Teleconference: Can Iraq Be Saved? The US, ISIS and Iraqi Political Reconciliation

August 13, 2014 // 10:00am11:00am
Podcast (Audio-only): 
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The situation in Iraq is as complicated as it is grim. ISIS continues to surge as the US tries to contain its gains through military strikes and direct military assistance to the Kurds. Meanwhile Baghdad boils as a new Prime Minister-designate faces off against an old one who refuses to give way. What are the prospects for checking ISIS and for political reconciliation in Iraq?

The Takeaways from the teleconference:
1) There is still hope for a unified Iraq. However, that vision can only be achieved through inclusivity; neither Shiites, Sunnis, nor Kurds, can rule the country on their own
2) In order to tackle the ISIS threat, regional and international powers must have shared strategies and objectives in both Iraq and Syria.
3) There are no immediate solutions to this threat. In order to reestablish regional stability, the U.S. and other international powers must be willing to commit political and strategic resources to Iraq, Syria, and throughout the region for years to come.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is posing both a political and strategic threat to Iraq and the wider Middle East. Since it seized control of Mosul in June, the terrorist group has gained valuable resources, bolstered its numbers, and posed an increasing threat to the Iraqi people – particularly its minorities – in addition to threatening the country’s long-term cohesion. As in Syria, ISIS has capitalized on preexisting political and sectarian tensions in order to gain support. In light of such an unprecedented threat, an extraordinary military and political response is needed. 

Speaking from Iraq, Barham Salih acknowledged that, since removing Saddam Hussein from power, Iraqi political elites have been a “total failure” and put the country on an unsustainable path. Under Noor al-Maliki, sectarian politics and a “winner takes all” mentality have dictated Iraqi politics. By replacing chief officials with political allies, Maliki marginalized the country’s Sunni population and left parts of the country vulnerable to ISIS’ influence. Dr. Salih now believes that forming a unity government under Haidar al-Abadi is the “last chance for the country.” By using its military assistance as leverage, he hopes that the U.S. and other international powers force Baghdad to take meaningful steps, while also encouraging regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to take a more proactive and coordinated approach to tackling extremism in Syria and throughout the region.

Similarly, Samir Sumaidaie stressed that in Iraq, money and military support cannot ensure stability; political reform is also needed. In order for the country to remain unified and prosperous, efforts must be directed at “getting sectarianism out of politics.” In such a multifaceted country, any group that pursues unilateral interests, like PM Maliki did, is destined to breed disharmony and violence. Although the humanitarian crisis currently facing the country demands a swift response, Mr. Sumaidaie stressed the need for U.S., Iraqi, and regional leaders to agree on a long-term strategy for combatting ISIS and extremism across the region.

Like the other speakers, Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad agreed that “forming a unity government is a necessary step” in achieving stability in Iraq. However, with ISIS drawing support from communities throughout Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East, the U.S. and other countries throughout the region must be willing to commit to a broader long-term strategy. Such an effort would require sending political advisors to Iraq in order to help Abadi form a new government, while also working with regional powers to restore stability in Syria, where ISIS first began to gain traction. Without a political solution in Syria, “defeating ISIS will be impossible.” With these necessities in mind, Dr. Khalilzad believes that the biggest challenge facing President Obama will be convincing both the U.S. Congress and the American public that reengaging in the Middle East is in the country’s best interest.

However, having seen ISIS grow over the past few months, from a domestic threat in Syria, to a regional power that threatens the entire Middle East, it should be clear that, should ISIS continue to go unchecked, it could soon threaten the entire globe. Serious and coordinated action needs to be taken now.

Event Speakers List: 
  • Jane Harman // Director, President and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and Former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq
  • Former Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States
  • Aaron David Miller // Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar
    Historian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003.
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