“Military collapses come fast, creating pressure for prompt action. Domestic politics weigh heavily on the decision. Will the administration be blamed for losing Iraq if it does not order military intervention? Or will history judge the president wise for keeping US forces out of war as it did President Eisenhower for not bombing Vietnam in 1954 to prevent the defeat of French forces in Indochina or President Ford for not sending American troops back into Vietnam to prevent the fall of Saigon in 1975? As Americans debate military intervention, here are ten things to keep in mind.
1. Assisting Iraq now is not an extension of the Iraq War. Today’s Iraq differs markedly from that of 2011 when US forces departed. Iraq’s nascent democracy has become more autocratic (and, perhaps more important, highly sectarian). Instead of national reconciliation, Kurds and Sunnis have been excluded from power. Iraq has become a satrapy of Iran, providing vital support to Syria’s Assad, a regime that the United States has repeatedly said must go.
2. America’s own strategic interests must be the sole determinant of any US action in Iraq. The United States has no military alliance with Iraq. No binding treaty obligation. No moral responsibility. Iraq rejected a continued US military presence in 2011. The debt America owes to those who made sacrifices in the Iraq War is best served by ensuring that any further sacrifices serve American objectives.
3. The battles for Syria and Iraq will be fought out on the ground by local belligerents. Absent a major military intervention, external powers will remain at the margin, and even then, may not be able to determine the final outcome, but will certainly become targets.
4. Faced with a growing insurgency and unreliable conscripts, Syria’s government relied on its artillery and air power to make life untenable in zones it had been forced to abandon while mobilizing sectarian militias and its own batch of Hezbollah and foreign Shia fighters to defend the regime. Iraq with the government would rely on American airpower to buy it time to reactivate loyal Shia militias who earned their spurs killing American soldiers during the US occupation of Iraq. The United States would, of course, not replicate Syria’s indiscriminate bombing campaign, but with inadequate intelligence and no American forces on the ground to designate targets, the risks of collateral casualties would be high.
5. Iraq’s civil war further exacerbates already growing regional tensions between Sunnis and Shias. The Shia-dominated Maliki government has alienated Iraq’s Sunni population. The mobilization of Shia militias around Baghdad and Iran’s growing assistance to the Maliki government will deepen the divide. US military action will be seen as siding with the Shias, especially if Sunni civilians are killed as a consequence. Both Senator Lindsey Graham and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani have called for cooperation between the two counties in tackling the terrorists. Whether American interests in the region are best served by aligning with a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus alliance is debatable, but that is a strategic decision, not to be arrived at through incremental tactical responses to events.
6. ISIL’s stunning military victories in Iraq eclipse al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan, which expelled the group. A number of Qaeda’s dispersed followers were already bending toward ISIL’s rival center of power. But US military action in Iraq could facilitate reconciliation among al Qaeda’s internally warring factions by providing a common external enemy against which all jihadists can and must now unite.
7. America’s war on jihadist terrorism is not about to come to an end. Rather it is entering a new and dangerous phase. ISIL’s ideology and strategy are merely a more local and more extreme version of bin Laden’s jihad. Its military victories in Iraq give it cash and weapons and will bring it further financial support and foreign recruits. Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war continues with jihadists playing a major role. New jihadist fronts have emerged across northern and western Africa. Taliban allies surge in Pakistan and will try to exploit the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. Because the United States may be no longer interested in the war on terror does not mean that the war on terror is no longer interested in us. The jihadist threat will continue.
8. The borders drawn by colonial powers a century ago have been erased. Syria has become a mosaic of pro-government enclaves, insurgent strongholds and contested no-man’s lands continually punished by Syrian air power, turning 40 percent of Syria’s population has been turned into refugees. Iraq is effectively partitioned. ‘Practically speaking, the country has broken apart,’ noted a high-ranking Kurdish official. ISIL controls a swathe of territory across eastern Syria and western Iraq. Kurds have seized Kirkuk and control the north. With Iran’s assistance, Iraq’s Shias will hold the east and south and Baghdad. President Obama has called upon Iraqis to form a new national unity government. Will American commitment to the principles of territorial integrity and nation-building confine it to dealing only with existing national governments or will it adopt a more flexible policy reflecting realities on the ground?
9. The forgotten constituency in both Syria and Iraq are the Sunnis who are unrepresented in Baghdad and comprise most of the resistance against the Syrian government in Damascus, but who are appalled and terrified by the jihadists whose actions repel foreign support. Once America’s allies against the jihadist insurgents in the so-called ‘Anbar awakening,’ Iraq’s Sunnis might again become America’s base in the region. Right now, the majority of Sunnis want nothing to do with the ISIL fanatics, but have come to the conclusion that they now face a horrible choice–throw their lot in with Sunni militants who threaten their way of life or a Shia government that has provided nothing to their communities and will now be bent upon revenge. This would require a long-term strategy of political support and some military assistance initially aimed at enabling them to defend themselves against official oppression and jihadist tyranny. As in Syria, the challenge in Iraq would be in identifying and separating Sunni moderates from extremists in an environment where the central government will take actions that advantage the extremists.
10. The democracy project engendered by the Arab Spring has run into the sand. Where strongmen do not rule, chaos and civil war reigns. America’s commitment to democracy and political correctness prevent abandonment of basic principles, but the reality is very different.”