The situation in Iraq has been grim and chaotic. Since the fall of Mosul, pressure has mounted on the United States to take a more active role in addressing the growing threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While critics can argue that the Obama administration has been late in responding to the growing violence, there have been--quite simply--very few good options. Moreover, the persistent failure of the al-Maliki regime to make even token concessions to Sunni political factions, coupled with the embarrassing failure of the Iraqi Army to defend the country's second largest city after years of U.S. training and billions of dollars invested in weapons and equipment, raised serious questions about the strategic objectives of any U.S. intervention. What could U.S. military force achieve under these circumstances?
The plight of Yezedi minority stranded in mountains near Sinjar may have actually provided a critical impetus for an overdue revision of U.S. policy, one that the fall of Mosul did not seem to spark. However, while the humanitarian component of this crisis is clear, and it is indeed noble that the United States would take direct action to avert a humanitarian disaster to airlift emergency assistance and facilitate the evacuation of this threatened minority group, it is important to recognize that U.S. interests in the region go beyond humanitarian concerns. The Obama administration must engage the situation in a comprehensive way that utilizes American diplomatic, military, and economic power to achieve objectives that support U.S. national interests. Two such objectives are bolstering the capabilities of key U.S. allies to contain ISIS, and working to restore some balance in the region that may set the groundwork for longer-term political solutions.
The United States, utilizing the diplomatic resources of the State Department and military liaisons of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) should immediately engage U.S. allies in the region to reaffirm support for their security and, if necessary, provide military assistance and (perhaps more importantly) enhance intelligence gathering and information-sharing to more effectively address the ISIS threat. The United States has already begun to provide material support for the autonomous Kurdish territory of Northern Iraq which faces the most immediate danger. Additional, potentially extensive air operations to defend the city of Irbil and surrounding areas may prove necessary but could stabilize the front in the north and turn back ISIS offensives.
Looking forward, Jordan has been on the frontline of the ongoing Syrian conflict, managing both a humanitarian challenge arising from refugee flows, as well as a potential security challenge as ISIS consolidates power in western Iraq's Anbar province as well as southeastern Syria. King Hussein has been a critical U.S. ally and an important force for peace and stability in the region. The United States should be prepared to provide extensive assistance--including intelligence-sharing, economic aid, and perhaps military assistance--to avert an ISIS foothold in Jordan.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly moved military forces toward its borders with Iraq, and while Riyadh and the Gulf States may not confront an acute security threat in the short-term, the advances made by ISIS and the inherent geographic and demographic challenges associated with truly containing the expansion of the Islamic State, demands their support and commitment. Moreover, Saudi Arabia's critical influence with Sunni communities across the region will likely play a critical role in any longer-term political resolution in Iraq and/or Syria. The fact that Saudi funds, whether officially sanctioned or not, contributed to the emergence of ISIS is an unfortunate reality, but Saudi's leaders also seem well aware that their shadowy proxy war against Iran has the potential for serious blowback that could threaten the regime. U.S. representatives should emphasize this threat and push hard for constructive Saudi engagement.
Some have questioned the wisdom of intervention in the current conflict precisely because it seems to be an outgrowth of an underlying rivalry between Sunni and Shia in the larger Middle East. While the Sunni-Shia rift is an undeniable dimension of politics across the region, the recent advances by ISIS and the consolidation of control over territory stretching from Syria into western Iraq constitutes a dangerous shift in the regional balance that must be addressed sooner-rather-than-later and most likely through military means that will extend beyond limited air strikes. With the Islamic State on the march, the stability of the region and the security of U.S. allies will be under direct threat. Issues of larger political settlements within Iraq and across the region are important, but they are necessarily secondary to the threat of ISIS. The recent nomination of a new Iraqi Prime Minister and Maliki's decision to step aside offer some hope for a political resolution in Baghdad, which may enhance Iraq's capacity to carry the fight to ISIS, but to this point the use of American military power has been prudent, effective and necessary.
In the absence of further action, the Islamic State will pose an increasing threat to the United States, whether to Americans abroad, vital allies in the Middle East, North Africa or Europe, or to the homeland. Given the writings and speeches of their leader, there should be little doubt that if ISIS manages to carve out and maintain political control over their territorial conquests in Syria and Iraq, there is no reason to believe that they would not target the United States directly if their "caliphate" is achieved, providing the safe haven and resources to achieve the "global reach" that Al Qaeda once possessed from its sanctuary in Afghanistan.
Reversing the recent gains of ISIS will take time and should be primarily the task of regional powers, but the United States must engage those powers to coordinate and support their respective efforts. The limited use of airpower to avoid a humanitarian disaster and break the ISIS offensive against the Kurds is a starting point. The use of American military power may actually become less prevalent in coming days, but continued U.S. involvement and the utilization of diplomatic influence, intelligence sharing, and economic assistance should remain critical tools in addressing the threat of ISIS to the region.