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.
The other part of the security establishment’s analysis is also deeply implausible. It strains credulity to believe that a “token force” of 10,000 U.S. soldiers could have forced Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to listen to U.S. pleas to bring in the Sunnis, an analysis Maliki found unconvincing even when American forces were ten times larger. Maliki put up with U.S. efforts to this effect; he never supported them. Among other liabilities, keeping U.S. forces in Iraq would have left them as enforcers for an outlook which they could not approve, but which they could not force Maliki to change.
Whoever and whatever is to blame, the emergence of ISIS is indeed a catastrophe for Iraq, as it has been for Syria. The group first emerged in Iraq after the gates of hell were opened by the American invasion of 2003. The sheer inhumanity and barbarism of Al Qaeda in Iraq‘s conduct in that war made them an anathema even among the Sunni tribal chiefs. It is a sad commentary on Maliki’s sectarian policy that it so alienated the Sunnis that they should be powerless before (or even welcome) the return of Al Qaeda.
There is little the United States can do at this juncture to limit the coming bloodshed in Iraq or to force the Iraqis to shape up. It seems particularly extravagant to think that the United States could wrest the Iraqi army from sectarian control and get Maliki to embrace an all-inclusive Iraqi polity, as a condition for sending in the drones. What he was not able to do in much more auspicious times, he obviously cannot do at a time of supreme emergency for Iraqi Shiites. By the same token, neither side seems positioned to gain a victory in Iraq; they can kill but not conquer the other.
Where the United States could make a difference is in Syria. Instead of doubling down on its failed policy of sowing chaos there, the United States should abandon its objective of removing Assad and seek to broker, with Russia, a settlement.
The desirability of containing ISIS is not the only reason for making such a change. Syrian government forces, with key help from Hezbollah, have been winning the civil war; Assad may well have the majority of the population on his side. A key point never registered in public discussion but of great importance is that, in international law, external support for armed rebellion is dubious in the extreme. That should count for something.
For multiple reasons, then, the United States should no longer condition negotiations for a Syrian settlement on Assad’s removal. Persistence in this policy, which the United States has followed since 2011, can only strengthen ISIS and prolong the civil war.
The difficulties of such a change of policy should not be underestimated. Overthrowing Assad has been far more than a U.S. objective. The Europeans, especially the British and the French, have been keen on Assad’s removal from the beginning. Turks, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris have been yet more insistent on that aim, and often quite unscrupulous as to the means. The American “failure” to do more to help the Syrian rebels has elicited frequent charges of betrayal from Riyadh. For Israel, too, Syria’s Assad, with his ties to Hezbollah and Iran, has seemed the greater enemy.