Five Axioms to Remember about ISIS and Iraq

"The ongoing crisis is a result of Iraq’s political mess, especially its political actors’ inability to resolve their differences."

As the militant Sunni group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) expands its domains in Iraq and the situation turns from bad to dreadful, many articles on The National Interest online and elsewhere have advised prudence and caution to the United States. “Be careful,” the realists warn, “let Iraq’s neighbors lead” they say. Now that President Obama has decided to send 300 military advisers to train Iraqi forces against ISIS, the axioms below may help Washington retain its influence in the Middle East without getting pulled into another disastrous war.


ISIS: “S” is for Symptom


The sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deserve much of the credit for the ISIS blitzkrieg that captured Mosul and Tikrit earlier this month and Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this year. Although Maliki’s Shiite bias had manifested itself before the parliamentary elections of 2010, it became much more pronounced after U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011. Since then, the Maliki government has tried the country’s Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashimi, and sentenced him to death in absentia on the dubious charge of “supporting terrorism.” Maliki also went after the Sunni militias that had allied with U.S. forces to expel Al Qaeda from Anbar province during the 2007/8 surge. Overall, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition has acted in a corrupt fashion and ignored popular demands for security and services.

These policies have played into ISIS’s hands. Sectarianism pushed many Sunnis—including former agents of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime, which the United States had overthrown in 2003—into the arms of the militant group. The corruption and incompetence of the Iraqi state was laid bare during the battle of Mosul on June 9, when 10,000 ISIS fighters expelled a force of about 75,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and paramilitaries. Well equipped but badly led, Iraqi forces saw little point in fighting for a town where the locals saw them as the oppressor anyway.

It says a lot about Maliki’s leadership that he has failed to get the Iraqi parliament to declare a state of emergency after the fall of Mosul; that he has sacked all of his generals above the rank of brigadier ostensibly to revitalize his military; and that he now relies on Shiite militias and Iran to defend his capital.

ISIS, in short, is not so much a problem as it is a symptom. If Iraq is to survive the current crisis as a single political entity (it may not), the solution has to come through an inclusive government representing all religious and ethnic groups.

Iraq Is the New Syria (And Syria Was the Old Iraq)

ISIS came into existence as an Al Qaeda affiliate during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The group expanded its operations into neighboring Syria as the civil war there escalated in late 2011. Since then, ISIS has captured the oil-rich provinces of Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, and Hasakah in Syria and has used the spoils to buy more arms and recruit more fighters. For the past seven months, ISIS has been pushing deeper into Mesopotamia from its Syrian bases.

Iraq, then, is only half the problem. Without an end or at least a deescalation of the civil war in Syria, it is unlikely that ISIS can be stamped out of Iraq. At a time when ISIS is expected to launch an offensive against Aleppo, Syria’s largest town, tackling the militant group may require unpalatable options for the United States. That includes working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Work with Regional Powers (Especially Iran)...

Recent events in Iraq have proved once again that Washington cannot go it alone in the Middle East. Especially in Iraq, the United States requires Iranian help. Tehran’s good relations with Iraqi Kurds, the Maliki government, and various Shiite factions make that an imperative need.