The astonishing victories won by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have illuminated the incoherence in U.S. policy toward Iraq. Washington is understandably alarmed by ISIS’s progress across northern and western Iraq, reflected in the swift capture of Mosul , the second largest Iraqi city, and much of the Sunni heartland. At the same time, the orchestration of external support for the Syrian revolution and the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, in which Washington has been a key player, has undoubtedly redounded to the benefit of ISIS.
The emerging strategic reality was given pungent expression by Ayad Jamal al-Din, a liberal Iraqi cleric and politician: “The war in Syria and the war in Iraq are one and the same,” he said on June 10. “Both in Syria and in Iraq, it is a war against ISIS. The United States strives to weaken the Syrian regime, and this benefits ISIS, but in Baghdad, it supports the regime against ISIS. This is suspicious and perplexing, to tell you the truth.”
Jamal al-Din is a man worth listening to. A distinguished Islamic cleric, he is also a secularist who favors the separation of religion and state. He has stood bravely against the totalizing rhetoric pitting Sunni and Shiite against one another in Iraq. He argues, “the pressure on the Syrian regime, which is fighting ISIS, must be lifted. [America] should not try to strengthen the feeble Free Syrian Army [FSA]. There is no FSA. There is ISIS in Syria and Iraq. You cannot fight ISIS in Iraq, yet support it in Syria. There is one war and one enemy.”
On this issue, at least, Jamal Al-Din’s voice is hardly iconoclastic among Iraqis. A year ago, Michael Rubin reported after a trip to Iraq that “Not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Kurds, and even many Iraqi Sunnis oppose American provision of arms to the Syrian rebels on the grounds that the Syrian rebels are either more radical than the Americans realize, or that nothing will prevent the so-called moderates whom the United States arms from selling or losing the weaponry to the radicals.” The Iraqis deeply feared that they would be “the first victims of Sunni radicalism in neighboring Syria.” And so they have been.
Despite the consternation caused by ISIS’s string of victories, there seems to be no reconsideration in Washington of U.S. support for the overthrow of Assad. Surely it must be obvious that pressure on the Syrian regime from the south and west has created a space in the north and east where ISIS has thrived; surely we can see that in the absence of the Syrian civil war, ISIS could not have begun to gain the strength that it has lately displayed. But no, it is not obvious at all to the Washington security establishment. The only self-examination it permits itself is anxiety over whether it has supplied sufficient military force.
From the beginning, the efforts of the Assad regime to repress the armed rebellion—a right that every state has under international law—have been seen in the West and the Sunni world as the worst form of aggression. As in Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2003, Washington has followed the maxim that nothing could be worse than the continuation of Arab tyranny. It said it was supporting democracy in all these places; in fact, its actions have contributed directly to the anarchy that now prevails, whence has come the growth of such awful groups as ISIS.
The logic of this terrifying descent is as old as Thucydides’ account of the revolution in Corcyra and as new as each day’s headlines. "In a hard-fought civil war, especially one without a single well-organized opposition movement, “ noted Paul Pillar last year, “success goes to the most ruthless and dedicated elements, which also tend to be the most extreme in their views. We are seeing such a process in Syria today.” One would think that the contemplation of this dynamic in Iraq, Syria, and Libya should give pause to Washington’s support for the overthrow of sitting governments. But there is no sign of that.
Establishment thinking instead identified two big mistakes after the fall of Mosul. One is Obama’s failure to keep forces in Iraq; the other is that more was not done to achieve the destruction of the Assad regime by Syrian “moderates.” "Critics have long warned,” intones the New York Times, “that America’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, without leaving even a token force, invited an insurgent revival. The apparent role of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Tuesday’s attack helps vindicate those, among them the former ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who have called for arming more moderate groups in the Syrian conflict."
Actually, ISIS’s newfound strength shows the utter incoherence of U.S. policy. Ford’s idea of arming the “moderates”—the remedy for Syria favored by the Washington security establishment and its acolytes—would have given an even greater field of action to ISIS. Why Washington thinks it would have contained ISIS is not explained. Presumably, it rests on the assumption that the “moderate” opposition would have been sufficiently powerful to overwhelm not only the Assad regime, but also the numerically larger and ideologically more-committed jihadists. Such an effort, were it to be mounted, would require far in excess of $5 billion and a U.S. bombing campaign much more intensive than what undid Qaddafi. Even then, it could hold no better promise than what has unfolded in Libya—that is, a state of nature such as Hobbes once described. It is precisely in such anarchical conditions that groups such as ISIS thrive.