Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The New US 'Game Plan' in Iraq and the Middle East.

President Obama made plain at the NATO summit in Wales last week that when confronting the Islamic State, 'We haven't got a strategy yet'. As regards what to do about IS militarily counter-insurgency strategies are being formulated but why a US President would admit having no strategy in public is intriguing.

One reason for this 'public diplomacy' is, quite obviously, that the US is reacting to rapidly changing circumstances on the ground in northern Iraq. The US is responding to events over which it does not have that much control given that since August, when bombing of IS position began, it has only contained IS.

Certain immediate threats as IS posed to the Mosul Dam and Iraq's electricity production and water supply have been staved off. At present, The US has bombed ISIS patrols menacing the Haditha Dam, Iraq's second largest hydroelectric power plant.

In fact, neither Obama nor British Prime Minister David Cameron even refer to 'the Islamic State' or even 'ISIS' in their speeches but to 'ISIL'. To refer to an 'Islamic State' would be giving legitimacy to a self proclaimed Caliphate state. To call it ISIS could imply action in Iraq and Syria.

Refering to 'ISIL' is the handiest acronym because it narrows it down to the Islamic State in Iraq while keeping the 'L' which stands for Levant and hence the plans to expand the Islamic State from Iraq towards the Eastern Medierranean, indeed, to the entire region- Lebanon, Palestine Jordan, Southern Turkey and Israel.

The other reason for referring to 'ISIL' is the Islamic State was once a Sunni insurgent group in Iraq called ISI fighting in Iraq's sectarian wars against Shi'ite militias during the bloody aftermath created by the 2003 US-British invasion with only mere ambitions to spread it out further to the Levant to create a Caliphate.

By refusing to call the Islamic State by the name 'IS' or 'ISIS', the US and Britain would hope to play down the fact it claims to be 'Islamic' as opposed to a straighforwardly terrorist organisation. This would also impress upon its Saudi and Qatari allies the fact it is not really truly Islamic, a sore point in the region.

So when Obama states there is 'no strategy' and that its a direct terror threat to the world he is trying to get opinion in the US and in regional states behind him because he is aware how unpopular the US became at home and abroad, especially in the Middle East, after Bush's invasion and the 'war on terror'.

Obama is trying a low key form of approach and also trying to make it easier for Arab League states to realise they have far more to lose if they were not to join in and assist the 'international core coalition' of states that have agreed to take the necessary measures to asssist Iraqi and Kurdish troops fight IS.

To that end, it is important that Obama's public diplomacy downplays any possibility that Assad has a role in Syria and to stress a Sunni coalition of states in checking IS. That's designed to make potential Arab League cooperation go down easier with the public or in the so-called 'Arab streets'.

If threats to the US 'homeland' are no a clear and present danger but could be due to the number of foreign fighters ( i.e jihadists ) with European visas later going on to the US to threaten it ( as Obama has claimed is rationale for 'going on the offense' ), this calls into question what the 'game plan' actually is in fact.

While claiming that "this is not the equivalent of the Iraq war", the rationale is, as it was back in 2003, connected to the quest for energy security: only this time the very threats to regional security said to have been posed by Saddam Hussein are far more so a decade on.

Iraqi oil remains a vital component of OPEC's total oil production needed to keep global oil prices stable or falling at between $110 to $100 per barrel so as to ensure the recovery of the world's major developed and developing economies. The global economy is very sensitive to oil price surges at present.

Julian Jessop, chief global economist of Capital Economics made this plain in June 2014 "We suggest that, as a rule of thumb, the net impact of a $10 rise in oil prices is to cut global growth by around 0.2-0.3 percentage points". Over the last decade there have been some changes, however,

The 'shale revolution' in the US allowed the US to withdraw from Iraq by 2011 and refocus upon the challenges posed by China's economic ascendancy, one largely unhindered by the financial crash and subsequent economic slowdown of 2007-2008.

Yet the North America's rising oil production is not sufficient to meet the rise in global demand caused by accelerating industrialisation and economic growth in China. The IEA, the US authority on energy, made plain future increases in the Middle Eastern oil production are vital.

As the IEA report forecast makes quite clear. 60 percent of expected growth in OPEC's crude production capacity in 2019 would come from Iraq. Iraq does, after all, hold the world's fifth largest oil reserves and had been unable to meet full capacity under Saddam and after 2003.

So the reasons the US is ready to intervene militarily in Iraq ( and even Syria if necessary ) are fourfold; energy security, the prospect of regional instability posed by IS, containing China's growing power and checking Iran's and Russia's geopolitical designs in the Great Middle East from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.

Firstly, the US and the 'international' core alliance needs to protect and secure the oil producing regions of southern Iraq and Kurdistan from attack and sabotage by IS operatives. These regions accounted for the largest jumps in oil production and exports in 2014.

With oil exports from Libya having declined following the outbreak of conflict in 2011, the collapse of a functioning state after Gaddafi was toppled and with Tripoli haven fall to Islamist jihadists, Iraq's oil fields are being tapped to make up the shortfall in production.

Secondly, the US needs to shore up and protect the GCC nations from potential blowback from Syria. Having allowed funds to be transfered to Sunni jihadists in Syria and backed groups such as al Nusra, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in the sights of IS as a potential terror target.

Thirdly, the 'international coalition' is a western one which aims at preserving and enhancing US global leadership and influence in the Middle East against potential Chinese inroads within the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Egypt where China has been vying for arms deals and influence

Defending Qatar and Saudi Arabia is considered a vital US and British interest no matter how risky, bungling and even opposed the Gulf Powers strategies have been in Syria where both powers backed the most fanatical jihadists as a means to determine a post-Assad future against each other and Iran.

The US still depends on Saudi Arabia for around 10% of its crude oil imports but Saudi Arabia has the West 'over the barrel' because its a vital ally, just as Qatar is too, because both are opposed to Iran which is a major oil and gas rival that is more friendly towards China.

To maintain a US army and naval presence in the Persian Gulf is considered essential as a check not only on Iran but also as a potential means to control the sea lanes between the Middle East and China and so to contain any threat posed by rival alliances.

That's where Afghanistan is important. By threatening an energy deprived Pakistan with sanctions if it accepted gas from an Iranian-Pakistan pipeline, the US and other Western powers could back the TAPI pipeline alternative without alienating China too much.

Fourthly, President Obama's continued stress on not dealing with Assad until IS is either destroyed or its power broken down in Iraq and on the alliance with the Arab League is about ensuring Iranian amitions to unite Iraq and Syria under its Shi'ite leadership is prevented.

The US, France and Britain would prefer a predominant Sunni government in Damascus or one amenable to Western influence, to block off the possibility of an Iranian gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf stretching through to the Eastern Mediterranean where Russian firms are being allowed to explore Syria's offshore gas.

Qatar and Turkey prefer a pipeline that runs between the Qatari part of the South Pars gas field it shares with Iran to run via Syria towards Turkey as part of a regional energy strategy that further contains Iran and averts the export of LNG via an Iranian controlled strategic 'chokepoint' in the Straits of Hormuz,

These are the real factors underlying the geopolitics of the conflict in the Middle East.

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