The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) genuinely stunning capture of Mosul, and advances across Iraq, look like a real turning point in regional politics. Even if the territorial gains by ISIS are reversed, its offensive has already rapidly reframed analytical debates over the nature and fortunes of al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement, the ability to contain spillover from Syria, possible areas of U.S.-Iranian cooperation and the viability of President Obama’s light-footprint Middle East strategy.
The most wide-ranging verdicts are clearly premature. It’s too soon to declare the rapid end to the state of Iraq and the Sykes-Picot borders, with ISIS carving out a Sunni Islamic state and leaving Kurdistan to the Kurds and the Shiite areas to Iran’s mercies (for those interested, political scientists F. Gregory Gause III and Ariel Ahram already had that debate on The Monkey Cage). Past experience suggests that ISIS could rapidly alienate its current allies and the populations welcoming it, as happened in Iraq in the mid-2000s, despite its efforts to avoid past mistakes.
The absence of U.S. troops because of the 2011 withdrawal is an extremely minor part of the story at best. The intense interaction between the Syrian and Iraqi insurgencies is certainly an important accelerant, but again is only part of the story. Nor is the U.S. reluctance to provide more arms to “moderate” Syrian rebels really the key to the growth of ISIS in Syria or in Iraq. It’s a bit hard to believe that the jihadists who have joined up with ISIS would have been deterred by the presence of U.S.-backed forces – “Well, we were going to wage jihad to establish an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the U.S. is arming moderates so I guess we’ll stay home.” In reality, the shift to an externally fueled insurgency and the flow of money and weapons to a variety of armed groups is what created the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive in the first place.
The more interesting questions are about Iraq itself. Why are these cities falling virtually without a fight? Why are so many Iraqi Sunnis seemingly pleased to welcome the takeover from the Iraqi government by a truly extremist group with which they have a long, violent history? Why are Iraqi Sunni political factions and armed groups, which previously fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq, now seemingly cooperating with ISIS? Why is the Iraqi military dissolving rather than fighting to hold its territory? How can the United States help the Iraqi government fight ISIS without simply enabling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarianism and sectarianism?
The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq. In late 2012, protests had swelled across Sunni areas of Iraq, driven by genuine popular anger but backed by many of the political forces now reportedly cooperating with ISIS’s advance (essential background here). The vicious assault on the Huwija protest camp by Iraqi security forces, in the midst of political negotiations, galvanized hostility to the Iraqi state and paved the way for growing popular support for a returning insurgency. Maliki’s heavy-handed security response to the escalating insurgency across Anbar, including the bombardment of Fallujah, has predictably driven more and more Sunnis into their ranks. Maliki’s purges of the Sunni leadership discredited or removed Sunni leaders willing to play the inside game, and pushed some of them toward supporting insurgency. His exclusionary policies, attempts to monopolize power and rough security practices radicalized a Sunni community that might have been brought into the system following the civil war. Iraq’s political class as a whole has done little better.
U.S. officials, along with most Iraq analysts, have spent the last half-decade urging Maliki to seek a real political accord, but he had little interest in their advice. I’ve long argued that the only thing that would force Maliki to change his ways would be his perception that his survival depended on it. When U.S. troops were fighting his war and securing his rule, he consistently refused to make the political accommodations that his U.S. advisers pushed upon him. After U.S. troops left, he enjoyed sufficient political strength and military security to strike the kind of political deal that could have consolidated a legitimate Iraqi order. Instead, he moved to consolidate his personal power and punish Sunni political opponents. When he went to Washington seeking military and political support in October 2013 amidst an escalating insurgency and political tensions, he could have taken the opportunity to change course before it was too late.
Maliki might now, for the first time, feel real pressure, which could force real concessions. His first instinct, naturally, has been to try to use the crisis to expand his power by calling an emergency session of parliament to pass a truly objectionable emergency law, which would give the prime minister virtually untrammeled dictatorial powers. Iraq’s parliament might be able to thwart that particular power grab (it could not muster a quorum in today’s first attempt). But it’s clear that his political instincts remain unchanged.
Maliki wants U.S. military aid, from helicopters to airstrikes, to fight the ISIS advance. Many in Washington will want to offer assistance to save Iraq from complete collapse. But at the same time, U.S. policymakers understand from painful experience that such military aid will simply enable Maliki’s autocratic sectarianism and allow him to avoid making any serious concessions. Yes, the United States should try to use this moment of leverage to attach political conditions to any military aid. But such leverage is going to face an obvious problem: It will be virtually impossible to force any meaningful political moves in the midst of an urgent crisis, and any promises made now will quickly be forgotten once the crisis has passed.