Militants known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, which is the Arabic term for the Levant), have swept through large areas of Iraq, pushing toward Baghdad and executing Iraqi forces along the way. Brookings experts have had a lot to say about the group and policy options facing the Obama administration. A panel of Brookings experts will examine the situation and offer their recommendations on the U.S. response in a public event this Thursday at 9:00 a.m.
Kenneth Pollack details the military forces now in Iraq and lays out scenarios. In the most likely one, Pollack writes, there “could be a protracted, bloody stalemate” in which “one side or the other would have to receive disproportionately greater military assistance from an outside backer than its adversary to make meaningful territorial gains. Absent that, the fighting will probably continue for years and hundreds of thousands will die.”
Daniel Drezner offers three useful “ground rules be put in place” for the debate on this issue:
- The “architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, “should totally exercise their freedom to criticize existing foreign policy” but “their taglines should acknowledge their role and errors in judgment in previous policy fiascoes.”
- No sunk cost arguments. “The question about what to do in Iraq from here on in has to be divorced from the costs that have already been borne.”
- “No murmurs of disapproval from allies.” Drezner explained that “The sooner that U.S. policymakers realize that there is no way to make the Gulf states publicly happy about U.S. policy in the Middle East, the sooner the focus can be about advancing and preserving American interests.”
Michael O’Hanlon says that Iraq needs a new team at the top. “There should be little doubt,” argues O’Hanlon, “that the United States handed Iraq a viable chance to govern itself by the end of 2011. Iraq has largely squandered that chance.”
Michael Doran, writing with Max Boot, criticizes the notion that the United States should work with Iran to counter ISIS. “The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability,” they argue, “shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful as the notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe.”
Charles Lister, who recently analyzed the competing sides in Syria’s civil war in detail, calls ISIS’ actions part of a larger Sunni uprising. He explains that:
ISIS may be the largest force involved (with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), but it is far from sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this “relationship” is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted. The militant group has consistently failed to retain popular support, or at minimum, acceptance.
Elizabeth Ferris focuses on the displacement crisis—an estimated half million people fled their homes in Mosul as ISIS forces took part of that city. She argues that “the present Iraqi displacement crisis requires urgent attention to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of desperate people.”
Bruce Riedel explains the origin and aims of ISIS, calling the Syrian civil war “a gift to ISIS.” Explaining the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in founding the group, Riedel says that:
The Bush surge in 2007 did not destroy Zarqawi’s empire. A residual US ground force would not have eliminated it, either. Decapitating the group and buying the Sunni tribes only forced it deeper into the angry Sunni underground. Only sustained good and smart governance could kill it, and that was something post-Saddam Hussein Iraq could not produce, with or without the United States.
Riedel also asserts that Iran “will probably emerge as the big winner in the Iraq debacle, solidifying its dominance in Baghdad. The balance of power in the region will tilt further toward Iran.”
Javier Solana says that “Iraq’s current travails are the direct result of the war in neighboring Syria.” He argues that the group’s rise “underscores the urgent need for fresh, creative diplomacy in Syria that can break the deadlock both on the battlefield and in the negotiating room.”
Daniel Benjamin wonders whether Iraq can survive. “Lesson number one of foreign policy in the 21st century ought to be,” he argues: “Allow no states to fail, ungoverned spaces to emerge, terrorist safe havens to be established. But that is easier said than done.” He says that while the Obama administration will continue to provide the Maliki government in Baghdad with arms, “airstrikes against ISIL that some call for are hard to imagine.”
Daniel Byman asks “what does it mean when a nonstate actor carves itself a state?” as ISIS seems to be doing. He looks at the challenges a “newly minted jihadist state” would face internally, noting that “an ISIS-controlled state will not expand indefinitely, and it may prove even more fragile than what it has already toppled.”
Byman also posits that the Obama administration’s choice is “between bad guys and a bad government.”
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.