Understanding the ISIS Crisis
“Yet today, with Sunni jihadists pushing towards Baghdad, Iraq looks less like a Middle Eastern “City on a Hill” than a sectarian thugocracy, rapidly degenerating into a dystopian hellscape.”
- Gene Healy, Washington Examiner
“…there’s little reason that America should get involved in Iraq’s ongoing sectarian war yet again.”
- Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
Isolationist on the Right and Left are rallying to the ISIS banner celebrating the disintegration of Iraq as vindication of their foreign non-policy of “disengagement.” Engaging in a campaign of brazen historical revision, they seek to erase the last two plus years of our hands-off relationship with Iraq, the relative calm and stability of the troop surge, and the Anbar Awakening from the public record.
Yet the truth remains that the sectarian blood bath Iraq has become is a direct result of the very “disengagement,” i.e. retreat, for which isolationists on the Right and Left advocated.
The Mashrek (Arab world east of the Nile) is in the throes of a war in which Sunni fundamentalists control not only a huge swath of territory but the very WMD stockpiles that our de rigueur intellectual class claimed never existed (Saddam had WMD’s – we subsidized his WMD program during the Iran-Iraq war; only one dictator [Qaddafi] has ever voluntarily given up his WMD’s, and that was a result of and after our toppling of Saddam). Complicating the situation is the involvement of Shia fundamentalist and an expansionist power – Iran.
Iran has long had a hand in the horrors that faced Iraq over the last decade. A middling power that has developed a long reach to pursue global jihadist ambitions, it considers Iraq its natural stomping grounds and in the past supported anti-American groups spanning the spectrum from Shia “militia” to Sunni “militants.” It armed, trained, and sent advisers to fundamentalist organizations across Iraq while inventing to the Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP), an upgraded and deadlier IED. Iran has troops of its elite Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds force in an “advisory” role already on the ground in Iraq and, with or without Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s request, may increase its foot print from known-but-quiet to overt-and-en mass.
But with all of that being said, the situation in Iraq is more complex than ‘just’ anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist movements from rival sects squaring off, for both are engaged in the same battle in Syria (in Syria, Iran is already heavily invested with thousands of Revolutionary Guard and Basij troops fighting in Syria). The isolationists call to inaction at the beginning of the war in Syria – that anti-Assad forces included Sunni fundamentalists, became a self-fulfilling prophecy by allowing time for Sunni fundamentalists to dominate the originally non-fundamentalist revolutionary forces. Indeed, there are still pockets of ethnic, tribal, and non-sectarian opposition, but they are fewer and farther between by the day.
Due to the more of the same, non-policy of the isolationist, a regrouped ISIS and a plethora of other Sunni fundamentalist organizations were able to out gun and over power opposition forces not in line with their extremist agenda. Sunni fundamentalist organizations supported by the Gulf states and fellow travelers around the world were able to decimate secular, pro-Western, non-sectarian, tribal, ethnic minority and other non-fundamentalist groups who looked to the West for arms and instead received words and unenforced “red lines.”
In a cascading domino effect, the re-ignition of the intra-Islamic civil war by fundamentalists (whose only point of agreement is the destruction of the West) has the potential to light the Persian Gulf on fire limiting the flow of oil and grinding our just barely crawling economy to a halt. Gulf states account for roughly 28% of global oil production and in 2012, 29% of net US petroleum imports.
That isolationists ignore this stark reality is as unsurprising as it dangerous, but the violence ensuing from our Middle Eastern retreat is not the only example of their failures. For years, they denied any working relationship between Shia and Sunni fundamentalists despite the fact that Al Qaida, the Taliban, and Hamas (all Sunni organizations) have received assistance from Iran. Yet even when fighting, Sunni and Shia forces have maintained tacit tactical collaboration. Prior to ISIS’s plunge into Iraq, the Assad regime forces and allied Hezbullah, Iranian, and Shia troops (recruited from both Syrian and Iraqi Shia communities) backed off from fighting ISIS and are alleged to have been facilitating the smuggling of oil from ISIS controlled fields. Considering Iran, through its own troops and its proxies – Hezbullah and other Shia militia – is the power behind Assad, this tacit collaboration has most likely ended with ISIS’s plunge into Iraq.
Had the USA not heeded the isolationist’s siren song of “peace in our time” and secured a status of forces agreement with Iraq, Iran would have been unable to fly ammunition, troops and weapons over Iraqi airspace to Syria. An Assad divorced of his strongest ally, Iran, which supplied not only ammo and arms, but also an appeal to Shia in both Syria and Iraq that Assad could not, would have been in a losing position. While nothing seems to attract Islamic fundamentalists like a war in a majority Muslim country, allowing the Syrian opposition, not yet overrun by fundamentalists, to take more ground and isolate if not defeat Assad would have been in the interests of the West.
The question remains “what now?”
While advocating more of the same global retreat, isolationist offer nothing other than quixotic gloating and cheerleading for ISIS. Yet isolationists ignore the national security threat that a Sunni fundamentalist state and the de facto annexation of southern Iraq by Iran represents. Isolationists do not wish another 9-11 attack on the U.S. An independent ISIS state with hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen money, hundreds of millions more in potential oil revenue, and a cadre of determined fighters would love it. An Iran controlled southern Iraq means millions in revenue for Iran’s network of Shia and Sunni fundamentalist organizations engaged in jihad around the world. Just as importantly, it puts the Islamic Republic of Iran on the border of Saudi Arabia’s Shia population which resides in the oil producing region and which it has long looked to use as a 5th column against the House of Saud.
The United States is facing a serious threat to its economic life. Events in the Mashrek have the potential to grind our already teetering economy to a halt and allow two fundamentalist powers, with the stated aim of destroying America, to grow. The options the United States have are as numerous as the situation is challenging. Invasion, a Yemeni style sustained drone campaign, bombing both Sunni and Shia fundamentalist positions, upgrading our relationship with the Kurds, special forces operations, playing both sides against each other, or a mix of all of the above is all on the table. The stakes are clear, the creation of a Sunni fundamentalist state and the de facto annexation of southern Iraq by Iran, must not be allowed.
Blaming Bush as isolationist “leaders” President Obama and Senator Paul have done may swell the heads of rank and file isolationists with a sense of superiority. But ahistorical adventures that ignore the reality of our disengagement from Iraq, for over two years, do not address the issue at hand and won’t help when ISIS or Iran plan the next attack and the oil from the Middle East slows to a trickle.