For American soldiers who fought in Iraq – especially those who were wounded or lost friends there during the eight-year war – the scenes of Islamic extremists taking over cities like Mosul and Tikrit must be disheartening.
Unless the jihadists’ onslaught is stopped, the al-Qaida splinter group ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) could fulfill its goal of creating an Islamist state – complete with strict Sharia law – across those parts of Iraq and Syria that are predominantly Sunni Muslim. This entity might not have a long half-life – terror states rarely do – but it could cause no end of regional problems while it lasts.
It’s understandable that some Americans, tired of continuous war in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attack in 2001, would just as soon wipe their hands of the mess. Too much of the debate over what to do now focuses on past actions: whether the U.S. should have gone into Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein and whether it left too precipitously.
Those are moot points, as far as this crisis in concerned. The United States and its allies cannot allow an ISIL state to be created in the region. It would be a destabilizing influence and a protected incubator for terrorists, who almost certainly would export their religious fervor.
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Many foreigners – including Americans – have flocked to this group. After training and indoctrination, is there any doubt what could happen if they returned home? ISIL is a group that al-Qaida rejected because its barbarity in Syria was so extreme. No government in the region would be safe, and its control of Iraq’s oil fields could play havoc with global economies.
The Obama administration is in a tricky position; if the president intervenes militarily to help Maliki’s Shia government, he could anger Sunni Arabs in the region, including those who rule Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The government of Iran is headed by Shiites under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has treated Sunnis with a heavy hand and refused to govern in a nonsectarian way.
At the very least, however, the U.S. must ramp up such support as surveillance, equipment and training. Air strikes and use of drones should not be off the table; sending in a large force of ground troops should be.
There’s been talk of the United States working in some way with Iran to help Iraq, and opening lines of dialogue with Tehran would be welcome. But that too has pitfalls – again rooted in the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.
Iran is a Shia country with close ties with Iraq’s Maliki; U.S. cooperation with Iran “will be seen as another conspiracy against Sunni,” says former Qatari ambassador to the U.S., Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
Even if Iraq is able to prevent ISIL from taking over Baghdad, repulsing it from areas it has already conquered would be a long proposition for a well-disciplined, competent military – which Iraq’s is not. At the very least, this crisis should impress on Maliki that the divisive way he’s run the country created the perfect storm for Sunni extremism to take root.