The capture of Mosul by militant Sunni extremist groups is a body blow to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and marks a significant escalation of the sectarian war that is tearing apart the region. The Iraqi Army, which the United States created as an intended bulwark of security, has crumbled in the face of attacks by the increasingly powerful forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with U.S. weapons and equipment sent to bolster the Iraqi Army now falling into extremist hands.
In the United States, some on the right have used the occasion to criticize the Obama administration for not doing enough to bolster the Baghdad government and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 (overlooking the fact that the President was elected on a pledge to do precisely that). On the left, critics blame the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion and emphasize its unintended consequences.
Debates about the past are important but do not address the problem of what can be done now to stem the spread of violence and instability. The United States and other external actors have very few options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as the debate unfolds.
- This is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shia political forces. It is centered in Syria and Iraq but also involves Lebanon and is supported by competing Saudi and Iranian interests. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interests of all the major factions in an equitable and inclusive manner.
- Some in Washington have reacted to the crisis by calling on President Obama to send even more arms and military equipment to Iraq, but Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-dominated forces are part of the problem not the solution. Pouring arms into the spreading cauldron of war risks exacerbating the crisis in Iraq.
- Attempts by the U.S. or other major powers to intervene unilaterally or to impose external military solutions will likely backfire and inflame militant extremism. Security solutions will need to be multilateral in the context of negotiated political settlements.
- This crisis increasingly poses threats to global security and requires a multilateral diplomatic response. The United States should work through the United Nations (and the Arab League if possible) to propose and support a major global diplomatic initiative. This will require returning to the Geneva process of attempting to find a political solution in Syria, but this time with Iran directly involved and the agenda broadened to include political alternatives in Iraq.
The chances of achieving diplomatic success are slim, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. A fully inclusive international diplomatic process should be attempted and is urgently needed now, before the fires of war and militancy spread further in the region.