© Josh Sager – June 2014
Over the past week, Iraq has essentially exploded into a conflict that will likely result in the complete dissolution of the country. Ethnic tensions are reaching a breaking point and extremists are preparing for an immensely bloody civil war.
Unfortunately, this unrest in Iraq threatens to draw the USA back into the unwinnable situation that we are only starting to escape. Given the facts today, it is not unrealistic to worry that the US’s withdraw from Iraq in 2011 has been less an end to war than an intermission between battles.
The Collapse of Iraq…Again
A group of terrorists called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has mobilized within Iraq, using support from its branches in Syria and other Arab nations to capture large swathes of the country. Their goal is to capture Baghdad, consolidate control over their winnings, and create an independent Sunni theocracy using sections of Iraq, Syria, and possibly Jordan.
ISIS is arguably the most vicious, extreme, and violent Islamic terrorist group on earth (contested by Boko Haram, who burn schoolchildren to death for learning and recently became infamous for kidnapping hundreds of teenage girls to sell into slavery or use in a prisoner swap). They are a fundamentalist Sunni sect who see the other sects of Islam as blasphemous and who seek to impose their particular brand of Sharia law. In service of their agenda, ISIS has, among other things, committed mass executions of Iraqi civilians and troops and performed public amputations as punishment for thieves. To put the sheer extremism of ISIS into perspective, you need only know that Al Qaida has publically denounced them for killing too many innocent people during their jihad—apparently, even the people who crash planes into building filled with civilians see ISIS as too extreme.
Put simply, ISIS is the Westborough Baptist Church of terrorist groups and is the proverbial match that is thrown into the powder-keg that is Iraq. Ever since being “liberated” from Saddam, Iraq has been spiraling through periods of ethnic civil war between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, and this advance of extremist Sunnis will only result in more such conflict.
Currently, ISIS controls a 500km section of northwestern Iraq, including the major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah and the oil resources of Mosul. In addition to the land they have captured, ISIS has gained access to significant military hardware from the Iraqi troops who have largely fled in the face of the ISIS advance, and hundreds of millions of dollars from banks in the cities they now control.
Given their recent successes and apparent access to weapons and resources, it is almost certain their next step will be to take Baghdad. If this happens, the Iraqi government will be essentially supplanted as the major authority in the non-Kurdish sections of the country (the Kurds have a semi-autonomous region in the north protected by a well-trained militia called the Peshmerga). The Iraqi government understands this and has asked for American support, including both human resources (advisers, specialists, and special forces) and drones.
Unfortunately, even if the US intervenes, it appears that the authority of the Iraqi government is collapsing. Many Sunni Iraqis prefer ISIS to the majority-Shiite Iraqi government, thus it will likely be hard for them to retake control of these regions without local support.
Iraq War III?
Obama has announced that he is sending 300 troops into Iraq for non-combat purposes, but there is a very real danger that this could become a slippery slope to another war in the Middle East. If many of these soldiers are killed, Obama could feel compelled by political pressure to save face by sending in more troops to get revenge (or he could emulate Reagan in Lebanon and just withdraw, but he would likely be excoriated by the GOP for not being “strong on defense”).
To complicate things, this war would have the USA interests aligning with those of Iran and Bashar Assad—Iran wants to keep Iraq as a Shiite ally while Assad is fighting against ISIS for control over Syria—and any “victory” against ISIS would end up strengthening both Iran and Assad.
Put simply, the situation in Iraq is geopolitical quicksand that threatens to pull everybody involved into the region into a catastrophic quagmire. If we allow ourselves to get too embroiled in this conflict, we risk stumbing into a new war; that said, ignoring the fall of Iraq to ISIS could fully destabilize the Middle East and ignite a regional war (according to the UN) that spirals into a massive international conflict.
My Suggestion for the US
The Iraqi situation is a disaster, but it is one that can be managed to provide several less-disastrous outcomes.
If in control over US foreign policy, I would support fracturing Iraq along ethnic lines, creating a Kurdish northern nation (as is already self-organized), a Sunni Western nation, and a Shiite Eastern nation—this would solve many of the ethnic conflict inherent to Iraq since it was created through the tried and true European “just draw lines on the map” method that it was fond of using in the Middle East.
This split is a good option that benefits all three major groups in Iraq:
- Many Iraqi Sunnis prefer ISIS to the Iraqi government, thus a split of Iraq would conform to their preferences better than potential retaking of the lost sections of Iraq.
- If Iraq is split, the Shiite nation could focus on repelling ISIS from their lands and would not face the impossible task of retaking western Iraq from ISIS while fighting the local Sunni populations.
- The Kurds have long wanted independence from Iraq and this is a good opportunity to give it to them. The main opponent to an independent Kurdistan has been Turkey, and even they have signaled recently that they are no longer opposed to the idea (likely they prefer a stable Kurdish nation on a large part of their southern border to a nation run by ISIS).
While pursuing this split, I would use the common enemy of ISIS to bolster talks with Iran and would attempt to bootstrap a nuclear non-proliferation deal to a mutually beneficial solution to the ISIS crises.
If Iraq splits, ISIS will be contained in the region by enemies on all sides—the Sunni-Iraqi nation, Kurdish Peshmarga, and the militaries of Jordan and Syria would act as a buffer that keeps these extremists’ control from spreading further.
At no point would I ever authorize a new invasion of Iraq by the USA, nor would I implement drones on any wide scale. Either of those options would result in the USA becoming the enemy that could rally support for ISIS, particularly if the USA decides to start dropping drone missiles onto civilians—nothing radicalizes people faster than the deaths of their families to an invader, and it would be foolish to give ISIS such a powerful recruiting tool.