Washington is losing the battle against Islamic State extremists, and the level of violence in Iraq is likely to get much worse before it gets better, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has warned.
“Clearly, there has been an incredible deterioration, and deterioration means losing,” Crocker told VOA in a Skype interview. But he continued that, “as bad as things are today, they’re better than they’re going to be in a month.”
Crocker, who served in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, is not alone in his pessimism. Zalmay Khalilzad, his immediate predecessor, told VOA the trends in the region are spiraling downward.
“You necessarily need to be, given the current trends, pessimistic in the short term because the underlying factors that could shape the circumstances are heading in a negative direction,” Khalilzad said.
President Barack Obama on Monday acknowledged a lot more needs to be done if the United States and its coalition partners want to defeat the Sunni-based militants.
“One of the areas where we’re going to have to improve is the speed at which we’re training Iraqi forces,” Obama said while in Germany for a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations. “We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis.”
Despite almost a year of U.S.-led airstrikes, extremists in the Islamic State group have continued to seize territory in Iraq and Syria, killing thousands and displacing millions of people.
Iraq’s Shia-majority government has responded by using not only Iraqi security forces, but also Iranian-trained and supported militias.
Both U.S. and Iraqi tactics have had mixed results. The United States claims progress in pushing back Islamic State, but the group has regrouped and attacked on multiple new fronts.
Obama said Baghdad needs to once again reach out to Sunni tribes, echoing the 2005 Sunni Awakening in which the U.S. engaged and paid Sunni tribal fighters to defeat Islamic State’s predecessor, Al-Qaida in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Monday that Washington already is in contact with Sunni leaders in the country.
But Crocker said that without much stronger and consistent U.S. political and diplomatic engagement, Washington risks becoming irrelevant.
“The U.S., I’m afraid, is seen by both our adversaries and our allies as increasingly disengaged and therefore irrelevant in the region – whether it’s Syria or Iraq or Yemen,” he said. “It’s a pervasive view and it’s very, very dangerous, because if we are seen as no longer a major player, well, others will play.”
Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia have become increasingly involved in the region, fueling sectarian tensions and militant violence. In Iraq, this sectarian tension is being ably exploited by Islamic State, said Crocker, who was recently in Jordan speaking to senior Iraqi political leaders.
“For the Sunni inhabitants of those areas to take a stand again, they have to know what would come after ISIS is better than ISIS, and they don’t know that now,” said Crocker. “So ISIS will use this current, highly electric sectarian tension to rally Sunnis to their banner, posturing themselves as the only force that can protect Sunni interests.”
Khalilzad, who was Washington’s ambassador in Iraq at the height of the sectarian conflict from 2005 to 2007, warned that without a regional political solution, existing regional rivalries could conflagrate into a wider, protracted sectarian war.
“There may be sympathizers on the Sunni side from the states and institutions of some of the states, and Iran on the other side, and that could lead to a war that goes on for a very long time - in terms of years, if not decades,” he said.
For the region to normalize, Khalilzad said, its leaders and internal groups have to behave with mutual respect and acceptance. And the United States can have a powerful diplomatic and political role in bringing all the players to the table.
Failing that, Khalilzad said, “as serious as the current problem is, it can get a lot worse. Do we have it within us, do they have it within them, to rise to the occasion? Or will we be witnesses to greater tragedies, greater conflicts, greater loss of life, greater suffering?”