The situation in Iraq has gone from crisis to full blown religious civil war. The band of Sunni Muslim rebels led by the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) that has been steadily marching toward Baghdad after taking over Mosul and Tikrit in recent days has now run up against a force of armed Shiite Muslim civilians fighting alongside government forces. For the first time a conflict that had previously been a rebellion against the government has become an actual religious civil war.
The situation in Iraq carries serious ramifications for the United States, our allies, and our interests in the Middle East as it threatens to destabilize the entire region. ISIS has become one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups over the last year or so and the possibility of them establishing a stronghold within Iraq is a serious concern. Just recently ISIS fighters raided a national bank branch in Mosul and made off with an estimated $420 million (USD) making them the most well funded terror group in the world. If they are now able to overthrow the Iraqi government or even create for themselves a territory within Iraq in which they could grow their numbers, the consequences could be dire.
Much of the blame for this situation lies with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his policy of discrimination and marginalization of the Sunni population. Al-Maliki’s Shia dominated regime has essentially sought to repress the voice of the Sunnis in retaliation for their treatment at the hands of Sunnis during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Al-Maliki’s mistreatment of Sunnis over the last few years has resulted in ISIS gaining a massive popular following which has provided them with the numbers and the public support necessary to wage war against the government.
But blame for this situation also lies with our own President and his weak, almost nonexistent foreign policy going back to the conflict in Syria. ISIS was born out of the previously defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq terror cell which operated during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom. ISIS came to prominence fighting on the side of Sunni rebels led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in the Syrian civil war until their brutal tactics got them ostracized by the rest of the Syrian rebel groups. It was the Syrian Civil War that allowed ISIS to build their reputation, to gain battlefield experience, to build their strength and amass weapons, and now they’ve turned their sights on Iraq.
President Obama’s failure comes in his choosing to support the wrong side in the Syrian war. President Obama threw our support behind the Sunni rebels without really knowing who they were. He, and many others, saw a people trying to rise up against an oppressive government and immediately decided to support them. Many people drew parallels to the Syrian uprising and our own Revolution more than 230 years ago. Many felt that we should have done more to support the FSA much the same way France supported us during our fight for independence. What most people don’t realize is that France did not immediately jump to our aid. Before they agreed to help us we had to prove to them that not only were we capable of winning the war but also that we were capable of forming a legitimate government that could effectively govern the country after the war. We did not place such conditions on our support of the Syrian rebels, and while we did not pledge military support we actually did pledge to provide weapons to the rebels. The only reason those weapons were never delivered was because the al-Qaeda affiliations of the FSA came to light before the weapons were shipped.
Rather than choosing to back the rebels the President should have examined the situation more thoroughly from the beginning. In doing so he would have seen that although the Assad government was viewed as corrupt and authoritarian it had also maintained stability in Syria for decades. In fact Syria, under Assad and his father, was one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East; and prior to the outbreak of war Syria was fairly economically stable. More importantly the Assad government is a known entity while the FSA and its affiliates are not. We know Assad has the support of the military, most of the government and pretty much all of Syria’s minority groups. We know that should Assad win the war he has the ability to effectively govern the country and return life to normal for most citizens. The same cannot be said for the FSA and the SNC. In a situation like this where having a stable and secure Syria is so vital to stability throughout the Middle East it’s better to go with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t. Had we not fanned the flames of insurrection in Syria as was so popular at the time perhaps we wouldn’t be looking at a war torn nation with tens of thousands dead and terror groups fighting for control of the country. Backing Assad makes sense strategically, tactically, economically, but not politically. Unfortunately President Obama is only concerned with the political aspects of any given situation. His failure in Syria is compounded by his failure to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government for the establishment of a security force to be left behind after the war ended.
So his failure as a President and our failure as a nation to lead in this situation has given rise to a new a leader in the world of organized terror and that group is threatening to undo everything we spent thousands of lives and billions of dollars doing in Iraq. And now President Obama’s lack of a Middle East policy has led us to the incredible and outlandish position we find ourselves in today, asking Iran for help. That’s right, we are now talking with Iran about the possibility of working with them to stabilize Iraq through military force. Shia dominated Iran has been trying to gain a foothold in Iraq for years and this Sunni led insurrection has provided them with the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. This puts the US in a terrible position, diplomatically speaking, with Middle East nations. On one side we are supporting Syrian Sunnis fighting against a Shiite government supported by Iran. On the other side we’re now looking to Shiite Iran for help against Sunni rebels in Iraq that actually fought alongside the Sunni rebels we support in Syria. The inconsistency here is incredibly damaging to our credibility in the region. On top of that, our looking to Iran for help serves to strengthen their position at the negotiation table with regard to their nuclear program. Our refusal to reapply military force in Iraq to help stabilize the situation leaves Iran as the only power in the region capable of doing so, which means they have us over a barrel.
Should Iran apply military force in Iraq (a strong possibility since instability in Iraq also threatens Iran) the possibility of a Middle Eastern world war becomes real. Iran wants to unify Shiite Muslims throughout the region under one government which means if they invade Iraq under the pretense of support they may not leave when it’s over. Any use of military force by Iran is likely to further inflame Sunni anger and drive more Sunnis onto the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. Any expansion of Iran’s power and influence is likely to be seen as threatening by Israel (nuclear armed) whom Iran has previously sworn to destroy which could result in Israel wading into the fray. Add into the mix that Pakistan (nuclear armed) and Saudi Arabia (both Sunni majority) are no fans of Iran and could move to check any expansion of Iranian power and you have the making of a full-scale disaster. The situation only gets worse when you zoom out to see that this entire situation has become something of a proxy war between the US and Russia. Any major escalation of force in the region is very likely to pull the US and Russia onto the battlefield.
This is what happens when the leader of a nation as influential as the United States fails to lead. This situation has the potential to plunge the entire Middle East into war, and it could have been prevented. Hopefully you out there can see the importance of American leadership on the world stage. Hopefully you can see the consequences of our failure to do so.