Welcome to the New Iraq War

As rebels make rapid gains, there are few good options for the United States.

Iraq is on the brink of disintegration. Sunni rebels, most prominently the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have seized large swaths of western Iraq. This week they added Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s old hometown. They’re a few hours’ drive from the outskirts of Baghdad. And there’s no telling how far they’ll advance or how quickly it might happen, given that the Iraqi army doesn’t seem particularly interested in offering resistance. The Guardian reports that, according to Iraqi officials, “two divisions of Iraqi soldiers—roughly 30,000 men—simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters.” Liz Sly, the Washington Post’s bureau chief for the region, tweeted pictures of Iraqi army uniforms lying on the road in Mosul—the soldiers had quickly changed out of them as they fled. Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers reported that a local resident had asked one of those soldiers what they were doing—and he said, “We came here for salaries, not to die.”


And as the Iraqi military retreats, it’s not just ISIS taking over. Kurdish forces seized the northern city of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided city on the Kurdish-Iraqi frontier. Kirkuk sits in the middle of rich oil fields, and has accordingly been an epicenter of a long dispute over oil rights between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government—a dispute that had sucked in some of the West’s biggest oil companies and which had risked armed confrontation between the Kurds and Baghdad. With Kirkuk, Kurdistan might see less need to remain part of Iraq. Turkey has moved closer to the Iraqi Kurds in recent years, but before that, many believed that the fall of Kirkuk would provoke a Turkish intervention, too, since the Turks feared that a viable, independent Kurdistan might threaten their own territorial integrity.


And all this has links to Syria, of course. ISIS operates in both countries and rejects nationalism and tribalism. That led to a powerful moment: photographs of ISIS forces bulldozing the berm that divides Iraq and Syria. Students of history will remember that this border has its origins in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the French and British divided the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire between themselves. That border has long been viewed as unnatural—splitting some groups and informing others that their enemies were now their dear countrymen. The result was bitter sectarian division in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; other colonial deals in this era would thwart the Kurds’ national ambitions and lay the groundwork for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The increasingly interconnected rebellions in Syria and Iraq had already lead analysts to wonder aloud whether Sykes-Picot was at last collapsing, and what that would mean for the region’s stability. That discussion is now much more urgent, especially since the broader Sunni insurgency has little respect for the non-Sunni power structures in Damascus and Baghdad and since ISIS regards its territory as an independent, fully realized Islamic State.


Needless to say, the last few days’ developments have provoked a panic in the region’s capitals. Turkey initiated an emergency briefing at NATO. Tehran has reportedly dispatched Ghassem Suleimani, the head of its Special Forces-like Qods Force, to Baghdad to coordinate Shia militias—in other words, he’s doing for Nouri al-Maliki precisely what he did for Bashar al-Assad. Some reports suggest there are Iranian forces on the ground, too. And Al-Maliki has been pushing, as he has before, for America to conduct airstrikes.