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Cooperation on regional and global issues

18 - Relations with the US on Syria, Northern Iraq and the Wider Middle East

Grade: B-
Unity 4/5
Resources 3/5
Outcome 5/10
Total 12/20
Scorecard 2013: A- (16/20)
Scorecard 2014: D+ (4/20)

The US has re-engaged in Iraq but is criticised as lacking an effective strategy for Syria as the West struggles to combat ISIS.

The rise of ISIS and its rapid expansion in northern Iraq was one of the biggest stories of 2014. The fall of Mosul and the beheading of American and British citizens in the summer transformed US public opinion and the political debate in Washington. After trying to avoid becoming embroiled in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration did a U-turn and launched a new military effort against ISIS. After years of neglect, the US re-engaged diplomatically in Iraq and succeeded in brokering the departure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which was deemed a necessary precondition for action against ISIS.

However, the US strategy for this new war has come under widespread criticism, since there is currently no prospect of scaling up if necessary and there is no political plan for Syria. And in any case, few believe it will be effective. The decision to go to war was also taken unilaterally; allies were only truly consulted after the fact and the strategy did not take their substantive concerns into account. Five European states (France, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium) have carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq; none have been involved in strikes on Syrian territory. Others decided not to participate, although all condemn ISIS.

There is concern on both sides of the Atlantic that Western military action against ISIS may increase the risk of terrorist attacks at home, but the US assessment is that regional powers are unable to carry the load on their own, especially if the West wants to avoid empowering Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as partners in the fight (which would also alienate Sunni Gulf allies).

As for US policy toward the region as a whole, the discussion in Washington now focuses on two strategic choices: returning to the traditional Gulf allies or greater cooperation with Iran. The former appears more likely. A third option of democratisation and political reform is generally believed to lack viability until stability returns.