The Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) is once again gaining ground in Iraq. As it increases its control of Iraqi territory, it has engaged in mass atrocities and terrorism, while increasingly implementing its totalitarian vision. Kurdish forces have been resisting the Islamic State’s advance, but were forced to pull back in recent days, exposing more Iraqis, particularly members of minority populations, to the Islamist extremists’ violence. Christians have fled IS in large numbers, including 200,000 from the Nineveh plains. Thousands of Iraqi Yazidis meanwhile face grave danger:
Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.
Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.
The situation has become extremely dire. The Obama administration is pondering (and is perhaps already engaging in) efforts to help those fleeing violence and repression by providing humanitarian support. This may also mean a direct bombing campaign against IS militants. The administration had been reluctant to conduct such a campaign thus far because of the President’s general desire to reduce American involvement and intervention in the region, combined with the legitimate fear of appearing to side with the Shi’a in what many Iraqis had initially viewed as a Shi’a-Sunni conflict.
There are a variety of factors behind the strength of the Islamic State and its success in Iraq. A key factor has been Sunni alienation from the Maliki regime, which has increasingly engaged in violent sectarianism since American forces left the country. Some Sunnis welcomed the advance of IS, though such sentiments seem to be fading now that IS has begun to implement its vision. The decision to pull all US troops out of Iraq in 2011 was a terrible blunder by the Obama administration, as the US presence was restraining Shi’a sectarianism by the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is of course more directly responsible for this sectarianism and shares responsibility for the withdrawal of US forces, but the Obama administration backed Maliki and was not firmly committed to protecting the gains made by American troops. The surge and Sunni Awakening had opened up a window for Iraq to move toward a more stable, democratic future, but Maliki’s malfeasance and the American abandonment of Iraq closed the window.
Of course, the Bush administration should not escape criticism for the current state of Iraq. The 2003 war was launched with little effort to ensure international support and legitimacy. Once no weapons of mass destruction were found, these problems were compounded. But as bad as these mistakes were, the failure to plan for the occupation and the mistakes made by the Bush administration during the occupation, which led to increased radicalism and eventually civil war, were even worse. Bush and Rumsfeld clung to a failed strategy, while Iraq descended into a civil war that was far from inevitable. The absence of security prevented Iraq from working out the political solutions it would need to achieve greater stability as an extremely young, developing democracy. Finally Rumsfeld was replaced and a superior strategy was implemented, but the legacy of those lost years endures.
Would Saddam Hussein have survived until (and through) the Arab Spring if the US had not invaded? Would he have responded to the Arab Spring even more brutally than Bashar al-Assad, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but perhaps making an IS invasion impossible? We will never know. But we do know that the Bush administration’s many errors in Iraq made Iraq more vulnerable to this invasion.
Finally, the Obama administration’s refusal to sufficiently arm the moderate rebels in Syria and help them to displace Assad led to the radicalization of the opposition and strengthening of ISIS. Assad meanwhile intentionally allowed ISIS to gain strength by releasing terrorists from prison, buying oil from them, and refusing to bomb key locations where they had control. The strategy was to try to present the entire opposition as terrorists and force the international community to choose between a continuation of his rule and a state governed by terrorists. While the moderate rebels fought both Assad and ISIS (without proper assistance), Assad allowed the threat of ISIS to grow.
Given the chaos that exists in Iraq, it seems unlikely that Maliki will survive as prime minister. Unfortunately the US has little leverage in pressing for a government that is representative of the entire Iraqi people and likely to reduce sectarian tension. To defeat the Islamic State, Sunni opposition is essential, but this is unlikely if the Iraqi government is run by Iran-backed Shi’a sectarians. Perhaps even Iran will see the foolishness of such a strategy at this moment.
Ultimately, however, the humanitarian situation seems to require more direct American intervention. Establishing emergency airdrops of essential goods seems like an obvious step as this point. Airstrikes may be necessary to prevent IS from gaining more ground. The US could also provide greater support to Kurdish forces. But the US should also use whatever small amount of leverage it has to push for a more representative government in Baghdad before fully aligning with the Iraqi government. Even now, it is essential to push for a reduction in sectarianism, rather than reinforcing it.