Welcome to the New Iraq War
But Washington’s resisting. That reflects the severe complexity that it faces in the rebel advance. Yes, the rebels are headed by a barbarous jihadi group that’s been known to crucify people and that traces its intellectual bloodlines to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda in Iraq head who was so vicious that Al Qaeda rebuked him and some Shiites thought he was the Sufyani, a brutal tyrant whose arrival is a sign that the apocalypse is nigh. But the rebels also include a range of other Sunni factions, important elements of which are rivals of ISIS or which even appeal to Saddam’s old Baathist ideology. And this rebellion is hardly coming out of nowhere. Al-Maliki has made little effort to address Sunni concerns and has allowed the Iraqi military to become an increasingly Shia-sectarian force. There are hordes of Iraqi Sunnis who don’t like Al Qaeda but also felt that Al-Maliki’s government was tyrannical. Many of the reports from freshly conquered Mosul and Tikrit noted indifference and even happiness on the part of the locals.
That presents a challenge to Washington. After all, ISIS is likely to become a severe threat to American security. Letting it seize more territory and more resources—including key oil sites and, allegedly, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of currency in Mosul’s banks—is extremely risky. A de facto Sunni state stretching across Syria and Iraq would impart centrifugal forces to the region. Would Kurdistan rise, with Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran feeling the pull? Would the non-Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria effectively become their own countries? Would Lebanon reignite? Iran appears poised to gain greater influence over what is left of Iraq as the Iraqi government grows desperate—and if the leading Shia seminaries of Najaf are endangered to the point that clerics move to Qom, Najaf’s Iranian rival for Shia leadership, Iran might gain expanded religious influence for many years. And further ISIS advances will only intensify sectarian confrontation and encourage radicalism on all sides.
Yet intervening on behalf of the al-Maliki government would present its own problems. Iraqi Sunnis would see America as taking sides in a sectarian conflict. ISIS would be left with no doubt that America is its mortal enemy, and might feel it needs to put more energy into attacks on Americans. America would be fighting on Iran’s side, and effectively on Bashar al-Assad’s side, too. And it would be fighting to preserve the old colonial boundaries, which in the long term might be the greater source of regional instability. The logical tensions in such a policy might lead to a broader American realignment: pulling back from the Sunni Arabs and getting closer to Iran, Assad and other regional minorities. The Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk might simultaneously raise questions about America’s approach to Kurdistan and to Turkey—and changes here might ultimately prove to be at cross purposes with actions to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq. Middle East observers have been anticipating these possibilities for years now, and many have advocated both shifts. Yet making a major strategic change at a rushed pace during a massive regional conflict is extraordinarily risky. Complications would be all but certain.
Iraq, for America, is at risk of becoming a new Pakistan: a destabilizing, entangling and two-faced ally, yet one to whom we have no good alternative.
John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.