The unfolding end of Iraq as we have known it began with the Syrian civil war. The detached, feckless U.S. response many now counsel for Iraq was first pioneered in Syria. The result if that same course is taken now will be worse.
Iraq is in shambles. The Iraqi army collapsed with stunning speed in major portions of the country that are dominated by aggrieved Sunnis. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has nearly cut Iraq in half. The “al-Sham” of its name — what Syria was called after its conquest by Muslims in the seventh century — is an indication of the long historical grievances ISIS seeks to remedy. Not only are the borders of Iraq and Syria — borders that were established in the wake of World War I — on the chopping block; ISIS seeks the restoration of an Islamic caliphate, and it is willing to murderously take on all apostasies, including Shia Islam, secular Muslim states, and Western-style freedom.
In fact, George W. Bush handed Obama a relatively secure Iraq with al-Qaeda all but extirpated from the country. This was the result of the 2007 surge of forces ordered by Bush, which reduced civilian deaths from a peak of 3,500 per month in late 2006 to fewer than 500 per month by the time Obama entered the White House. U.S. military deaths declined during that period from 100 per month to nearly zero.
The Sunni army we see fighting today against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki is not a remnant: It is a reincarnation birthed across the border in Syria. After the Arab Spring swept that nation in early 2011, President Obama demanded that the dictator Bashar al-Assad “step aside” and said he supported “an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians.”
Meanwhile, as Assad slaughtered moderate Syrians, the nation became a Woodstock for foreign jihadists. Iran sent matériel and elite soldiers to bolster Assad. Sunni Islamists poured in, ostensibly to fight Assad. However, by some accounts, groups like ISIS devoted more effort to fighting secular rebels opposed to Assad — undermining those more moderate Sunnis who resist the Islamists’ vision of unifying mosque and state and launching terrorist attacks against the West.
Now this horrendous bout — not just Sunnis versus Shiites, but also Islamists versus non-Islamists, and Iranian proxies versus everyone else — has spread from Syria across Iraq. And the worst actors are seemingly in the best positions: ISIS, a derivative of al-Qaeda, dominates Sunni Iraq; and Iran is poised to dominate Shiite Iraq, especially as Tehran offers troops to Baghdad.
Given Obama’s past performance, no U.S. ally anywhere seriously believes he can control this situation. As a result, our allies will take matters into their own hands and cut deals with bad actors out of necessity. For example, fully aware that the West will not restore an Iraq balanced among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, Saudi Arabia will intervene to help the Sunnis. Riyadh will not stand by as Iran helps the army sloppily inflict casualties on the Sunni population; instead, it will back its own Sunni insurgents, just as it did before 2007. Iraq could soon become, in effect, a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Self-styled “noninterventionists” counsel doing what amounts to nothing, and they smear even effective past military campaigns in the Middle East as “nation building.” For example, top congressional Democrat Harry Reid, who in 2007 judged incorrectly that “the surge is not accomplishing anything,” now believes that “It’s time for the Iraqis to resolve it themselves.”
Unfortunately, as we are likely to see over the remaining two years of the Obama administration, this conflict will change much but “resolve” nothing. The belief that effective American withdrawal from the Middle East will end the jihadist threat to us is soothing but fallacious. It is the same belief that transformed a mending Iraq at relative peace into the disaster we see today. It is the same belief that has given those who wish to export jihadism and Islamist tyranny around the world their best chance in modern history.
— Stephen Yates was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Cheney from 2001 to 2005. Christian Whiton was a State Department senior adviser from 2003 to 2009. They are now distinguished fellows at the Hamilton Foundation.