Thursday, August 14, 2014


ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has recently attracted a great deal of media attention:

  • ISIS is a Sunni Islamist group dedicated to reestablishing an Islamic caliphate, i.e., a government defined by the Muslim tradition and committed to enforcing sharia, which, in the case of ISIS, is a radical version of sharia that has emerged out of the Wahhabi tradition.
  • ISIS has achieved considerable military gains against Iraq's Shiite dominated government and now, at least nominally, governs a substantial portion of Iraq's Sunni population.
  • ISIS has also flexed its military might in Syria, seeking to overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with the caliphate.
  • The Kurds are ISIS' most effective opposition. The Kurds fund their military operations through selling oil on the black market.
  • The US has provided military assistance to the Kurds and to Iraqi military forces fighting ISIS, primarily through a limited number of advisers and air strikes. The US has also provided humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority whose religion has Zoroastrian roots and whom ISIS regard as apostate Muslims that they should exterminate.

The Iraqi political crisis, meanwhile, is nearing a climax. The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, won the last election, although with a minority of the seats in Parliament. The Iraqi president, however, has asked another Shiite member of Parliament, from a different party, to form Iraq's next government. Maliki has protested that it is his prerogative as the electoral victor to form the next government. The Iraqi military is apparently still loyal to him. The outcome of this governmental crisis will likely remain in doubt for most of the next month, the constitutional deadline for forming Iraq's post-election government.

If Maliki becomes the next Iraqi dictator, that will sadly validate predictions that I made years ago; if he fails, it will not be for want of trying. Furthermore, Iraq's future as a unified nation seems increasingly doubtful. The Kurds are rapidly nearing the point at which they will declare an independent Kurdistan. Iraqi government discrimination against Sunni Iraqis has generated much of ISIS' traction in Iraq. Regardless of whether Maliki continues as prime minister, Shiite discrimination against Sunnis will probably continue unabated, the consequence of generations of Sunni oppression of and discrimination against Iraqi Shiites.

Can US involvement make a difference?

I don't think so. The US has little political will to send a substantial number of troops to Iraq. US political leaders and citizens alike have recognized, to their great dismay, that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an ill-fated military endeavor that cost the US a great number of lives and much treasure, yet produced no visible benefits.

Could the US have made a difference by getting involved earlier or by having maintained a military presence in Iraq?

Maintaining a military presence in Iraq would have further polarized that volatile situation. Iraqi politicians perceived as kowtowing to US wishes or influence lose credibility with their peers and constituencies. What the US could not achieve in ten years (e.g., training a dedicated, professional military), the US seems unlikely to be able to achieve in twenty or thirty years. The existence of a professional, dedicated military depends upon recruits who place national identity (or at least loyalty to the military) above self-interest and loyalty to ethnicity, region, religion, etc. Iraq's military lacks a sufficient supply of such individuals. The present flood of new recruits largely consists of Shiites committed to opposing a renewed Sunni dominance. They are not the patriots that a professional military requires.

Earlier involvement is also unlikely to have dramatically altered the current state of play in Iraq for the same reasons. Iraq has a dysfunctional government that a dysfunctional military nominally supports.

Media reports and photos of ISIS' victims are heart wrenching. Ineffectual actions will only expand the number of people who suffer, not alter the outcome. The US simply lacks the ability to fix every problem.

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