison d’etre.

  3. RIBICULOUS says:

    Ah, proxies. Proxies proxies proxies. How gloriously and enthusiastically we leap at the opportunity to salve our own guilt while avoiding our own public’s ire at flag-draped coffins coming home by funnelling money and arms to the nearest enemy-of-my-enemy. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the only real option for defeating IS militarily and politically is to be found in a combination of Sunni tribal tide-turning, Kurdish resurgence and probably (though less appealingly) Shiite protectionism flowing from southern Iraq and backed by Iran.

    But look at what the West’s previous use of proxy State and non-State actors has achieved and it looks depressingly easy to predict the future. The Taliban (whoops I mean the Mujahideen) fighting the Russians, Saddam against naughty Iran, even the Jaish al-Iraqi’s weapons now being used by IS. I’ll go on record to predict that within 10 years we’ll be wringing our hands over Kurdish aggression, Sunni tribal sabre-rattling and Shiite nation-building from Basra outwards. It is a sad fact that the strong men ruling Middle Eastern states with an iron fist pre-Iraq invasion and Arab Spring must seem secretly appealing to western leaders now…we can only deal with one top priority threat at a time in each sphere, it seems.

  4. Nic Stuart says:

    Ah yes, it’s all here and who could fault your motives. You are, Dr Krieg, absolutely correct. The killings are a standing rebuke to us all. And there’s absolutely no way I would defend the horrors of the Islamic State. However the so called ‘responsibility’ that you talk about isn’t a statute. No country has ever signed up to this and I don’t believe they ever will. It’s a legal fiction – nothing more or less than an invention.
    If you’re saying we should intervene, then yes. But why should we prop up the borders arbitrarily drawn by European ‘statesmen’ as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated? If you’re really talking about ‘rights’, don’t the Kurds have a right to their own country? How about the Shiites? Do they have a right to an independent state as well?
    Great idea to do something but I’d like a clear plan, please . . .

  5. Dr Krieg, while we agree largely with much of your analysis, at the moment we will only say that IS and all groups like it are an insult to the 7th century Muslims and the Prophet, a direct contradiction to his teachings and practises of tolerance, peace, and love. So please don’t give us this ‘7th century lifestyle’, it is highly insulting to the majority of Muslims worldwide, as well as aware Jews and Christians like some of us.

    Also, like a previous commentator says, you fail to mention the importance of the root cause of IS’s strength. Here is an article by one of us, a young journalism student, about how the root cause is the solution to the conundrum.

    Ruth Cranston wrote: ‘Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) never instigated fighting and bloodshed. Every battle he fought was in rebuttal. He fought in order to survive…and he fought with the weapons and in fashion of his time… Certainly no ‘Christian’ nation of 140,000,000 people who today dispatch (this is a book written in 1949) 120,000 helpless civilians with a single bomb can look askance at a leader who at his worst killed a bare five or six hundred. The slayings of the Prophet of Arabia (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) in the benighted and bloodthirsty age of the seventh century look positively puerile compared with our own in this ‘advanced’ and enlightened twentieth. Not to mention the mass slaughter by the Christians during the Inquisition and the Crusades – when, Christian warriors proudly recorded, they “waded ankle-deep in the gore of the Muslim infidels.’

  6. Mike says:

    Haniya is ignoring the sectarian abuses by the Sunni government of Saddam against the Kurds and Shia communities, which pre-dates the US invasion.
    Given the vitriol of Iran against Israel, I laughed at his complaint that Israel and the US are being “vitriolic” against Iran.
    If the Sunni moderates think its is acceptable to resolve their lack of dominance by siding with IS, then they are not moderates.
    And in answer to the question “when has US foreign policy intervention ever resulted in a stable country afterwards?” – one need only look outside the Middle East: South Korea, East Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithunania, Estonia, Chech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Grenada, etc.
    The US lead NATO (cold) war to bring about the collapse of the USSR has resulted in the defeated regions breaking up and being a bit of a mess, but as with Iraq, the ethnic divisions pre-date the collapse. Nobody blames the US for the situation in the Ukraine, with the argument that “the US should have supported the USSR”. Another difference is that the dissenfrachised Russian minority in the Ukraine do not think it acceptable to ally with the likes of ISIS in order to regain their status.

    But one part where I do agree is that Democracy must be done for real, with vigorous anti- corruption efforts, lest it become just a sham that discredits both itself and us for supporting it.

  7. Mike says:

    Actually, having read the blog of Haniya more, it seems like he is a classic example of the Institutional Racism of the Islamic Diaspora against westerners.
    According to that narrative, Islam is always the victim of a plot by more powerful outsiders.
    In reality, Maliki was elected by the (Muslim) voters of Iraq, but that doesn’t support the Occidentalphobic narrative, so instead it is “declared” that “the west” imposed “its preferred candidate” Maliki upon Iraq, against their will.
    Likewise, the claim that Blair somehow forced the Shia and Sunni extreamests to attack each other. (And that Saddam had absolutely nothing to do with it, according to this racist narrative, no Muslin is ever responsible for anything bad that happens.)
    Even the crusades, of course: the 1st crusade being called by the leaders of Constantinople in response to the Ottoman army of aggression that was laying siege to the city. But that means Islamic aggressors and Non-Muslim victims, which is against the Occidentalphobic narrative.

    If we are to combat this process of radicalisation, we need to actively rebut the racism of people like Haniya.

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