Back to the Future: Iraq's Descent in Chaos

Iraq map & flag

Back to the Future: Iraq's Descent Into Chaos

By Thursday Review editors | published June 15, 2014 |

Borders drawn by the British and the French a century ago and crafted to exploit the region’s most valuable resource—oil—are now being erased, replaced instead with tribal and sectarian frontiers. And the cost of that breakdown will be measured, almost surely, in the thousands of lives.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are basically saying “I told you so.” And in this context, there are even plenty of Democrats and plenty of liberals in agreement.

The long civil war in Syria has taken a staggering humanitarian toll, leaving tens of thousands dead, many thousands homeless and without proper food or medical assistance, and perhaps hundreds of thousands on the move—refugees in their homeland, or refugees in neighboring Jordan.

That bloody, increasingly violent civil war also gave rise to lawlessness and chaos in the north and northeast areas of Syria which border on Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraq has been itself descending slowly but inexorably into anarchy and sectarian strife, most especially in its north and northwestern regions, with Kurdish areas engaged in a de facto separation from the heart of the country, and with Sunni extremists systematically taking over all northern areas that remain.

Along that long frontier between the two countries, the official border became meaningless. Some would argue that once the last U.S. boots moved out of the area, that already artificial line on the map became overtly porous. Extremist movements in Syria merged with radical elements in northern Iraq, and the result was a more formally organized force of fighters whose number increased rapidly in the void left by parting American forces.

Then, as the Iraqi police, security forces, and army regulars began their inevitable backward march (in recent weeks it has been a backward run), the tipping point was reached.

Now, a newly energized and heavily armed ISIS (Islamic State if Iraq and Syria) is on the move with a lightning speed so breathtaking as to seemingly shock even the central government in Baghdad. In a single 24 hour period the city of Mosul fell, with some 31,000 Iraqi soldiers abandoning their vehicles, dropping their weapons, and even stripping off their uniforms as they turned tail and fled the battle lines. The catalyst for their sudden and uniform flight: 865 ISIS fighters in pickup trucks and Jeeps.

Within one week of advances ISIS had collected thousands of handguns and automatic weapons, steel-reinforced boots, helmets, vests and body armor, hundreds of personnel carriers and jeeps, scores of trucks and vehicles outfitted with heavy guns, and by some estimates roughly $450 million (in U.S. dollars) from raided or looted banks. ISIS is no longer a ragtag militia; it is now a fully-outfitted and well-funded advancing army. And it is heavily armed with weapons unwittingly provided by the United States.

Days ago, ISIS issued a general decree in all areas under its control: thieves will face amputation, women must stay indoors, political parties and opposition are banned, and all forms of religion or belief are outlawed save for the Sunni branch of Islam. Oh, and if you fought for the other side, even briefly, you will be forced to atone for your sins, whereupon you will be shot in the back of the head. These elements represent the strictest interpretations of Islamic law.

That Iraq has been slowly descending into fragmentation is not a total surprise. According to some Middle East experts, Iraq’s violence and eventual breakup would have happened within a few years, most especially if the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki continued its policy of keeping an unlevel playing field in the dynamic between Sunnis and Shiites.

Some in Washington, critical of the President's sluggish policy toward the Arab Spring, have said all along that Syria’s violent civil war had the potential to fragment the region, and would surely fuel and empower radical elements in northern Syria toward the creation of a caliphate stretching from the southeast borders of Turkey all the way to the edge of Iran. Critics of Obama's foreign policy, which they have regarded as weak and reactive, say that a more proactive U.S. role in Syria’s bloody conflict would have likely diffused what has now become a decent into lawlessness and disorder.

In short, the toxicity of Syria spawned the fragmentation of Iraq.

Still, for many observers, there were few if any good options in the early two years of Syria’s civil war. The administration of President Barack Obama had little interest in engaging directly in Syria’s troubles, an uprising which sprang organically out of the Arab Spring. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries rose to overthrow dictators, but as is the case in such regional tidal shifts, not everything went smoothly. In the opening months of the uprising in Syria, it looked optimistically as if the government of Bashir al Assad might collapse—gently it was hoped, or by the application of modest civilian and rebel force. When Assad dug in for the long haul, the Syrian civil war turned to extreme violence and gruesome bloodshed.

This is where the grim choices were made increasingly grim with each passing day. President Obama had few good options, but according to many in Congress and some Middle East experts, choosing to do nothing was the one with the greatest likelihood of certain implosion.

But with recent events—such as last week’s apparent collapse of the Iraqi Army and thousands of Iraqi security forces—there is urgency, as ISIS militants, now even more heavily armed with American equipment, move to within 80 miles of Baghdad.

Last week, in various venues, the President made it clear that sending U.S. troops into Iraq was not an option, through clearly the central government in Baghdad would welcome that level of commitment. But otherwise, the President ruled nothing out, and the items on the table for consideration included air strikes (general and/or selected), drones, U.S. Navy gunships and cruise missiles, air support and air cover for Iraqi troops, spy satellite data and high-altitude intelligence, even more weaponry for direct use by Iraqi soldiers.

But speaking on CNN early Sunday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that this is a case of “the horse has already fled the barn.” All too little, too late, Haass said. Though the militants may fail to take Baghdad, the world may soon have to accept the reality of divided Iraq with three parts: a Shiite south, a Sunni north, and a large pocket of semi-autonomous Kurds.

But even that template is not as simple as it appears. Even if Obama had wanted U.S. troops to stay behind, at least in small but sufficient numbers to help insure stability for another two to three years, the government of Maliki would not have allowed that option. Maliki is beholden to Tehran, where he spent many years of his exile from Iraq. The powers-that-be in Iran pull Maliki’s strings, and if Tehran says “no Americans in Iraq” then Maliki must hold to that party line. Maliki was also under internal pressure to balance his own security needs with a growing hatred of the American soldiers occupying much of his newly reorganized, post-Saddam country.

But now Maliki wants help from the United States, even if that means angering a few of the mullahs back in Tehran. Maliki may also want direct military assistance from Iran—old foes bonding not in the name of peace but in the name of sectarian war.

In the 2012 presidential campaign much talk was given over to the departure of American forces from Iraq, as well as the timetable for a similar withdrawal from Afghanistan. But now it appears both sides of that political debate had at least part of the equation wrong. It was Syria’s crisis which carried with it the most explosive time-bomb.

Obama has sent naval power into the region, and along with it all the firepower and muscle found on a modern aircraft carrier. But the President has stressed that any plan that involves boots-on-the-ground is not up for discussion. Americans are war-weary, and the specter of sending soldiers and Marines back into Iraq is toxic to most. So the question becomes: of what use will air strikes or drones be in this kind of conflict?

Iraq will surely stop itself from total collapse. News reports from the last 24 to 48 hours talk of a major offensive by the Iraqi army, a counter-surge which may have resulted in hundreds militant deaths along the battle lines north of Baghdad. Iraq’s military spokesmen have told reporters that “the security situation is improving.” Army helicopter gunships were attacking parts of Tikrit in an effort to oust the recently-arrived Sunni militants.

Also, the specter of hundreds of Shiite men taking up arms, then, boarding trucks for points north of Baghdad may have been enough to give the ISIS militants pause. Maliki has also asked every citizen of Bagdad to be prepared at any moment to fight if the militants continue to push toward Baghdad.

But, as some in Congress have pointed out, a wider civil war in Iraq is hardly the solution, and the specter of tens of thousands of Shiites battling tens of thousands of Sunnis brings to mind too easily those daily images we saw from Syria over the last few years: more civilians fleeing the violence, more deadly attacks, more intense weaponry, more brutality, cities and towns reduced to little more than rubble—and then the worst images: children injured, burned or killed.

Of all the choices the United States, the United Kingdom and other powers faced at the start of the Syrian civil war—and none were good choices—the worst possible choice was to do nothing at all.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Battles Over Military Spending; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 25, 2014.