THESE ARE heady times for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It controls a wide swath of territory across the two countries in its name and boasts on the Internet of obliterating the boundary drawn by the French and British nearly a century ago. In conquering Mosul and other cities, it has come into possession of a vast trove of equipment, weapons and money to add to the bankroll that already enabled it to wage war with little apparent concern for financial constraints. Foreign fighters, including a significant minority that carries Western passports, flock to its black banner. And for those whom ISIS cannot recruit with ideology or cash, there is the stark reality that, within its domain, opposition means death. Certainly that was the message sent by the group’s massacre of at least 150 unarmed men in Tikrit, publicized by ISIS and confirmed in excruciating detail in a new Human Rights Watch report.
So when people speak with resignation, or even a certain optimism, about the supposedly inevitable breakup of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves, they need to understand that the first of those three potential entities would be ruled, at least initially, by ISIS — with all the danger that entails for the people under the organization’s heel and for the rest of the world. This is a group that sees itself, in the long run, as not only a destroyer of Middle East states but also a beacon for all Islamic extremists and a global revolutionary force. Once entrenched in Iraq, it can be expected to promote terrorism everywhere, including in the United States and Western Europe. Meanwhile, confrontation with such an entity would inevitably radicalize a Shiite-dominated, Iran-dependent rump Iraqi state, assuming one can survive possible ISIS attempts to attack Baghdad in the coming days.
Given this immense menace, the Obama administration’s efforts to shore up anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and now Syria are necessary, even if it’s not clear whether they will prove sufficient. Its $500 million request to Congress to train and equip an alternative Syrian force to battle both the Assad regime and ISIS represents a belated but welcome abandonment of the president’s reluctance to intervene.
The request gives Congress the opportunity and responsibility to enter this debate. We hope that legislators will be supportive and that they question the administration diligently. One question is whether the United States is willing to give the moderate rebels the weapons they need, including those to take down Damascus’s aircraft. Such a transfer would have to be managed carefully to keep the arms from the wrong hands. But without them, the Syrian force will be unable to protect people in territory it controls from Bashar al-Assad’s deadly barrel bombs.
Congress should also press the administration to explain its broader strategy. We think the president is right to be pushing Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government for which a multi-sectarian army would be willing to fight. But if that fails, it still will be intolerable, as President Obama has said, for the United States to allow a jihadist state to become established. Congress should ask him to explain his fallback plan.