To many people, the mere mention of Iraq conjures up an unfavorable war that dominated headlines for years. With the advent of the recent violence in Iraq, it comes as no surprise that people everywhere are fervently expressing their views on the subject. Even though many will inevitably draw comparisons between the Iraq conflict that they remember and the current violence, I believe that the present situation has a variety of important differences, the most notable of which is that the terrorist organization that is responsible, known as ISIS, is unlike anything the world has seen. Organized, wealthy, and well equipped, ISIS, “…is not your father’s terrorist group”. This should be a great cause of concern considering that ISIS already succeeded in capturing military equipment from the Iraqi army (equipment, I should add, given to them during the Iraq war). Thus, ISIS is an extremely organized force and is in possession of assets that far exceed other terrorist organizations. A scary situation.
Clearly, this extremist group poses a threat, but what is it and what exactly does it want? Notably, this terrorist organization can trace its origins from Al-Qaeda groups based in Iraq. The name of “ISIS” refers to the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” but this acronym is a bit misleading; it only covers the territories that are currently under control of the terrorist organization and not the areas they aspire to control. This is why media accounts tend to deviate by calling the group either “ISIS” or “ISIL”. The later name stands for the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” and refers to the terrorist organization’s aspirations to control Iraq and all of the Levant.
Whether you call it ISIL or ISIS, both names refer to a terrorist organization that seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the territory it controls. A caliphate is loosely defined as, “an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries.” This type of government harkens back to the historical Ottoman Empire and its current “reinstitution” serves as a symbol rather than anything. Unlike the Ottoman golden age where math and the sciences flourished, ISIS is likely using nostalgia as a weapon for the hearts and minds of the people and will continue to implement strict Islamic law upon its citizens. Lastly, the organization is predominantly Sunni Muslim and this plays an important factor in the disputes that occur between the current Iraqi government and the terrorist group .
Iraq has had a poor record in dealing with this threat. Even though the Iraqi forces have the numbers, the terrorist organization has quickly seized numerous cities close to Baghdad . The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, is predominantly being blamed due to ISIS’s ability to take over cities with little resistance. The prime minister reportedly assigned generals who were extremely ineffective, not to mention responsible for severe human rights abuses in secret government prisons over the Iraqi military. This inability to institute a hierarchy of effective leadership led to loss of faith in the Iraqi government and fragmentation of its army. This combined with Maliki’s habit of antagonizing Sunni tribes created a situation ripe for disaster. It should really come as no surprise that ISIS has had good luck in taking towns and cities and extending its deadly influence.
The next question on everyone’s minds is a simpler one: “What should be done?” There are several different options that I believe could be effective. The first involves the Kurds, an ethnic minority that has prospered after the recent violence wrought by ISIS. Currently they have laid claim to an area from Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad. From this area, they have set up a functioning government with a means of income from the wealth of oil reserves in the territory. According to one Foreign Affairs article, the Kurdish peshmerga forces (Kurdish troops) serve as, “…the best hope for those who want to stop ISIS in Iraq…”. Thus, the international community would be wise to attempt to try to gain their support in removing the terrorist group. Unfortunately, the Kurds have reason to distrust both the Iraqi forces (due to recent bombardment that resulted in the unintentional deaths of several peshmergatroops), to the history of abrasive dealings with the United States (one of the most famous, the 1975 Algiers Agreement, constructed by Henry Kissinger, resulted in the Iraqi Kurds suffering from the Baathists) .
Despite this potential roadblock, the United States have initiated efforts at mending the situation by recently sending 300 hundred military advisors to Iraq along with Secretary of State John Kerry. However, many believe that there is a lot more that can be done to fix the situation. First, there must be international support for a solution. Although the United States is certainly a powerful entity, having multiple states participate in the peace effort might take away the stress the U.S. would normally have if it were to shoulder the burden of a solution. Additionally, it is important to keep ISIS in perspective. Although some sources are fearful of its growing power, there are others who see it as not quite a fully realized threat. Peter Mansoor, a colonel who served in the Iraq war, stated that one of the reasons for ISIS success is that it took areas that did not put up much in the way of resistance. He further theorized that if ISIS tried to take over the heavily fortified city of Baghdad it would lead to a “Stalingrad moment” with massive casualties in the terrorist organization. Despite this hopeful outlook, he does believe there must be “boots on the ground” with America leading the charge.
It seems the best option for a solution to ISIS would be a combination of international intervention as well as local support. It might be possible to convince the Kurdish people that they have a vested interest in the stability of Iraq and therefore promote military involvement. Additionally, the international community should construct an adequate plan of restoring legitimate Iraqi governance (ideally Maliki would step down from power due to his numerous egregious human rights abuses against those of Sunni Muslim faith) as well as military action in removing ISIS. Although it is clear that ISIS is very opportunistic and is not yet a grave threat, time will inevitably change ISIS from a terrorist group into a terror organization with the resources and manpower to cripple the Middle East. For this reason alone, the United States and its allies should weigh its options carefully.
N.B. “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”
For those who want to learn more, check out this interesting interactive map provided by the New York Times regarding the current situation.