The Collapse of Iraq
(7/2014) A few months ago, Iraq appeared to be pacified and reasonably stable. Its spiraling security issues and troubles with the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were minor concerns compared to the crises in Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Then last month, seemingly in the blink of an eye, all that changed.
A new extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL depending on translation), executed a rapid, and shockingly effective, offensive from the Syrian-Iraqi border straight toward Baghdad in the heart of the country. Along the way, the group seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Saddam
Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, along with other towns and villages.
It was a well-coordinated and strategic assault. Although the military forces of the Iraqi central government were trained and armed by the U.S. military—at great expense—their morale was weak and they lacked the support of Iraq’s civilians. When ISIS showed up, many simply laid down their weapons, changed out of their uniforms, and fled. ISIS seized
their equipment and robbed banks in its newly captured territory. The militants also laid siege to Baiji, Iraq’s largest oil refinery and the provider of electricity to Baghdad. A map released by ISIS showing its desired territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq overlaps numerous oilfields, revealing their goal to establish an economically viable state by controlling energy
ISIS has been around for a while as an al Qaeda affiliate, although the two groups parted ways in February and are now competing for influence in the region. It took advantage of the power vacuum in Syria to set up a base of operations in the northern part of the country, which became the staging ground for its offensive into Iraq. The group now moves
across the border freely, and even made a show of bulldozing a portion of the borderline that was drawn by Westerners after World War I when France and Britain were divvying up their imperial holdings.
Members and most supporters of ISIS are Sunni Muslims who believe they have been unfairly marginalized by Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite who has consistently exercised his power to benefit Iraq’s Shiite population at the expense of the Sunnis. While the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide in the Middle East is centuries old, the conflict now has more to do
with political representation and the failure of Maliki’s leadership than with personal animosity between the sects.
ISIS took advantage of the simmering Sunni resentment toward Maliki to recruit new members and encounter less resistance as it cut its path through Sunni-majority territory en route toward Baghdad. Not all Sunnis support ISIS, but as long as Maliki continues to ignore them and threatens to send Shiite militias into their towns, it’s hard to imagine
them lifting a finger against ISIS.
The sectarian dimension of the conflict explains the complicated positions of the other major players in the region. Supporting Maliki (or at least opposing ISIS), are Shiite-led Iran and the Assad government in Syria. This could have the unusual outcome of putting the Iran-backed paramilitary organization Hezbollah on the same side in Iraq as its
mortal enemy, the United States, even while the two continue to be diametrically opposed in the conflict next door in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which are dominated by Sunni majorities, have been a major source of financial backing for ISIS. Their concern for Iraq and Syria seems to be little more than as a proxy battleground in their historical
power struggle with Iran.
The other major sect worth mentioning is the Kurds, who occupy semi-autonomous regions in Northern Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Iraqi Kurds also happen to command a seasoned military force called the Peshmerga, who aren’t afraid to put up a fight against ISIS should the group stray too close to its territory. So far, the Kurds have taken advantage of
the ISIS offensive and dissolution of the Iraqi central government’s forces to capture Kirkuk, an energy hub that they have long desired, but have otherwise declined to take on ISIS head-on. They may still have an important role to play, however, should Maliki reverse course and offer them more political representation in the central government.
Amid this tangled web, there are few good options for the United States to get involved. While ISIS is a threat to regional and international security, U.S. policy in the region makes it difficult to intervene in any meaningful way, especially without having to simultaneously get much more directly involved in Syria than it has so far been willing to.
Unless Iran joins the call for a change in leadership, preventing the fall of the Iraqi central government unfortunately also means propping up Maliki, who doesn’t deserve to be propped up, and whose continued rule will give more life to the Sunni revolt that is allowing ISIS to succeed.
President Obama’s approach, as usual when considering a course of action that could draw the country back into armed conflict in the Middle East, has been measured and cautious. Many do not find his response in these situations to be adequate, and no one could call it an example of inspiring leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The fundamental
problem with the War on Terror, as with the War on Drugs, is that it gives blanket authorization for endless forays into an unwinnable war. The elimination or even containment of ‘terrorists’ is not a conceivable objective. The harder we try, the more we create, and there will always be safe haven territory for them that the United States cannot control.
For Iraq, the most plausible victory condition—a secure, representative, and democratic central government in control of its borders—can only be achieved by a change in course by Iraqis themselves. If that is out of reach, Iraq is already a failed state, and we should get used to speaking about it as three distinct entities—the Shiite, Sunni, and
Kurdish regions—rather than one.
Read other article by Scott Zuke