Responsible intervention, as with other major foreign policy decisions, necessitates two considerations on the basis of available information: 1. Will the intervention advance the state’s foreign policy interests; 2. Is it likely to improve the situation in the long as well as short-term. These considerations should be applied in any international response to the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and its pursuant humanitarian and political challenges.
Strategic military gains by IS may be pivotal, but they aren’t wholly unexpected. IS has exploited two intertwined factors that have plagued post-invasion Iraq in particular, and post-Arab Spring countries in general: power vacuums and sectarian fighting. Saddam Hussein was ousted over a decade ago, yet, despite significant international assistance and investment, the central government remains mired in partisan, sectarian-based politics. A small number of power-hungry politicians have isolated and alienated large swaths of the Iraqi population, this despite repeated overtures by Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, for Iraqis to rise above sectarianism and rebuild their country. Even with Iraq facing a real possibility of breaking apart irreparably, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki still seems more focused on keeping his office than his country.
Islamic State didn’t just appear overnight (although the numerous name changes are admittedly a bit confusing). Their path into regional politics was laid open with the civil war in Syria. There too, the war began with a variety of Syrian resistance groups, before foreign jihadis began entering the country to fight under their own flags. It was the protracted war in Syria which eventually gave then-ISIL its major opening; the ability to control Iraqi-Syrian border areas has helped it on both sides of the porous borders. A three year civil war in Syria and decade-long sectarian politics paved the path for IS.
It’s worth considering the different US responses to various Arab Spring uprisings. The US gave the coldest feet to those in Egypt (despite President Obama’s Cairo speech), while it jumped in feet first to the fight in Libya, capitalizing on Gadhafi’s loner status in international politics and perhaps overestimating the threat he posed. Egypt has in a sense reset the clock with the elected but draconian Sisi government (the Obama administration has not had strong relations with either the Morsi or Sisi regimes), while Libya has disintegrated into tribal warfare and armed criminality. Countries the US was less involved in seem to be doing far better (especially Tunisia).
In Syria the US took a cautious approach, eventually supplying weapons and support to the Free Syrian Army, but hesitant to wade in all the way. With Iran and Russia supplying the Assad regime, the results have been disastrous: a 3 year civil war with no end in sight, the increasing encroachment of foreign jihadi forces and sidelining of Syrian rebels (especially ones with democratic platforms), and the realization that rather than what might have been a relatively quick transition, the country’s future may be doomed to sectarian attacks a la Iraq, Pakistan or Yemen. We are witnessing the horrendous regional consequences: spillover in Lebanon, IS butchering Christians, Kurds and Shi’a alike in Iraq. If and when these conflicts are resumed, war-hardened jihadis will be returning to their respective homes around the globe (where they are highly unlikely to assume positions as contributing members of society). And images of this conflict have polarized Sunni-Shi’a sentiments and heightened tensions throughout the Muslim world.
To a large extent US foreign policy, in deed and lack thereof, has contributed to the mess engulfing Iraq and the Levant. Surprisingly too, as toppling Assad, a key regional ally, was far more valuable to US foreign policy interests than was ousting Gadhafi. In any case such considerations are retrospective, at best instrumental in seeing what could have been done differently and where US responsibilities to make a positive difference may lie.
At present, with IS having made significant inroads across Iraq, through Syria and up to Lebanon, most recently threatening Kurdish positions, the immediate goal must be stopping their advance. There is a significant humanitarian cause at stake (, one for which the US should feel an obligation in light of its own history in Iraq and inaction in Syria, and position as the most powerful international actor, although certainly other states should be involved as well). The threat here is greater and more immediate than the one which warranted a NATO response in Libya. It’s often difficult to predict how interventions will turn out—as the US has experienced in Iraq, but it’s hard to portend anything worse than a prolonged civil war involving IS (perhaps the only thing worse being if they actually toppled both the Kurdish and Iraqi national armed forces). The foremost goal should be stopping IS, at all costs, including troops on the ground if need be. We’ve put American soldiers on the line, including in Iraq, for far less noble causes. If the US doesn’t, it could be Iranian troops, leading to a worsening of sectarianism in Iraq as well as prejudicing of US regional interests.
IS should be forced out of Iraq and into Syria, and every effort made to tighten the borders between the two countries. Consolidating IS in Syria could be used as a tool for a long-overdue negotiated resolution to the prolonged civil war in Syria. Any reasonable settlement to that conflict would have to involve Assad stepping down; this could be traded for cooperation between moderate opposition forces and national troops along with international actors in eradicating IS (the reverse of the IS uneasy truces with competing jihadi groups to fight regime troops). Forcing IS out of Iraq would be a key first step to a necessary second step of finally resolving the civil war in Syria.
The US would do well to learn from recent history in Iraq. Any Syrian resolution will have to consider the open hostility between Alawite, Sunni and various other communities within Syria and find a realistic way to include them all. Finding the right leadership to do this is not easy, but it is vital.
Likewise, a new political solution needs to be sought for Iraq. A country with a history of sectarian violence like Iraq cannot afford divisive leadership that culls leaders of other groups from positions of power. Leaders need to be inclusive and cooperative. It’s clear that Maliki was not and cannot be that person. Perhaps a higher threshold of approval needed would ensure a less polarizing figure; regardless mechanisms need to be taken to ensure that in addition to allotment of nominal positions to each community in Iraq, there is real representation and cooperation among the leaders. The stakes are too high to allow otherwise. Another key step would be providing more regional and local autonomy—for the Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a areas, as an additional safeguard to sectarian oppression by the national government.
A combination of inaction and ill-advised steps have contributed to and exacerbated the situation in Iraq-Syria to its present point of ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide. Standing by and allowing the continued massacre of whole ethnic and religious communities isn’t just morally reprehensible, but ill-advised from a regional stability perspective. However the response should be calculated, with an eye to long-term stability. A failure to take concrete steps towards resolving the conflict in Syria and reestablishing responsible, representative governance in Iraq and Syria will leave the coals burning and allow extant jihadi groups or other militant actors to enter the fold. This opening IS has exploited was created by power vacuum and sectarian strife; addressing these two issues is essential to sealing the opening, rather than plugging it and waiting for it to explode in another month.