Kerry Faces Steep Challenges in Middle East Visit

Jun 20, 2014 5:55pm

As the security crisis in Iraq worsens, Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to the Middle East and Europe to consult with partners and allies on the security and stability of the region, and is also likely to go to Iraq soon.

If and when he does go to Baghdad, experts said he’ll have a lot of convincing to do: first, in assuring the Iraqis that the United States isn’t favoring one religious sect over another as it calls for a political transition; and second, to underscore the threat the Islamist extremist group ISIS poses not just to the United States, but also to Iraq itself.

The first charge is a particularly tough needle to thread, as Washington has long been urging Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, to become more inclusive towards Sunnis and Kurds, even as administration officials stop just short of saying he needs to resign.

And on the other side of the sectarian spectrum, the United States has been talking to Shiite-majority Iran about cooperating in the fight against ISIS, a common foe – which has upset Iraqi Sunnis.

But even as both sides are skeptical of the United States’ loyalties, it’s Maliki who is still in charge – and he hasn’t yet demonstrated much interest in heeding the United States’ requests for inclusivity.

“This will be Kerry’s first experience in playing the Iraqi gamesmanship of government formation. He’s in for a rude awakening if he thinks putting an Iraqi government together can be done with a visit here and there,” Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert with the Atlantic Council based in Amman, Jordan, said.

In fact, the last time Kerry tried to persuade Maliki to do something failed, as the politically unpopular Prime Minister last year refused to prohibit Iran from flying over Iraq’s airspace to make arms deliveries to Syria, because Maliki decided he had more of a stake in preventing the Shiite Assad regime from being toppled by Sunni militants than in stopping Iran, Mardini noted.

“Kerry has a tendency of overvaluing not just his influence, but U.S. influence in general,” Mardini said. “He failed because he didn’t understand that it was in Maliki’s interests for those arms to keep flowing to Syria.”

So Kerry will have to explain why the U.S. supports political change without being construed as being anti-Maliki, and also why the U.S. talking to Iran is in the long run a net benefit for all Iraqis, including Sunnis, as well.

While the US wants to encourage the building of political bonds, it simultaneously needs convince the Iraqi military that it is in their interest, as well as the United States’, to defend Iraq against ISIS, said James F. Jeffrey, a deputy National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush who has also held top diplomatic positions in Iraq.

“The problem they have is to convince these guys that ISIS isn’t only a threat to America – they don’t care – but it’s a threat to them,” Jeffrey said.

Iraq’s security forces folded when ISIS made its first incursion into the large northern city of Mosul, but Maliki insisted a week later that his troops were “on the rebound.”

But it’s clear the Iraqis need military help, and Jeffrey praised President Obama for sending hundreds of advisers to work with forces throughout the country.

Jeffrey also said it was wise for Obama to make further military support contingent on political change – even as it remains a very open question whether or not the Iraqis will listen.

At the very least, Jeffrey said, the U.S. must ensure that Iraq does no harm to the United States’ goal of neutralizing ISIS.

“The main thing is to basically get them to be part of the solution,” he said.

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