First, the good news: the Islamic State (ISIS) is likely to be defeated. It’s made too many enemies too quickly, even for a region where “friendless” is a compliment second only to “radical.” Its foes include virtually every remaining great power, every regional power, several major non-state actors, and seven-eighths of the current participants in the Syrian civil war.
ISIS has performed remarkable geopolitical ju-jitsu in uniting the United States, Bashar Assad, Iran, Putin, Hezbollah, and Israel. With the US airpower supporting Iraqi ground forces, and nobody supporting ISIS, the end should come relatively easily.
The bad news is twofold. First, it will be ugly. Really, really ugly. The absence of US ground troops and the impotence of the four remaining members of the Free Syrian Army mean the dominant force on the ground will be Shia militias (or loosely disguised reconstituted security forces). These improv forces stopped ISIS’s advance on Baghdad, and took the lead in breaking the siege of Amerli, which was hailed as a major victory over the Islamic State. Since then they have been burning Sunni homes and have shut out the Kurds. There have been credible reports of mass killings elsewhere in Iraq as well.
Who’s there to stop them? These militias were the first to answer the call when Mosul fell to ISIS and when the capture of Baghdad, momentarily, looked imminent. They had a very Miracle-at-the-Marne feeling, with the Kaiser bearing down on Paris and metropolitan taxis ferrying French troops to the front line in the suburbs. The Miracle-at-the-Tigris probably involved less champagne and Marianne, but it definitely had the same air of levee en masse.
Therein lies the problem. While the Iraqi security forces that collapsed in the north were certainly Shia-dominated, they were not openly sectarian. The US had spent a great deal of time and effort in training them to be – if not even-handed – perhaps half-handed. Perhaps not unsectarian enough not to discriminate against Sunnis, but enough not to ethnically cleanse them on sight.
These Shiite militias of the barricades are not so restrained. They are not fighting for the Iraqi government, nor for the principle of Iraq-ness, such as it is, but for the Shia community and the religious leaders who issued the call. Like militias anywhere, they are very loosely trained and indiscriminate. Under Obama’s strategy, they are also our primary ground troops. Wonder what a counterinsurgency by genocide looks like? We may find out.
There are also the Kurds, of course. The Kurdish peshmerga have historically been fierce, competent fighters, controlled by a pluralistic and pro-US government that has been the sole bright spot in Iraq’s Dadaist reality these past two decades. The Kurds are indeed fighting against ISIS. But they cannot take the lead because there are not enough of them. Kurds make up only 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population, and the peshmerga have rarely fought in non-Kurdish areas.
It’s just unrealistic to think that the peshmerga can push ISIS out of a swath of Iraq several times the size of Kurdistan.
The Shia, however, do have the numbers. They are 60-65 percent of the population; and if ISIS is going to be defeated, in the absence of US forces, these Shia militiamen in official uniforms are going to have to do it; supported by US airpower and Kurdish troops, they probably will.
But the result is not going to be a newly non-sectarian, even-handed Iraqi government. No, if radical Shia elements have taken back the real estate and smashed ISIS, they and their leaders will clearly be the driving force in Baghdad.
That’s the second problem. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was sectarian, yes, and far too friendly with Iran for American tastes; but he did crush the Iranian-backed Sadr Army in 2008 and keep Iraq reasonably independent. An Iraq that has been saved from ISIS by Iranian-backed Shia forces will not be so lucky.
Once those forces retake control of ISIS territories, it’s only a matter of time before Bashar Assad wins his civil war. If US airstrikes have shredded the Islamic State’s leadership and militias have chopped through their forces in Iraq, there’s no reason why their territory in Syria shouldn’t fall soon thereafter. Though Obama stressed we are not aiming to help Assad, help him by default we will. Defeats turn into routs very quickly, and unlike the Free Syrians, Assad’s army is ready for the Islamic State’s collapse.
Then we are left in a brave new world, an Iranian world, at least for the next decade. Radical Shias will control Iraq, Assad will control Syria, Hezbollah eternally will control Lebanon, and the Sunni world, for the first time, will stand without the active support of America.
After a joint US-Shia campaign against ISIS, Obama is unlikely to make a robust transition to hard-edged guarantor of Sunni security. The Saudis and the Emiratis, in the midst of a five-year panic about the loss of American influence in the Middle East, will transition smoothly into a full-blown meltdown. They’ll hedge their bets; but however they hedge, it’s unlikely to be enough to stop Iran from dominating the Gulf for the first time in the age of oil.
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