For months warnings have sounded over the rising threat posed by extremists operating unimpeded in Syria. Now those fighters are cutting their way through Iraq and plunging the region into a sectarian bloodbath with consequences that would stretch well beyond the Middle East.
So exactly where do the ambitions of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL end? And can a United States entering an era of curbed enthusiasm for foreign interventions succeed in rallying the resources required to counter them?
For those who have long argued that America needed to weigh the costs of inaction in Syria and the very real risk of creating a bullpen for extremists in the country, the ISIL surge in Iraq is cause for very serious concern.
“This is a strategic development, not a tactical development, because this is a group that has lots of money and lots of arms and an image of success they are trading on right now,” former Ambassador Dennis Ross told Defense One. “Ultimately what they want to do is show how they are able to take us on. And so we will be drawn into this more and more inevitably because we will have to interrupt their ability to plan and operate lest they become a threat to us.”
For at least a year, voices within the administration have been pushing the White House to lend greater assistance to Syria’s rebels, arguing that the extremists would win out if moderates were starved for resources. The counter was that the U.S. could never be sure exactly whom it was backing and fears of weapons and resources landing in the wrong hands abounded. Today, one thing is certain: the swift ISIL entrance into Iraq surprised the Obama administration and many others in Washington.
Now, Ross and others say the time has come for the Obama administration to lead its allies by developing and articulating a plan with a clear strategy and a clear objective for addressing what is happening on the ground in the Middle East.
“We are protecting that which would allow us to have options,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. Dempsey spoke extensively, trying to define a U.S. military mission that is restrained today but could expand to, he said, “direct action” in Iraq to meet a worsening security threat. Dempsey said Iraq alone could not win back Iraq from ISIL — “Probably not by themselves.”
“They are a regional threat today that over time could become a trans-regional and global threat. And so that’s why we’re there.”
“It is not just about blunting ISIS or trying to shrink ISIS,” Ross said, using the alternative acronym for ISIL, when translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “We need an integrated approach where we are not just putting money and putting some advisors into Iraq, but what is the strategy for Iraq? What is the strategy for Syria?”
Other diplomats, including those who have served in Iraq and closely watched its developments, count the missed opportunities along the way. “We had a real opportunity when Fallujah fell,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. “We didn’t know how bad the Iraqi army really was, but we knew they weren’t very good. The administration had the warning and it didn’t act and that is really a tragedy.”
Now, says Jeffrey, the U.S. has to work both to counter ISIL and to support a new government in Iraq.
“It wouldn’t hurt for him to be more aggressive in use of force where the ISIS guys are moving forward,” Jeffrey says of President Barack Obama, whom he largely praises for recent moves to counter ISIL. “That threatens us, it threatens the Shia, it is a humanitarian issue and potentially it threatens the embassy.”
As for ISIL he believes there is “no limit to their ambitions.”
“You have to kill them,” Jeffrey says. “They never stopped in Iraq even when I was there in 2010 and 2011, they had been totally defeated and they had lost their population, we were on their trails and they still didn’t give up. There is no reasoning with them, there is no containing them, you have to kill them.”
Now the Iraqi government is struggling to figure out its next steps. As ISIL pushes ahead the pressure is growing for a replacement to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Jeffrey gives it a 30 percent chance that Iraq divides among ethnic lines into three – Sunni, Shiite and Kurd–and a 50 percent chance that the country finds new leadership capable of holding it together.
Time is of the essence, he says.
“We can’t sit there and twiddle our thumbs while the Iraqis take the 75 days the constitution would allow them to take,” Jeffrey said. “Dithering is the functional equivalent of not making a decision and going with Maliki, and that is just going to drive the country into a breakdown.”
Perhaps that’s exactly what Obama wants, to force Maliki out from within. Already the violence has reached levels that make normal life seemingly impossible. The United Nations reported this week that more than 2,400 Iraqis were killed in June alone in acts of terrorism and violence – and that is without counting casualties in Anbar province. The UN recently published reports that ISIL is targeting women and children, who are said to have been “kidnapped, raped and forcibly married” to ISIS militants. And ISIL members are posting to social media homemade videos of summary executions and random murders along the roads toward Baghdad.
“It is imperative that national leaders work together to foil attempts to destroy the social fabric of Iraqi society”, said Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov, in a statement. “What can be achieved through a Constitutional political process cannot be achieved through an exclusively military response. Security must be restored, but the root causes of violence must be addressed.”
If there is a bright spot, say those who have worked in Syria, it is that Iraqis and Syrians see little to like in the ISIL style of governance: imposing strict Sharia law, banning music, smoking, and drinking, and forcing the full veil and limited mobility on women.
“The events in Iraq are stiffening the resolve of those inside Syria who are opposed to ISIS,” said U.S. Institute of Peace Vice President Steven Heydemann, who recently oversaw a human rights law training for Free Syrian Army fighters and local police. “They see these atrocities, they have lived under ISIS, they know what ISIS represents and they don’t like it. They see this extension of ISIS power as a threat at the end of the day because they understand that if ISIS were to consolidate its authority in Iraq it would be in a position to expand more forcefully into Syria.”
Heydemann notes that until the Iraqi military took up arms against ISIS the only forces countering the group were in the Free Syrian Army. He says he was impressed by the Free Syrian Army representatives he met at the training USIP hosted in Turkey – and by their awareness of their image in the U.S.
“They were quite concerned to use their interactions with us to make sure we understood how they wanted to be perceived, which was as good Muslims, observant Muslims, but not head-cutters or heart-eaters,” Heydemann said. “They wanted us to take away from our encounters with them a sense of what it means to be ‘moderate’ in this environment.