What is unfolding as of writing in Mesopotamia is nothing short of the worst case scenario. The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq—the most odorous of the Islamist militants—has taken over not only large swaths of northern Syria, but also now nearly a third of Iraqi territory. The Sunni-dominated eastern part of Iraq is now essentially under its boot, although there are other armed Islamists in the region. The ISIS is so radical in its aims that even al Qaeda considers it beyond the pale. For the past six months it has gained steady control of Anbar province, including the major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It was reported yesterday that it has conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. It now controls most of the province of Nineveh, once the heart of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the mightiest empire the world had ever seen before the rise of Rome.1
This situation was not foreseen per se, but the dangers inherent in ceding the Syrian rebellion to Islamist militants were. The policy tensor was far from alone in sounding the alarm. The Obama White House was warned by the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Agency against outsourcing the supply of weapons to the oil monarchies, and letting regional players pour money and weapons into Syria. The baseline scenario (sans a US intervention) laid out by the policy tensor was “the country increasingly becoming a safe haven for a resurgent al Qaeda and a source of regional and global instability.” Unfortunately, what has obtained is considerably worse. What we are witnessing is the establishment of an über-Islamist theocratic terror state without precedent. Even in the Middle Ages no one attempted such lunacy. One very nearly has to go back to ancient empires that practiced human sacrifice to find a precedent. Even the Phoenicians, who slaughtered their young in great numbers at the altar of Moloch (Hercules), were more civilized.
The nuanced strategy proposed by the policy tensor in September 2013 is no longer viable. The situation calls for a much more radical response. Even at the current juncture, both Baghdad and Damascus are incapable of crushing ISIS. Once ISIS grows much stronger, even other armed groups who are ideologically opposed to it will not be persuaded by weapons and money to take it on. The Obama White House’s foreign policy failures are beginning to bite. The baseline scenario is no longer fighters emanating out from the conflict to thirty countries where they will be chased by drones ten years from now. The baseline scenario now is a vicious caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, that already is, and will become, a much more dangerous staging ground for terror attacks against everyone: what is left of the Iraqi state, the Kurdish Autonomous Region (we should just start calling it Kurdistan), the oil monarchies, Israel, the West, Russia, China, and India; basically everyone who does not submit to the rule of their literal interpretation of the Koran.
What is required by now is a radical overhaul of the White House’s Middle East policy. The White House now needs to back Tehran and Damascus in crushing the radical Islamists. It pains me to say this, but there is no choice left but to support Assad. That this would be the choice that was faced at a later date was clear from the beginning. The only security interest of the United States in the Syrian conflict was to prevent the resurgence of al Qaeda. As I said before, if you are not going to do the job yourself, Assad is the best man for the job. By inadvisedly staying out of the conflict, the Obama administration has cornered itself into a situation where now it has no choice but to support Assad. A thaw with Iran—and the attendant realignment in the Persian Gulf—wouldn’t exactly be the worst thing from a strategic perspective. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the Persian Gulf. The only way the United States can put Gulf affairs on auto-pilot and ‘pivot to Asia’ is by breaking bread with Iran.
The security situation in northern Iraq has brought up another, long-ignored, opportunity. The Kurds, who has been running their own region for decades now, have no choice but to fend off the ISIS. The United States should finally lift its veto against Kurdish independence, and sign up the Kurds for the fight ahead against ISIS. It’s going to be nastly and long. If you can’t afford to put boots on the ground, you need to bankroll some very competent people who will fight for you. The drones just aren’t gonna cut it. With the carrot of US support for independence, the Kurds can be persuaded to spearhead the fight; and fight competently they will. It’s all hands on deck now.
1 Assyria was the only great power to survive the spectacular collapse of the Bronze Age in 1194 BCE. All the other great powers of the Late Bronze Age—Egypt, the Hittites, and Mitanni—succumbed under the onslaught of the Peoples of the Sea; Assyria survived nearly unscathed only because its center of power lay far inland, protected from the invading hordes.