The insurgency in Iraq, Syria and beyond is a fight for natural resources as much as political control. Why are we so busy giving leverage to terrorists?
Members of Congress – and the public – who care about a sustainable peace in the Middle East, the wise use of American tax dollars and the balance of power between our branches of government must not stand by as idle accomplices to President Obama’s increased air strikes and weapons deals in Syria.
US-led air strikes make recruiting exponentially easier for the Islamic State (Isis) and other extremist movements without actually making America any safer. And selling weapons to state and non-state actors in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East only aids and abets insurgent movements. Insurgent groups, it seems, have found a reliable source for armaments in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, they’re aiming those weapons we supply at our own allies. This has to stop.
The poor execution of our already weak – or non-existent – political approach to the region fed a willingness among Sunni moderates to support Isis. The grievances felt by those politically and economically marginalized Sunnis – who were never fully reintegrated by the US, by Iraq’s Shia-led government post-invasion or in the post-Sunni Awakening – now provide a foundation of sustainable support for the terrorist group.
But there are other options. The US could avoid repeating its past mistakes in Iraq by deemphasizing its military focus and admitting that air strikes and drone strikes won’t work to effect regional change. A strategy focused on political reconciliation, regional cooperation, arms embargoes and humanitarian aid that finally meets the basic needs of a war-ravaged nation is the only plan that could bring lasting security and political stability.
The US, in coordination with regional Sunni and Shia states, should instead prioritize political reconciliation among all segments of Iraqi society – including former Ba’athists – who denounce associations with Isis or other terrorists groups, thereby shifting critical support away from Isis and towards a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of Iraqi Sunni communities. That would be especially important in rural, less-populated regions, where Isis made vast land gains by relying on temporary alliances in tribal and ethnic regions.
The economic diplomacy approach has also been completely neglected by the international community – despite Isis’s interest in taking over oil-rich and water-rich sectors in northern Iraq. From oil and gas wells to river dams, Isis’s interest in the resource-rich regions is a consequence of America’s post-invasion disinterest in resource sharing or economic security – and of Baghdad’s inability to ensure that Iraq’s natural resources were distributed fairly to its entire population.
The UN Security Council leadership is meeting in New York this week, and coordinating with them on economic solutions – such as closing oil supply lines and cutting off underground markets that provide Isis with up to $3m in profits daily – would be a strategic start to dismantling the organization’s financial support, along with financial sanctions on illicit oil buyers. However, until the international community demands that the Iraqi government distribute its natural resources equally to the benefit of its citizens, the motivation for Isis-type insurgencies to control and cut off government access to said resources will continue.
Like Syria’s civil war, which started with public frustration over mismanaged water supplies during one of the region’s worst droughts, the Isis-led insurgency in Iraq and beyond is a fight for natural resources as much as political control – and they give the international community more leverage against Isis than air strikes ever could.
US engagement in the Middle East requires a new set of principles than those under which we operated in the first decade of this century: no more business as usual, no more going-it-alone. Regional cooperation between Iraq and Gulf States is crucial for bringing lasting stability – without it, the opportunity for violent spillover from one nation to the next expands dramatically.
As the West responds to the crisis in Iraq – which we helped create through years of sanctions and military intervention – the US needs to prioritize regional cooperation and human development initiatives that deliver both economic prosperity and shared security for all Iraqis. By engaging regional leaders (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and tribal leaders within Iraq), the US can support efforts to alleviate the turmoil in Iraq, rather than just try to quash it through military force.
This is how America can help. Anything else is merely a repeat of the past.