The dramatic retreat of Iraqi forces from cities, towns, and provinces in Western and Northern Iraq and the threat of lasting territorial gains for the al Qaeda-inspired "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) come as a sobering reminder of the dysfunction endemic to Iraqi politics, and of the heavy toll that the festering Syrian war is likely to exact from the region and the world. And while this disaster exposes the risks of reduced U.S. engagement in the region, it also reveals the limitations of the Iranian project of empire. The oddity that was post-war Iraq — an autocracy sanctioned by flawed elections, aligned with the interests of both the United States and Iran — seems on the verge of unraveling. The transatlantic alliance will be forced to accept that crises of such intensity and magnitude cannot be merely contained, but require instead a vigorous drive toward the restoration of a credible strategic order. The costs of immediate action may be elevated, even if shared with partners and regional stakeholders, but they pale when compared to the exorbitant costs of tackling the impending mayhem that will follow inaction.
The dangers of the new situation in Iraq are massive. Countering them does require, however, looking past the linear narrative of "al Qaeda using Iraq as a launch-pad for attacks against the United States and its allies." First, ISIS is not al Qaeda ; it is more stringent, more violent, and more predatory. However, if al Qaeda jihadists are the Trotskyites of Islamism in their quest for a universal revolution, ISIS is hard core Stalinism in its insistence on the consolidation of a central Caliphate as a prerequisite for expansionist jihad. ISIS maintains the dystopian fantasy of creating a "State," and has consistently invested its lethal efforts accordingly. ISIS is an obscenity that must be curtailed ; it is not, however, the immediate danger that al Qaeda franchises in Yemen and Somalia constitute.
More importantly, the dramatic coverage notwithstanding, the collapse of Iraqi authority in the Western and Northern provinces cannot be credited primarily to ISIS, but to the alienation of the Sunni population of these regions by a regime that has mastered an unexpected balance of alliances with Washington and Tehran. The abrupt military exit of the United States from Iraq in 2011 was also the departure of the one interlocutor deemed trustworthy by the disparate Iraqi factions, leaving the Iraqi political scene without a mediator. The growing autocratic bent of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki exacerbated this mistrust and fueled an underlying sectarian tension. In 2012, Sunni clansmen and activists across Iraq initiated a campaign of protests and civil disobedience, expressing deep grievances within the context of a common Iraqi nation. Maliki, however, was dismissive, repressive, and abusive. His continuously escalating attempts at eradicating the protests and restoring "the gravitas of the state" metastasized the conflict into a de facto sectarian civil war — offering what had been a nearly defeated ISIS new venues for reassertion. Capitalizing on the appeal of the Syrian war, ISIS gathered new assets, widened its recruitment efforts, and established itself as an important actor in the isolated Sunni areas. Still, it was the grievances of the Sunni community, and not ISIS ideology, that mobilized the contingents of anti-government Iraqis, and the tactical alliance between ISIS and the powerful Sunni tribes and formations should not be mistaken for a strategic fusion.
Yet ISIS’ capture of military equipment and financial assets left by the retreating Iraqi forces and officials is bound to enhance its capabilities. The dysfunctional nature of Iraqi administrative and military structures contributes to the danger that ISIS constitutes. Such an Iraqi government cannot hastily regroup to defeat ISIS. Also, Washington cannot offer the Sunni populations of Iraq and beyond the absurd image of a U.S.-Iranian joint effort aimed at helping Maliki defeat the ISIS-infected uprising —especially when it declined to use its might to stop the massive repression of their mostly Sunni brethren in Syria. Such cooperation would in fact serve ISIS, al Qaeda, and similar organizations in their radicalization efforts.
But ISIS must be defeated by force. Its radicalism will necessitate decisive, international military action, but, first, its entanglement with the Iraqi Sunni community must be loosened through a multi-pronged approach that denies it the possibility of translating attacks against it into domestic support.
Washington and its transatlantic allies need to put pressure on Maliki to start a credible national dialogue, while providing him with incentives to dissociate himself and his nation from Iran. At the same time, the West should seek the cooperation of Jordan, Turkey, and Gulf states in engaging Iraqi Sunni tribal, political, and religious leaders in maintaining and strengthening the distinction between ISIS and their community. Only with progress on both fronts would international military action be productive.