For almost a year now, whenever someone has told me that we absolutely destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant without delay, I’ve unfailingly responded with a question of my own. “Okay. Then what?”
That isn’t an example of my being a smart-alec or a cutie-pie, both of which I’m fairly well known for. It’s a deadly serious question: “Then what?”
I understand that ISIS represents the living personification of evil in the modern world. I get that they’re supposed to be keeping us up at night with their vile ideology and less than ideal table manners. I know this is what currently passes for news, but it really isn’t.
Okay, so we have to defeat them. Then what?
I believe that this is a question so important that virtually no one is asking it. It used to be that when the West went off to faraway lands to destroy monsters, we did so with at least the expectation that we wouldn’t be going back every three to five years to do battle with a new set of them.
Lost in most of the mainstream news coverage and partisan spin is the fact that ISIS exists for a reason. They are the consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When the Sunni yoke of Saddam Hussein was lifted from the Shia majority, the Shia suddenly found themselves free to persecute the Sunnis, who, it turns out, weren’t thrilled by that.
The 2007-08 U.S surge failed in its dual missions to destroy al Qaeda in Iraq and provide for sectarian reconciliation in Iraq. The anarchy resulting from the collapse of Syria turned a guerrilla force into something that suddenly looked and acted like a conventional military, which swept through both countries with stunning speed.
There are two reasons for the success of ISIS in Iraq. First, the Shia regime in Baghdad made the conscious decision to purge the military of Sunni elements, primarily in the officer corps, that historically had been its backbone. Second, the Sunnis themselves felt more comfortable being governed by even the animalistic ISIS than they did by a demonstrably hostile government in Baghdad.
All of the bombing and training in the world – and Western leaders are insistent that that is all we’ll be doing – is going to do very much to change those two facts.
So we bomb the stuffing the ISIS from the air and train the barely competent Iraqi National Army and Kurdish peshmurga to rout them on the ground. It might actually work.
Just as ISIS rose from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, something is certain to rise from the ashes of ISIS unless Iraqi society is either fundamentally reformed or the nation itself is trisected into smaller ethnic states. There is no shortage of determined and capable Sunni fighting forces being produced by the chaos in neighboring Syria, so the idea that ending ISIS solves the problem is little more than a fantasy.
The West has neither the will nor the means to impose a settlement on Iraq’s competing religious factions. We can’t rely on the neighbours to do it, since Iran and Saudi Arabia are each using the situation to further their own proxy war, and the Turks are too determined to stop the emergence of an independent Kurdish state to focus on anything else.
Something like the Congress of Vienna probably has the best chance of success, but such things tend to occur only after catastrophic wars. Otherwise, the self-interest of the individual nations overrides the necessity for regional harmony. And no one trusts the only country capable of sponsoring such a conference, the United States, nor is likely that Israel would participate, regardless of the consequences.
Our leaders should be telling us that there is every probability that we’ll be returning to the region in short order to slay another dragon that looks remarkably like the one we’re burying our swords into now.
The Middle East, as we’ll soon learn, is not unlike the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
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