If the US waits too long before taking meaningful action, it could be faced with an Iraq controlled by religious fanatics
This week, extremist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) boasted of executing more than 1,700 Iraqi soldiers – most, if not all, of whom were Shi’ites.
The message was loud and clear: Sunni fanatics are determined to ignite a sectarian war in Iraq.
But it would not end at the border, of course. Such a conflict would likely spill across the Middle East, rendering political boundaries insignificant as people divided along ethno-nationalist lines.
But we are not talking about a simple challenge to the modern nation-state. What the ISIS is aiming for is the destruction of those who embrace a different sect of Islam, namely the Shi’ites, and to seize power by any means necessary.
While power struggles are nothing new in the arena of global politics, the ruthlessness of the ISIS is nothing less than disturbing. Disowned even by al-Qaeda, this militant group has shown it has little regard for human life, much less human rights.
No one can say they didn’t see this coming: all the stakeholders in Iraq are to blame for the country’s current predicament.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to share power with Sunnis did nothing for national reconciliation in the wake of the Iraq War. His heavy-handed suppression of Sunni opponents also helped fuel the ongoing rebellion.
Holding out an olive branch to the Sunni leaders would have been a good strategic move. But the fact that the ISIS is knocking on Baghdad’s door suggests that it might be too late to learn from past mistakes. Al-Maliki has never shown the political courage to mend fences with the Sunni population, choosing instead to rely on military might. That option has left Iraq on the verge of a religious war.
Maliki could prevent this from happening, but only if he accepts Sunnis’ legitimate right to representation and stops treating them like second-class citizens.
Then there’s the Obama administration, which also has a crucial role to play. Some observers are saying that Washington should have negotiated much more vigorously to maintain a US military presence in Iraq – if not in terms of troop numbers then at least to help with intelligence and analysis.
Washington has said it is willing to help but that Maliki must agree to step down and make way for a new leader.
Some are entertaining the romantic notion that the US and Iran will join together to defeat the insurgents. But while Washington and Tehran share a common enemy in the ISIS, the US is not about to let a big chunk of the Middle East fall into Iran’s sphere of influence.
The recently conclusion of elections in Iraq could be an opportunity for the incoming administration to put together a government that genuinely reflects the needs and sentiments of the country’s ethnically diverse populace.
The challenge will be to hold off the ISIS onslaught long enough to enable this new government to formulate a plan of action to regain the trust of its citizens and create a sense of shared destiny among them.
The rise of the ISIS is also strong evidence that Washington’s policy of disengagement from the region is not working. The unravelling of Iraq, as well as other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, threatens US interests as well.
The ISIS and other extremist groups are gaining ground and even luring people from Europe and the US who, in Obama’s words, “could end up being a significant threat to our homeland”. This is crunch time for everybody. If Washington waits too long before taking meaningful action, it could very well find Baghdad under ISIS control or Iraq under the spell of Iranian influence.