In a world pockmarked with deadly conflicts, it may be difficult to imagine a situation that trumps familiar bloodbaths in Syria and in Israel/Palestine in terms of intractability and sheer human tragedy. But such a conflict may now loom with the relentless and bloody advance by the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Of this fanatical Sunni splinter group, led by the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it is sufficient to say that it broke from al-Qaeda to pursue a more extreme agenda of violent jihad. (Indeed, the local Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, has battled ISIL over territorial control in parts of that country.)
This agenda has so far cut a swathe from northern Syria into Iraq, where in a lightning strike in June, ISIL captured the key cities of Mosul and Tikrit; on August 7, it overran Kurdish forces to occupy the city of Qaraqosh—Iraq's largest Christian city—which lies right on the border of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northeast Iraq. The targets of the ISIL fury are apostates—Shia Muslims, who of course form the government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—but also Iraqi Christians and other minorities, notably some 700,000 Yazidis, who are concentrated in the north.
The Yazidi constitute a 1,000-year-old eclectic religious sect that derives elements from Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and are accordingly regarded as infidels by ISIL. An estimated 40,000 Yazidis took refuge from the ISIL onslaught atop Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq, where brutal August heat and inadequate food, water, and sanitation threatened a humanitarian crisis. Indeed, in his televised address on August 8, President Obama stated that Yazidis in Iraq faced "potential genocide" at the hands of ISIL. At the time of writing, it seems as though a joint U.S./UK mission may bring an end to the Yazidi mountaintop exile, but the situation is dire for a far larger number of Iraqi civilians: all in all, there are now an estimated 150,000 displaced people, or "internal" Iraqi refugees, many of whom have now fled into Turkey and—in a grim irony—Syria.
ISIL's advance has also threatened the Kurdish autonomous region, hitherto regarded as sheltered from the internecine violence of the rest of the country. The power of the advance was such that the Peshmerga, the highly regarded elite military Kurdish forces, were initially forced to retreat in skirmishes with ISIL.
The fractured state of post-Saddam Iraq is hardly new: a decade ago then Senator Joe Biden and other foreign policy mandarins spoke of a "soft" partitioning of the country into a Kurdish north, Sunni west, and Shia south. The stumbling blocks here were a) the question of control of resources—that is, oil—and equitable allocation to regions that were resource-poor (jurisdiction over the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk has been particularly contested); and b) the disposition under such a plan for Baghdad and other major cities with mixed Shia/Sunni populations. But the time for theoretical map-gazing has long since passed. ISIL may well represent what has been widely described by expert commentators, without hyperbole, as the death of Iraq.
What, then, is to be done? Quite simply, the task of throttling the ISIL monster. We welcomed the belated, but still critical, U.S. air strikes on ISIL artillery detachments near the key northern city of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and where many other Iraqi refugees have fled. President Obama's August 8 pledge to act "carefully and responsibly [but] to prevent a potential act of genocide" should be fulfilled. (It should be noted, however, that the protection of Erbil and the rescue of Yazidis in Sinjar are completely distinct military operations: some of the ambiguity of Obama's speech was his partial conflation of the two.) An even wider objective is necessary, however: the diminishment, and eventual destruction, of ISIL itself. The arduousness of this task is underscored in a statement given on Monday, August 11, by Lieutenant-General Bill Mayville, director of operations at the U.S. joint staff: "We've had a very temporary effect [with the bombing so far]. I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIS."
There are some threats that transcend even long-running antagonisms and the morass of regional power politics. Although rare, these threats can bring together diverse, and often rival, states. For example, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Iran gave the United States broad assistance in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. ISIL is not merely a Syrian problem or an Iraqi problem—or, for that matter, a Lebanese problem, where ISIL has been making incursions. Nor is it merely a regional, Middle Eastern problem, although Turkey, Jordan, and Iran in particular have much to be concerned about.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does sovereignty. The civil war in Syria and the weakness of the Iraqi state has allowed ISIL to flourish, to make good on its territorial ambitions. And they are territorial: ISIL's explicit goal is to create a caliphate that stretches across the Arabian Peninsula. They simply do not recognize, or much care for, national borders. In the short term, this will no doubt further destabilize the region—and in particular Jordan and Lebanon—to potentially catastrophic effect. In the long term, ISIL represents a genuinely global threat. Foreign jihadists are arriving from all over the world (including, as has been documented, the United States) to take part in ISIL's military operations. Many ISIL fighters will eventually return home: to Tunis and Benghazi, but also to Chechnya and Xinjiang, and even to the banlieues of Paris and Manchester. This conflict will internationalize whether we want it to or not.
The burden of defeating ISIL cannot be put on the shoulders of the United States alone. The Obama administration, aware of "war fatigue" in the American electorate and ill-disposed (to its credit) in any case to open-ended conflict, will refuse to be dragged into a war in which other states can free-ride on the significant sacrifices in blood and treasure of the American people. There are, indeed, arguments to be made that even the air strikes are a step too far. The Harvard realist Stephen M. Walt makes such a case in the August 7 edition of Foreign Policy
If the history of the past 20 years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. The Islamic State wouldn't exist if the neocons hadn't led us blindly into Iraq.
This makes a great deal of sense, but so does the old sign on the department store wall: "If you break it, it's yours." (Indeed, Colin Powell famously warned George W. Bush of this very danger vis-à-vis Iraq.) This is not to say that we "own" the post-Saddam Iraq we created, but, again, we must move beyond recriminations over policy follies of a decade ago, or over what we have put in place. Eradicating ISIL is the overwhelming priority, and not for the United States alone.
The maintenance of international peace and security is (ideally) the sole prerogative of the UN Security Council, which is where the United States needs to present its case against ISIL. The French and British will no doubt agree to a resolution authorizing the use of force. If China and Russia are clear about their own self-interest in his case, they will also vote to allow for deployment of a multilateral force to systematically push ISIL out of Iraq and back, at least temporarily, into Syria. Of course, such a "coalition of the concerned" must involve a larger group of actors than the permanent members of the Security Council: Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all have very high stakes in combating the ISIL threat.
For the United States, success in this essential enterprise may require cooperation with (and by) two states with which it has frayed relations: Russia and Iran. This will be a difficult, although not impossible, task. With regard to Russia, one of the great tragedies of the current civil war in Ukraine is how a slew of ripple effects may undo much of what has been accomplished in the two decades since the end of the Cold War. For example, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is already in some jeopardy, along with the improved climate of transparency and information sharing on the over 90 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal that remains in the stockpiles of the United States and Russia. And the extent of the potential damage to the fragile global economy from sanctions targeting Russia (and from Russia's retaliatory sanctions) is only beginning to be understood. If ever there were a time for bilateral diplomatic dialogue at the highest level, it is now. If ever there were a valid pretext for so engaging, it is the clear and present danger posed by ISIL. Indeed, the common threat posed by ISIL might help the United States and Russia reengage over another contentious (and obviously connected) issue—the civil war in Syria.
With Iran, we are already engaged in incrementally positive diplomatic exchange in the P5 +1 talks in Geneva. A repeated Iranian refrain is that of dialogue beyond the nuclear question, on issues of critical interest to Tehran in the Gulf and beyond. Again, the advance of a murderous band of Sunni "ultras" surely fits that bill. There are few states in the Middle East more viscerally disturbed by ISIL's forcible conversion—and slaughter—of Shia Muslims than Iran. Just as in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States and Iran share a common interest. But it is an interest that also happens to reflect a strong ethical choice.
The threat posed by ISIL will not disappear after the immediate danger to Erbil has passed, or even when—we hope—the Yazidis find safe passage from Sinjar and other areas threatened by ISIL. Containing, and eventually destroying, ISIL will take time, potentially far longer than many have acknowledged. (The Taliban, for instance, has proven a tenacious and protean opponent.) But this much is clear: when it comes to defeating ISIL, the need is extreme, the ethical case is strong, and the opportunities for cooperation are legion. For all its special responsibilities to the people of Iraq, the United States need not, and should not, take on this task alone. By bringing this crisis to the Security Council, and engaging with other key allies on the issue, the United States can show both its fealty of the global rule of law and its regard for global justice. For what is happening in the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by ISIL is a tragedy of immense, and inhuman, proportions.