The Why and How of US Intervention in Iraq

Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq.  The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children.  ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated.  The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.

Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here.  I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria?  Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world.

The Stakes

ISIS is on a roll.  They have taken more Iraqi territory than the Kurds were ever able to, and in less time than anyone ever has, apart from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  They have captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and now apparently the hydroelectric dam which supplies water and electricity to most of northern Iraq (more on that below).  They have threatened the area around Baghdad and around the Kurdish Regional Government’s capital of Erbil, as well as claiming a share of territory in northern Syria.  They have felt sufficiently clear that God is on their side that they have established a new caliphate, appointing their former “emir” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new “Caliph Ibrahim.”  In doing so, they claim that all true Muslims everywhere owe them allegiance, hence the name change from “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” to simply “the Islamic State,” and that anyone who does not accept their uniquely exclusive interpretation of Islam should be executed.  In doing so, they go beyond not only historical Muslim practice (which usually tolerated Yezidis), but also pre-modern shari’a scholars’ interpretation of the law, which certainly tolerated Christians and Jews, if for a price.  ISIS drove the Christians out of Mosul, and many say the option of paying for toleration was not given.  In the eyes of some Muslims, for all their violence and non-canonical interpretations of Islam, they are the most effective force today for Islamic dignity.

Success breeds success.  ISIS started largely as a band of foreign jihadis who flocked to Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and though that hasn’t worked, their recent territorial gains have increased their recruiting appeal.  Capture of Iraqi oilfields is also providing them with a more secure funding source, increasing both their military potential and their ability to recruit effectively.  Their brutality to captured cities and captured non-Sunnis has given them a fearsome reputation, so that cities in northern Iraq are now emptying out of civilians at the first rumor of their approach.  This makes it all the easier for them to move in and plunder, and they have probably obtained a fair amount of property from claiming the property of all Shiites and Christians in Mosul and in the towns they have conquered around it.  The Kurdish Peshmerga, which initially was successful in holding them off, has begun to complain that they are now out-gunned by the jihadi militants, and have had to fall back from positions due to lack of ammo, resulting in a loss of morale.  The Iraqi government in Baghdad has, remarkably, authorized its own airstrikes to support Kurdish forces on the ground, but they have been inconclusive.

I am not in favor of bloodshed, and especially not in favor of being responsible for shedding it.  But if the outside states do not intervene militarily at this juncture, it looks like ISIS will consolidate its hold on northern Iraq and transform that region into a mass training ground for terrorist recruits.  At present, its goals seem to be local: controlling a swath of territory from the Euphrates to east of the Tigris, and perhaps going down to capture Baghdad once it has the means.  But the proclamation of a caliphate betrays its universal vision; there should be no doubt that it sees itself as the start of a new conquest of the known world, echoing the Islamic conquests of the seventh century but with greater technology, greater speed, and greater reach.  Although most Muslims in the West are disgusted at its brutality, it would be surprising if all without exception were impervious to the propaganda of God’s favor spewed by ISIS, and thus the continuing success of ISIS without check will lead to increasing numbers of terrorists holding American passports.  If ISIS is not now confronted by a superior force, it will simply become a greater problem for everyone.

On the other hand, a military defeat now can give the lie to the ISIS propaganda that God is giving them the victory.  A substantial defeat would limit the group’s ability to recruit additional fighters, thus restricting ISIS to continue to be a regional problem.  A defeat of ISIS would also embolden the enemies of ISIS (including some Sunni Muslims under ISIS rule in Mosul) to engage it rather than running away.

The bottom line: confronting ISIS now will be easier and cheaper than confronting ISIS later, and failure to confront ISIS now will ensure that a later confrontation with a wealthier, better armed, and better trained ISIS will be necessary.  This calculation is reason enough, even part from humanitarian obligation to halt the genocide of religious minorities in northern Iraq, as ISIS works to expel or wipe out Yezidis, Christians, and Shiites of various stripes.

The Caveats

But the survey of the Middle East in the Foreign Policy article is correct, and should give us pause.  If every time the US has touched the Middle East in the past twenty(-five) years it has made a mess, how can it avoid repeating past mistakes?  What can it do differently?

President Obama promised a limited mission with no American boots on the ground.  This will help, because American military personnel are very well trained for combat missions, but most find the complexities of Middle Eastern culture, and the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe, to be perplexing.  The Middle East is confusing enough for those who devote their lives to studying it, and such studies are not a prerequisite for joining the US military.  Therefore the least amount of engagement necessary to achieve the objective of giving ISIS a military defeat is best.  A short, really surgical, operation will engender gratitude among the survivors who are liberated from ISIS; a protracted “mission creep” will turn that gratitude sour for those who wonder why the US hasn’t done the right thing.  And the US has no means for bringing dead civilians back to life or adequately explaining to their families why they were killed by an American missile.  Minimal, but forceful, engagement must be the order of the day.

Direct US military engagement may be necessary to check ISIS, but the full victory over ISIS will require support for local actors.  The Kurds have complained that they are now out-gunned by ISIS and need ammunition and bigger guns.  There is some worry online that US allies in Baghdad and in Ankara are opposed to arming the Kurds, fearing that such weapons would then be used against their own militaries to create a breakaway Kurdish state.  Frankly, if someone doesn’t use better weapons against ISIS, there soon won’t be much of an Iraq left to argue over.  But the US can avoid playing favorites in the Kurdish spat with Nuri al-Maliki, by offering to provide weapons to any allied state’s military willing to fight ISIS, whether the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Turkish military, or Jordanian or Saudi forces.  Such an offer may reasonably except Bashar al-Assad, who is not a US ally.  But such an offer will also put the onus upon the Baghdad government as well as the Kurds to commit to saving their land from ISIS.

I have written elsewhere about the need to involve the Iraqi armed forces in order to avoid the accusation that Baghdad is a freeloading foreign dictator imposed upon the Sunnis of northern Iraq by superior firepower alone.  As long as the government in Baghdad insists on trying to rule by Shiism, the west of the country will continue protesting (even if not, usually, into the arms of jihadi terrorists), and this is the necessary political solution referenced by President Obama.  The necessity of this step was publicly voiced today by the important Iraqi Shiite leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with vocal support from other Shiite grand ayatollahs, and no peace in Iraq will be possible without building a more inclusive and less sectarian government in Baghdad.

The recent apparent capture of Mosul Dam by ISIS, despite some earlier contradictory reports, creates a further need for a strategic approach to the situation.  In the 2003 invasion, the US drafted contingency plans for what to do if the retreating forces of Saddam Hussein detonated the dam.  They anticipated that in two hours a wall of water 65 feet high (20 meters) would wash over Mosul.  Such a land-bound tsunami would level the city; I do not think any edifices are solid enough to resist such a deluge.  The water would continue down the Tigris, wiping out cities along the banks of the river, until it would hit Baghdad still at a height of 15 feet (5 meters).  This would destroy all of the low-lying housing in the capital.  Thus a detonation of Mosul Dam would completely wipe away Iraq’s second largest city, and would demolish much of the largest city as well.  Saddam Hussein’s forces did not detonate the dam, as it turned out, but ISIS has demonstrated that it is far more callous of civilian life, if possible, even than the former Baathist dictator of Baghdad.  In order to circumvent this, the Mosul Dam should be retaken from ISIS before Mosul itself is liberated from the terrorists, as they are less likely to destroy their own capital city than one recently taken from them.

The final caveat to US intervention in Iraq is the most important: what Americans are fighting here is not “Islam,” but terrorists.  I am not a Muslim myself, nor do I value Islam as a religious system, but muddled thinking here will lead to a higher body count.  Terrorists of any creed cannot be tolerated, whether Muslim terrorists in northern Iraq, or Christian terrorists in northern Ireland, or atheist terrorists in central India.  An attack against “Islam” will drive many Muslims to defend their faith; an attack against “terrorists” will give many Muslims the opportunity to distance themselves from the other side.  More important even than the military battles are the cultural battles taking place around what it means to be Muslim, and Western societies could be making it much easier for non-violent Muslims (the vast majority according to a Pew Forum survey last year) to hold their religion while distancing themselves from the terrorists.  Any attempt to “humiliate Islam” will lead to further violence; instead, the US intervention must work with Muslim leaders to demonstrate that the version of Islam spouted by ISIS is not in fact the traditional mainstream of Islam but “innovation” (bad’, the Islamic term for heresy).  Widespread arguments by Muslim religious leaders that ISIS soldiers are not good Muslims, because they are disobeying Allah’s commands about wiping out the People of the Book (Christians), would go a long way to stifling ISIS recruitment.  But that cooperation will only be possible if Americans do not trumpet their military intervention as a defeat of a religion, but of crimes against humanity.

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