The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining. To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast. However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.
When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world. President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy. So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.
Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path. President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012. President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.
When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely. It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control. The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government. Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning. Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force. Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.
Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad. But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.
The US cannot defeat ISIS alone. The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power. But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem. The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.
The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court. The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.
NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around. Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki. Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.
The rest of the world needs to step up too. Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS. This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe. Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense. This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.
With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization. Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism. ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.
So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West. That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered. But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.