No drama Obama needs to act
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS ). Its goal is to reestablish an Islamic caliphate, which means it wants to govern Iraq and Syria according to what it considers strict Sharia law. It already controls a big stretch of eastern Syria as well as parts of neighboring Anbar and Ninewa provinces in western Iraq.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, who won a plurality of seats in the new Iraqi parliament elected in late April, has asked parliament (presumably the old one, since the new one isn’t in place yet) for a state of emergency, which would be the first since the US occupation ended. Police stations and military installations have been destroyed. Tens of thousands of people are fleeing. Military equipment, apparently including helicopters and left-behind American humvees, have fallen into jihadi hands.
Anyone who doubted the Syrian and Iraqi states would be at risk from ISIS should be rethinking. ISIS now controls substantial areas in provinces of both countries. It is possible that they are overextended and will suffer defeat, especially if Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey decide to engage. But such external intervention would also have consequences. The Kurds would be unlikely to want to leave Mosul quickly, and Maliki would be seriously weakened if he relied on Kurdish or Turkish assistance. He would likely have to pay the money Kurdistan says it is owed and also allow export of Kurdish oil directly to Turkey (which the Kurds have already done without Baghdad’s permission).
American interests are directly engaged. If ISIS can carve out a relative safe haven in eastern Syria and western Iraq, the US would want it taken down, for fear it could be used (like the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan) as a training ground launchpad for attacks on the US. The Americans could try to suppress ISIS using drones and air power, but ground forces would eventually be needed. These would not have to be American, but the US could support Baghdad or maybe even Damascus taking action against ISIS.
Some in the US will blame what has happened on President Obama’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq. That is nonsense in two ways. First, it was the Bush administration that negotiated and signed the agreement providing for complete US withdrawal. The notion that it could be renegotiated to allow some American troops to stay is a fantasy, one that proved unrealizable because of stiff political opposition in both the US and Iraq. Second, ten thousand American troops still in Iraq would be far from sufficient to either prevent or react to what has happened in Anbar and Ninewa. They would be hunkered down on a base, or become obvious targets.
The Iraqis may be able to handle Mosul on their own. Anbar and Ninewa my be pacified. Eastern Syria may eventually fall to either Damascus or more moderate rebel factions. But it is all too clear that a situation the US has wanted to ignore should not be ignored any longer. The Syrian implosion is having spillover effects that amount both to humanitarian and regional security disasters. America is not safe when other states are collapsing. Doing stupid shit, as President Obama has so eloquently put it, is not the only way the US gets in trouble. It also gets into trouble when it fails to act to defend its interests early enough.
No drama Obama needs to recalibrate and find an effective way to react.