Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken Mosul and are advancing south toward Baghdad. Shiites are mobilizing to stop them in response to a call from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran is rumored to have sent fighters from its own Quds Force to assist Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kattaib Hezbollah in defending Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. An all-out civil war looms between Sunnis and Shiites.
Faced with this showdown, many Americans might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and repeat Henry Kissinger’s quip about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” What interest is it of ours if various factions of Muslims want to duke it out?
Leave aside the humanitarian concern, which is real. A similar civil war in Syria has already killed more than 150,000 people, very few of whom are religious or political fanatics—mostly just ordinary people who want to live their lives in peace. A similar bloodletting now looms in Iraq, a country that the U.S. invaded in 2003 and for which we therefore assumed some moral responsibility.
I realize that kind of case is not likely to convince many people outside Human Rights Watch. So, fine, let’s put morality aside for a moment and just look at strategy. Can it possibly be in America’s interest to see another major country in the Middle East carved up between, essentially, Shiite and Sunni fanatics? That’s already happened in Syria and U.S. intelligence officials warn that Syria is now as dangerous a breeding ground for terrorists as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.
Now the likelihood is growing that the same thing will happen in Iraq, the country with the fifth-largest crude oil reserves on the planet and the second-largest within OPEC. This will destabilize the international economic and security situations even if it stays confined to the borders of Iraq—but odds are it won’t. Already the civil war in Syria has spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and of course Iraq. A growing civil war in Iraq is likely to spill over into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and other neighboring states.
All you need to know about the current situation in Iraq is that the biggest beneficiaries are Iran and Al Qaeda—the two worst enemies of the United States in the entire world. It is imperative that the Obama administration do more than study the situation. It needs to roll up its sleeves and act to avert this disaster—not by staging meaningless, photo-op air strikes (which is what I fear will happen) but by getting involved in the nitty-gritty of Iraqi politics, as the U.S. did in 2007-2009, to nudge Baghdad in a better direction.
The Iraqi government needs to stop alienating Sunnis and start embracing them. If that were to happen the battlefield situation could reverse overnight as it did during the surge in 2007-2008. If Baghdad signals such a change of course, President Obama should offer copious military aid including Special Operations Forces, intelligence personnel, and military advisers. Air strikes without eyes on the ground won’t work—they will not hit the right people and not have the intended impact. Odds are high that U.S. airpower could be used by Maliki to pursue his sectarian agenda. Yet even at this hour of crisis Obama insists on ruling out any U.S. ground forces.
Nobody wants to get mired in Iraq again—and we certainly shouldn’t send an army to invade again. But in both Iraq and Syria the only thing worse than American engagement, we are now finding, is American disengagement.