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.
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.