by Mark N. Katz
The radical jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL or ISIS), has seized much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland and reached the outskirts of Baghdad. The armed forces of Iraq’s US-backed, Shia majority elected dictatorship have not only failed to prevent this, but are also fleeing as ISIS advances.
There is a real possibility that the government of Nouri al-Maliki will fall, and that ISIS will be able to reassert Sunni Arab minority rule over Iraq, which existed under Saddam Hussein and well before him. An ISIS in charge of Iraq will also be able to aid its beleaguered compatriots in Syria fighting the Assad regime, as well as help Sunni jihadists in other neighboring countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and perhaps even Iran (where there is indeed a large Sunni population believed to be highly disaffected from Tehran’s Shia rulers).
What is currently happening in Iraq does not serve the interests of America, its Western and Arab allies, or anyone except the jihadists. The Obama administration, however, is not going to re-intervene in Iraq now after only recently ending the long, costly, and inconclusive US-led intervention there, as well as winding down a similar one in Afghanistan. Congress and the American public are unlikely to support intervention anyway, as the widespread US domestic opposition to Obama’s 2013 request for congressional approval for a much more limited strike on Syria demonstrated.
Can anything, then, be done to stop ISIS from seizing more of Iraq, including Baghdad? Or, under the current circumstances, is that simply inevitable?
Nothing is inevitable. The rise of ISIS so far has less to do with its strength than with the weakness of its main adversary, the Maliki government. Right now, ISIS’s “control” is quite tenuous. Indeed, ISIS might be just as surprised as everyone else that the collapse of the Maliki government has created a vacuum allowing it to move in. Still, ISIS’ newfound gains also mean that its forces are likely stretched thin — and thus vulnerable — at present.
There are accordingly policy options for halting the spread of ISIS and even rolling it back that exist between US intervention on the one hand and doing nothing on the other. One of the most important of these arises from the fact that ISIS is not only opposed by the U.S., but also by neighboring states and important groups inside Iraq. Indeed, the rise of ISIS threatens these local and regional actors far more than it does the U.S., thus giving Washington opportunities to support those who are strongly motivated to resist this jihadist militia. These include:
The Kurds: While the Maliki government’s forces have fled from ISIS, the Kurdish Regional Authority has made clear that it intends to resist and has already seized control of the divided northern city of Kirkuk.
Shia Arabs: The Maliki government’s impotence notwithstanding, the Iraqi Arab Shia majority has a very strong incentive to oppose ISIS’ efforts to re-impose a Sunni minority regime upon them.
Anti-Jihadist Sunni Arabs: While Sunni Arabs initially resisted the American-led military intervention and supported ISIS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), many Sunni Arab tribesmen later allied with the U.S. against AQI since it was increasingly attacking them. These Sunni tribes, whom Maliki alienated when America withdrew, have not forgotten how al-Qaeda treated them — and ISIS has not forgotten how these tribes fought with the Americans.
Iran: Despite the many differences between Washington and Tehran, one common interest (that is seldom recognized publicly) is that both fear the rise of radical Sunni jihadist movements, including ISIS.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan: Despite their fears of Iran and their support for the opposition to Tehran’s ally, the Assad regime, these Sunni Arab monarchies in particular have strong reason to fear that the rise of jihadist forces in Iraq will threaten them sooner or later (indeed, this will probably happen sooner rather than later).
There are, then, plenty of local and regional actors that are strongly motivated to resist the rise of ISIS that the US and others can either actively or (in Iran’s case) passively support. The problem, of course, is that these actors often distrust each other and act at cross-purposes. An American diplomatic initiative, though, could help minimize these differences.
Essentially, what everyone needs to understand is that Iraq is simply too fractious to be successfully ruled by a strong central government. Instead, it can either exist as a federation, in which each of its three main communities has autonomy within the area of the country where it is the majority, or co-exist as three de facto, or even de jure, independent states. And, even if the borders between these three regions cannot be completely agreed upon, the areas of disagreement can be minimized and arrangements made to accommodate contested mixed areas in particular.
Those who object to cooperation with Iran on the basis that they are anti-American should be reminded that despite their differences, the US and Iran were able to cooperate to some extent against the Taliban in the early stages of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, and that Iran gave more support to the US-backed Maliki government than any of Washington’s Sunni Arab allies. We have already proved, in other words, that we can cooperate pragmatically when our interests are at stake.
Those who object to cooperation with Saudi Arabia on the basis that it supported al-Qaeda elements in the past should be reminded that after al-Qaeda began launching attacks inside the kingdom in 2003, Riyadh well understood that Sunni jihadists will attack it when the opportunity arises.
Finally, those who object to cooperation with the Kurds on the basis that Turkey, among others, will object should be reminded that Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Authority in Northern Iraq have established a remarkable degree of economic cooperation, that Turkey has its own internal Sunni jihadist problem, and that a strong Kurdish government in Northern Iraq helps protect Turkey from ISIS or similar groups, which would probably attack Turkey from Iraq if they could.
ISIS will not prevail because it has suddenly grown much stronger. ISIS can prevail, though, if those who could work with one another to stop it fail to do so.
Photo: A screenshot from a video purportedly showing an execution of a man by ISIS.