Since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) earlier this month, an idea that almost no one in his right mind was publicly advocating a few short weeks ago is steadily gaining currency among American politicians and pundits — that the United States should, in some capacity or another, go to war in Iraq. A few words of advice to those who are jumping on the bandwagon:
First, understand that the United States didn't start this fire and can't put it out. The sectarian conflict now raging between Muslims in the heart of the Arab world was primed to erupt by decades of brutal minoritarian rule in both Syria (Alawites over majority Sunnis) and Iraq (Sunnis over majority Shiites), and by over a millennium of religious antagonism before that. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq overturned an applecart that was bound to falter during the 2011 Arab Spring revolts anyway. The Bush and Obama administrations both could have done more to ensure that the quasi-democratic system they left behind was capable of weathering the storm, but their errors are academic now. Like the Syrians, the Iraqis will have to fight it out.
Second, don't believe the hype about ISIS taking Baghdad. The group has managed to gain control of most areas where Iraq's 15-20% Sunni Arab minority predominates because locals acquiesced in its advance and garrisoned soldiers had little stomach for fighting in such a hostile environment. While the confessionally mixed Iraqi capital may be plagued by jihadist terrorism in the months ahead, the number of combatants Iraq's Shiite majority can throw into the city's defence dwarfs the number that ISIS can field, even if large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis unite under its banner and a steady stream of foreign jihadis continues to join its ranks. Do the math. Baghdad won't fall.
Third, recognize that the Iranians will be delighted if the U.S. Air Force starts pounding ISIS, a problem they created by encouraging the excesses of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and propping up the embattled regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria (ISIS, as its name suggests, is a two-headed monster). Prospective American intervention will be less about defending Baghdad than about helping Iranian-backed government forces and Shiite militias seize back the Sunni heartland of northwest Iraq. It's going to be a long, bloody campaign, certain to involve massive civilian casualties. The Iranians would love for the Obama administration to share the costs and take some of the heat for the horrific measures that will be necessary to cleanse Iraq of ISIS.
Fourth, consider also that U.S. intervention could be a blessing for Al-Qaeda senior leaders in Pakistan, who have always been more interested in killing Westerners than Shiites or Alawites (one reason why they have been eclipsed in the Syria-Iraq theatre). Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri would have preferred that the many hundreds of European Muslims now fighting in Syria and Iraq had stayed home and plotted attacks in their countries of origin. A U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS would weaken Al-Qaeda's main competitor for the loyalties of Sunni jihadists in the region, while giving Zawahiri exactly the narrative twist he needs to refocus Sunni angst on the West.
Is that thumb still up? Don't get me wrong. I understand the temptation to jump in and kill terrorists when the opportunity presents itself. With Iran and various rival Sunni states financing and equipping opposing Islamists to do their dirty work (you don't bring a knife to a gunfight), the Syria-Iraq theatre is an extraordinarily target-rich environment. But as long as they're busy killing each other, the United States should leave bad enough alone.
Gary C. Gambill is a Shilman-Ginsburg fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.