The fact that the discredited American neoconservatives responsible for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 are now back in the limelight holding forth on Washington’s policy with regard to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)’s advances shows just how critical the situation has become. The Sunni extremist group’s advance is inching towards Baghdad and in retaliation, Shia Iran is stepping in openly to aid its neighbour and fellow Shia-majority nation with General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force — an elite special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — consulting with the Iraqi leadership. That Washington isn’t rattling its sabre at Tehran’s involvement but is openly floating the idea of working with it in Iraq is another marker of how serious the ISIS threat is. India’s own troubles, in fact — both humanitarian, with 40-odd Indians in Iraq either unreachable or kidnapped by militants, and economic, with Sunni militants’ attack on Iraq’s largest oil refinery pointing to how global oil prices might spike and derail the Union budget — are a microcosm of what the regional and global fallout of Iraq’s troubles could be.
There are no easy solutions for all the blustering of Iraq’s war cheerleaders — least of all a reassertion of American military might. Thankfully, US President Barack Obama has firmly ruled out the possibility of boots on the ground. But airstrikes are very much on the table with a US aircraft carrier, destroyer and guided-missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf providing him with a range of tactical options. This is a chancy option at best. Without troops on the ground, US commanders will have to depend on satellite imagery and Iraqi intelligence for targeting air strikes. Throw in the fact that ISIS militants are currently in urban areas, and collateral damage is far more likely than not.
Nor is Tehran’s involvement without its problems. In the short term, it could perhaps help Baghdad stop ISIS’s advance. But in the medium to long term, Iranian support for the Iraqi government could very well stoke the Iraqi Sunni minority’s legitimate fears of persecution and disenfranchisement — created by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s blatantly sectarian policies — and deepen the fissures in Iraq that have enabled ISIS’s rapid gains. It’s important to note that when Fallujah fell to ISIS in January this year, it was Sunni tribal militias that started the fighting against the military, angered by al-Maliki’s sending in security forces against camps of Sunni protestors calling for legal and political reforms. And now, in a mirrored echo of ISIS’s sweeping in from Syria to ostensibly aid the Sunni cause, Iraqi Shia militias that had been fighting in Syria are returning to aid government forces. This is, in essence, laying the powder trail; all it needs is a match for the conflagration to begin.
The option that will do the least harm is containment and regional cooperation while supplying Baghdad the arms, armaments and funds it needs to combat ISIS while simultaneously pressuring it to implement the structural and policy changes needed for creating a unity Shia, Sunni and Kurd government and military. All the stakeholders must be involved — and the Iraq and Syrian conflicts must be treated as a whole instead of as discrete elements — from Iran to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey. It won’t be easy given that they are using the various factions in Iraq and Syria as their proxies in a conflict for regional dominance and national security. But Washington must bring all its diplomatic muscle to bear if an ISIS state isn’t to become a reality.