A terrorist organization once expelled from al Qaeda for excessive brutality is now a rapidly advancing army, whose forward lines carve out a territory roughly the size of Maryland. In less than a week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has routed elements of the American-trained and -equipped Iraqi Army, seized control of Iraq’s second largest city, and advanced to within a hundred miles of the capital. The hallmarks of Mosul’s new masters, established during their bloody rise in Syria’s civil war, include summary executions, public crucifixions, and the imposition of a medieval religious code upon every facet of human life.
Like many who served there, I have long suspected that Iraq’s fate would turn out to be darker than the one we fought and hoped for. We watched Maliki’s tragic failure to make use of the political and military space we bought him, at such cost, to reach across sectarian boundaries and unify his nation. We watched as violence returned to the streets, and as Anbar returned to insurgency. We watched as extremist groups across the border in Syria latched onto the rebellion against Assad, twisting it for their own purposes and gathering strength. My fears for the Iraqi people have been dark indeed, but none were dark enough to anticipate what has befallen many of them this week.
Many have responded to this week’s events with a partisan re-litigation of the past: pundits playing ‘who lost Iraq’ while the bullets are still flying. Some have pointed out that the 2003 invasion was a strategic error of epic proportions, whose consequences continue to mount. Others have reminded us of the decision to disband the Iraqi Army and expel Baath Party members from government, of Abu Ghraib, of the Surge and its aftermath, and of the absence of a residual American force in Iraq after 2011.
It is now tempting to ask, yet again, what price we’re willing to pay for Iraq’s future. All sides of that question have been argued, at times bitterly, over the past ten years – and again over the past few days. This, however, is entirely the wrong question to ask right now. Right now, the question is whether America still has the stomach to lead when it matters most.
The unfolding situation in Iraq and Syria – increasingly indistinguishable problems – poses a very real threat to American security, to our allies in Europe, and to the survival of the Levant in its modern form. Unlike most terrorist organizations, there is good reason to believe that ISIL has the capability and intention to strike American targets. Even if ISIL does not succeed in attacking inside the United States, an attack on our NATO allies in Europe could obligate us to retaliate directly. ISIL took dozens of Turkish officials hostage in Mosul, and Turkey has already requested official Article 4 consultations at NATO due to a “threat to regional peace and security.”
If there has ever been a time for decisive American leadership, this is it. We must reject the simplistic argument that because we cannot do everything, we can do nothing. We remain the strongest military, economic, and diplomatic power in the Middle East, and the only country capable of marshalling others to meet this threat. Over the last four years of upheaval and repression in the Arab world, America has made difficult and often uncomfortable compromises to maintain a meaningful presence in the region. If we are not willing to use that presence now, in the face of a true emergency, it is unclear we ever will be.
Those who have argued for years that America has no stake in Syria’s ongoing disintegration must now realize the limits of their thinking. Most borders in the Middle East are modern inventions that mean virtually nothing to the people living there. Spillover from Syria’s disintegration was a clear and predictable risk, especially once the conflict became a regional proxy war between the Gulf States and Iran. The United States has repeatedly declined to meaningfully promote a moderate alternative in Syria, leaving Syrians caught between Assad’s brutal regime on one hand and even more savage extremist groups on the other – and making a negotiated settlement and peace virtually impossible.
Groups like ISIL are parasites of armed conflict, state collapse, and human misery. They radicalize the hopeless, prey on weaker rebel groups to carve out territory, and feed on the free flow of weapons and cash that proxy wars bring. The longer Syria’s civil war continues, the stronger and more brutal they become. Now, the Iraqi people are reaping the consequences our inaction in Syria has helped to sow.
Inaction now would be equally unwise. To be clear, this does not mean American boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria. But it would be a tragic mistake, and a self-defeating one, to conclude that the only options available to the United States of America are sending the 82nd Airborne or sitting back and watching the world burn.
In the immediate term, we must be prepared to quickly provide the Iraqi army with support and assistance up to and including manned air strikes against ISIL forces. True, some Iraqi units crumbled even though they were well-equipped with American weapons. Others, however, stood strong and fought well, including the outnumbered Iraqi unit that held Samarra against determined attack several days ago.
The administration is right to insist on meaningful and deep political reform in exchange for assistance. Inclusive and effective government is Baghdad’s only long-term defense. But for the moment, time is of the essence. ISIL is most likely overextended after a rapid advance, and vulnerable to counterattack. That will not last long. If they are allowed to consolidate power in the cities they have taken, ISIL will be entrenched in a de facto state straddling Iraq and Syria – within striking distance of Turkey and Jordan, and butting up against an increasingly frantic Iran.
We must resist the temptation to view the current situation through the lens of past and bitter debates. This is not simply a return to sectarian violence within Iraq, or even the collapse of the Iraqi state into armed sectarian camps. We face a spiraling armed conflict extending from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, one that threatens the existence of almost every surviving Arab state on its edge and the future of every person in the northern Levant.
Simply put, we are way past asking what price we’re willing to pay for Iraq. The question now is, are we willing to help Iraq prevent the collapse of the region. In the end, only they can stand or fall against ISIL on the ground. But the stakes are too high not to offer them the best fighting chance we can with the resources only we can muster.
Mike Breen is a former U.S. Army Captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the Executive Director of the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy.