Iraq summit creates good headlines but little else

Iraq summit creates good headlines but little else
Analysis: A Paris summit on combating IS gave the illusion of action but revealed divisions in the US-led coalition against the group, says Zak Brophy.
5 min read
03 June, 2015
Abadi said the expansion of IS was a 'failure for the world' [Getty]
The recent fall of Ramadi and most of Anbar province to the Islamic State group was a slap in the face to those who had been lauding the successes of the Iraqi mission to 'degrade and destroy' the militia.

On the back of this "setback", the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, travelled to Paris on Tuesday to meet ministers from 20 countries involved in a US-led coalition against IS. 

The conference spawned some good headlines such as "10,000 Islamic State militants killed in nine months" and "US-led coalition doubles down on IS group strategy". In reality, the conference revealed much about divisions among the coalition and little about strategy.

The first nose to be put out of joint was that of the Kurdish leadership in Iraq, who were not invited to attend.

"The federal government didn't invite any representative from Kurdistan to the Paris meeting and has participated in this gathering alone," said a statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government's foreign ministry.

"We were expecting the central government of Iraq as well as international community to respect the Kurdistan region and the Peshmerga and value the region's great efforts to protect more than 1.5 million refugees despite our limited facilities," it added.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been one of the most effective ground forces against the IS but bitter divisions between the Kurdish leadership and the government in Baghdad continue to hobble efforts for greater cooperation.

"The head of the government of Iraq as one country represented [the Kurds] at this conference. But certainly, they are a key part of our strategy. We have supported them and we'll continue to do so," responded Marie Harf, a a spokeswoman for the Obama administration.

The blame game

Abadi arrived at the conference in combatative mode, decrying "a failure on the part of the world" in combating IS. This statement perhaps pre-empted the likely criticisms of the Iraqi army's failure to put up more of a fight in Anbar or the lack of political progress in Baghdad.

Many of the coalition partners have been banking on Abadi to unpick and resolve the highly divisive and sectarian politics of his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, and frustrations have been growing over his failure to deliver.

The diplomatic tenor to the officials' statements did little to hide some of those festering grievances, with France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius announcing on the eve of the conference that the Iraqi population conquered by the extremists would not rise against them "unless there is a feeling that the government is inclusive".

Opinions differ on whether Abadi has been unable or unwilling to bring Iraq's large Sunni and Kurdish populations in from the cold considering he inherited a deeply divided military and political establishment riddled with corruption that is subject to extreme outside interference.

Nonetheless many interational partners have been reticent to significantly increase arms supplies until there has been more progress on the political front.

In Paris, Abadi bemoaned the lack of materiel and ammunition supplies, telling the room: "We haven't seen much. Almost none. We're relying on ourselves, but fighting is very hard this way."

This will probably have annoyed officials from the US, considering the billions they have spent training and arming the Iraqi military, only to see IS run roughshod through their ranks, and stealing tonnes of munitions including thousands of Humvee vehicles in the process.

"The Americans are making any increased support for Abadi conditional on how strong a leader his is and how successful he is in building a more inclusive government. This constant conditioning of support is angering Abadi," said Mohammed Shareef, a visiting lecturer in politics and international relations of the Middle East at the University of Exeter.

Lacking a strategy

In response to Abadi's calls for more weapons, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that Washington was sending 2,000 anti-tank missiles to Iraq to use against armoured trucks that IS has used to devastating effect in suicide bomb attacks.

Despite this shipment, Washington's overall strategy remains broadly unchanged - relying on a mix of airstrikes, intelligence sharing and assistance for Iraqi ground operations.

The pitfalls of the US air campaign, which doesn't enjoy reliable and solid support, was thrown into stark relief on Wednesday with raids in Huweijeh killings dozens of civilians.

The town is controlled by IS but local sources including hospital officials confirmed that all of the dead and injured in the strikes were civilians including women and children.

Abd Allah al-Jabouri, a Sheikh from a local clan, told al-Araby: "These are the heaviest strikes yet that have targeted civilians here. Eight months ago we were being struck by the Iraqi airforce but then they stopped. Now the coalition planes have committed a massacre on the civilians of this area because of the presence of IS."

That IS convoys are still able to move along arterial roads through the desert throws up some serious questions about exactly what the coalition planes are bombing.

The strategic priorities in Washington also appear somewhat fluid, much to the dismay of its allies in the region.

John Allen, the special US presidential envoy to the coalition, told a conference at the Brookings Institute in Doha on Wednesday: "The loss of Ramadi highlighted the vital importance of Anbar province not simply as part of the shaping operations for the recovery of Mosul but as a strategic priority in the campaign."

And yet only as recently as April did Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say the fall of Ramadi wouldn't be a significant strategic defeat for the US-Iraqi campaign against IS.

Finally, all of the focus on Iraq completely sidelines engaging with how to tackle IS in Syria, where the militia is making steady and consistent gains.

For political reasons the US led coalition has decoupled the two missions. In reality, they are one in the same. That however appears to be another can of worms for another day.