The Tikrit Offensive Raises Hard Questions about US Policy

In Iraq, an assault on ISIS-held Tikrit, north of Baghdad, is underway. In theory, this serves US goals: defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and restoring Iraq’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty. In practice, something different and more sinister is underway in Tikrit and Iraq writ large. While this will weaken ISIS in the short-term, it will ultimately deepen Iraq’s sectarian tragedy and undermine the United States’ regional standing and interests. This raises difficult questions about what the United States is and ought to be doing in Iraq.

In a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey welcomed the role of Iranian-backed Shia militia in the battle for predominantly-Sunni Tikrit, provided it did not result in or fuel sectarian tensions. Unfortunately, not only is such tension already rampant in Iraq, but it is difficult to imagine that an Iranian-backed Shia militia attack on a Sunni town will not make it worse. Meanwhile, there are increasing indications that neither Iran nor our ostensible allies in the Iraqi government see the United States as a critical partner in the war effort.

General Dempsey is correct that, in theory and taken in isolation, it matters little who liberates Tikrit, as long as ISIS is defeated. In reality, however, it matters a great deal – not only because Shia militia have a track record of ethnic cleansing and atrocities against Iraqi Sunnis, but also because the increasing role of Iran and its proxy militia in the war on ISIS speaks volumes about the Iraq emerging today. Try as we may to spin it otherwise, the Tikrit offensive is another battle in a long and increasingly open-ended sectarian war, in which the main beneficiaries are not sovereign state institutions but Iran and its proxy militia.

The growing role of Iranian and sectarian militia involvement in fighting ISIS carries serious risks: The first is that of atrocities against Sunnis perceived as belonging to or even neutral toward the insurgency (for that is what ISIS in Iraq is, in addition to being a self-styled ‘state’). One Shia militia commander has promised that Sunni tribes backing ISIS would be punished even more severely than ISIS itself, to avenge the hundreds of Shia Muslims executed earlier by ISIS near Tikrit. That even the relatively moderate Prime Minister Haidar Abadi defines ISIS members broadly is cause for concern.

One could argue that atrocities are an unavoidable part of the reality of civil war and that the latter’s inherent ugliness need not rule out meaningful political change in post-ISIS Iraq. Perhaps, but little about the emerging balance of forces in Iraq indicates that the newly-empowered Shia militia will disarm; that militia leaders who established their credentials in a sectarian war will not expand their influence into official Iraqi institutions; or that Sunnis who rallied behind, tolerated, or simply came to terms with ISIS will not be worse off in the ‘new’ Iraq than they were under Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Prime Minister Abadi appears sincere about addressing the Sunni grievances that enabled the rise of ISIS, but he does not control Iraq or its political establishment. Instead, both his own political survival and that of the Iraqi state increasingly depend on Iran and its militia clients. His efforts to reach out to Sunnis, including by establishing a Sunni national guard to fight ISIS and police Sunni territory, are being obstructed by foreign and domestic players opposed to mobilizing Sunnis whom they suspect of enabling ISIS.

The US policy of militarily supporting and publicly condoning the role of sectarian militia in the Iraqi war carries serious costs. There is the moral issue of effectively taking sides in a sectarian war that is increasingly dominated by Sunni and Shia jihadists. Second, a US strategy that cedes the war on ISIS to Iran and its militia clients further undermines the United States’ already weakened standing among Arab allies that support the war on ISIS, but would strongly prefer it not lead to an Iraq dominated by Iranian-aligned Shia militia. Third, it sends (or reinforces, given the unfortunate US track record in Syria) a message to Sunni Arab populations that the United States is allied with Iran and its clients at a time when it desperately needs Sunni Arab partners.

For reasons that are unclear, the United States has apparently stayed out of the Tikrit offensive. Perhaps it is concerned about the highly visible role of Shia militia and Iranian forces, or calculates that US air support services in Tikrit are not required. Its ostensible allies in the Iraqi government seem to agree; they do not appear overly concerned with the United States’ absence, indicating that while they would prefer US support, they would have “no problem” going it alone—or more accurately, in exclusive partnership with Iran. In fact, Iraqi forces have been operating in the Tikrit area since August 2014, mostly without significant US support.

It is possible that the United States can only reign in Iran and its sectarian militia in Iraq by deploying substantial ground forces there and leading the war against ISIS. At present, however, there is no US appetite for another ground war in Iraq and no guarantee of success if the United States were to fight one. Yet staying the course carries high costs and the resulting Iraq is most certainly not in line with US interests or values. If there is to be any point at all to remaining engaged in Iraq’s troubles, the United States should not signal its approval for what is transpiring there.

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Jeppe Sorensen is a research intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: A Shi'ite fighter rides a motorbike in the town of Hamrin in Salahuddin province March 5, 2015. As Iraqi forces close in, Tikrit's few remaining civilians are cutting up white clothes and fabric to make flags of surrender, fearing their Shi'ite liberators more than the Islamic State militants occupying the Sunni city. (Photo: Reuters)