US President Barack Obama has just authorized the military to carry out targeted airstrikes in Northern Iraq to combat ISIL militants there. In the past couple days, the group devastated the Kurdish Peshmerga (armed fighters) and captured several Christian towns, including the largest one in Iraq. 40,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority have fled to a mountain to escape ISIL while the Christian refugees have congregated around Irbil, the Kurdish capital. Obama says that the US will strike ISIL if they move towards Irbil or the Yazidis holed up in the mountains, and that he wants to protect the lives of US forces helping the Kurds. A deeper analysis, however, reveals that the shadow motivations for authorizing airstrikes in Northern Iraq are to christen Kurdish statehood and enact military pressure against Syria.
The US has a habit of siding with minority groups within any civil conflict, and assistance to the Kurds and Christians is no different. The Kurds had been persecuted under Saddam Hussein and even attacked with poisonous gas back in the 1980s. They have been agitating for self-determination, and the recent fracturing of Iraq due to the ISIL invasion has raised their hopes for independence. In fact, they are even preparing a referendum on this issue.
The persecution of Christians, although historic in the region, has re-emerged only recently. Ever since the 2003 War in Iraq, Christians have been leaving the Mideast in droves. This massive Christian exodus and their targeting by extreme Islamic groups such as ISIL have made them an endangered minority group. One can even say that they are undergoing confessional cleansing.
There are also smaller minority groups such as the Turkomen and Yazidis in Iraq that are under threat by ISIL as well.
The US’ Three-Way Balance of Power Game in Iraq
The US is engaged in a very risky and high-stakes balance of power game in Iraq, seeking to equally manage the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups so none of them are predominant in the shattered state. Since the Shia have been strongest in Iraq before the recent destabilization, the US wanted to empower the Sunnis and Kurds as a counterbalance to retain influence there.
The US doesn’t directly control ISIL, but it does exert indirect influence over its activities. It wanted to shepherd ISIL from afar and guide its actions to help achieve the grand strategic goals of overthrowing the Syrian government and adjusting the balance of power in Iraq. Alas, one cannot shepherd wolves, as ISIL’s numerous victims in Syria and Iraq can woefully attest, and this hazardous attempt has resulted in much ruin and suffering and has largely escaped the management of the US.
One should note that Iraq had previously asked the US for airstrike assistance in the past but it was rejected. It was feared that ISIL would advance on Baghdad, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said that the US didn’t have enough intelligence to strike, nor did it know what the aftereffects of such a strike would be. What the US in effect wanted was for ISIL to pressure the Shia-led Iraqi government to the point where President Maliki would tweak his administration to make it more inclusive to pro-American Sunni and Kurdish representatives, thereby extending US influence over the state. As a result of the US’ refusal to help the Iraqi government, Iraq struck an emergency deal with Russia to provide it with aircraft (which the US had been procrastinating to do) to turn the tide against the militants and save the country from capitulation.
It is interesting to note what has changed in the month and a half since then and what has not. ISIL is still active in the same barren and exposed deserts that they were before, making them just as much of a target now as they were in June, and it is still just as obviously important why they need to be defeated as it was then. The game-changer, however, has been that the ISIL wolves are now attacking the US’ Kurdish lamb, which Washington absolutely will not allow to happen. Besides the balance of power considerations, this is also because Israel has already anointed Kurdish statehood through Peres and Netanyahu’s statements on the matter. Also, the circumstantial combination of persecuted minorities (Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis) and US lives supposedly at stake in Irbil provides the public with a plausible humanitarian cover for a military intervention aimed at shadow purposes.
The Shadow Motives
Besides safeguarding the previously mentioned minority groups, the US is also aiming to achieve strategic shadow objectives that are hidden from the public eye. Irbil is not only the place where the recent Christian refugees are sheltering, but it is also the Kurdish capital. Obama is being misleading when he says that the US is helping the Iraqi Army in this region. De-jure the Kurdish Peshmerga are part of the Iraqi military since they haven’t yet declared independence, but de-facto the unified Iraqi military fled south over a month ago and only the Kurdish forces remain in this area. What the US is really doing is helping to lay the foundations for an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq by strengthening its armed forces and assisting with overall backend logistics. This operation is endangered by ISIL, so the US may resort to a spectacular humanitarian intervention as it did in Kosovo in order to christen the birth of the new Kurdish state. This would be a geostrategic outpost of strong Western influence that can epitomize the US’ regional balance of power stratagem.
A dual shadow effect of US airstrikes in Northern Iraq, besides securing Kurdish independence, would be to pressure the Syrian government. US bombings in this region would be the most significant demonstration of US military force near Syria’s borders since the destabilization in that country began in 2011. Also, since they will be conducted under the pretext of attacking ISIL, they can dangerously result in characteristic US mission creep that may see America expanding the war into the ISIL-controlled portions of Syria. In this manner, Kurdistan, Iraq, ISIL, and Syria are all wound up into the same geopolitical nexus, and the actions of or against one cannot be separated from the rest in this Gordian context.
The US is considering carrying out a humanitarian intervention to protect the Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis in Northern Iraq, but doing so would also advance certain geopolitical imperatives. The pretext of such an operation is plausible enough to garner significant public and, potentially, international support, but observers should not be surprised when this results in collateral political aftereffects. The US has a strong interest in midwifing Kurdish independence and finding a backdoor justification for military involvement in Syria, and first and foremost, these should be seen as the country’s true guiding motivations for any military involvement in Northern Iraq.