Any reasonable person should be deeply alarmed by the recent and current events in northern Iraq involving the brutal group ISIS, religious minorities, and the receding defense lines of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The Maliki government of Iraq, literally the last and best manifestation of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice strategy in Iraq (truly the greatest strategic error in U.S. history), is refusing to resign or form a new coalition government until it is given immunity for its many crimes. And why should Maliki expect less, given that those who placed him in power were never impeached or indicted?
Little in the history of U.S. actions in the Gulf Region leads to a positive view about any future intervention.
CREDO has a long history of rejecting most U.S. military interventions as either motivated by bad intentions (such as invading Iraq) or so marred by incompetence or backing the wrong allies as to backfire and leave matters worse than the bad situation that already existed. In addition, it is important to state that humility is demanded in any writing about the region by anyone not long resident. Everything is literally connected to everything, decisions made decades ago reverberate today, the adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" has led to much damage, and anything written is often obsolete before the digital ink is dry.
In this context, CREDO commends President Obama for responding to a clear humanitarian crisis with emergency supplies. More is needed, the U.S. need not continue alone, but starting quickly while refugees are literally dying on the mountain is the right thing to do now.
Military action, even of the initially limited sort announced by President Obama, must meet a much tougher standard. It has to be acknowledged that being engaged directly by the U.S. must be seen as a huge triumph for ISIS, which is setting a new standard for brutality and extreme theology.
The first choice, of course, should be that Iraq itself defeat and expel ISIS. Unfortunately, it has not and will not under Maliki. The Iraqi Maliki government, allied with Iran and itself deeply biased against Sunnis, has not only failed to create a functioning coalition government, it has explicitly supported the Assad regime in neighboring Syria, and has a military either unwilling or unable to defeat ISIS. ISIS cannot be defeated without a legitimate coalition government. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that this government has requested military assistance from the U.S., with which it has an agreement governing just such matters. A U.S. response, even if ill-advised, could not be considered as going rogue.
A second choice would be for U.N. intervention. U.N. representatives have raised the possibility of the actions of ISIS falling under the rubric of genocide, but the U.N. Security Council has no action before it that would stop ISIS. The U.N. should act on both humanitarian and security grounds, but is institutionally very slow and often simply too late.
A third approach is simply to respond to requests to the U.S. by the Kurdistan Regional Government for immediate assistance. It is impossible not to have sympathy for the Kurds, who have been oppressed by Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and before them European and Ottoman colonial powers. The Kurds have been periodically gassed or slaughtered with impunity. The regional Kurdistan government is a reasonably functioning democracy and has demonstrated a respect for religious minorities that is truly unusual in the region. The Kurd's military force, known as the Peshmerga, has long been understood to be a disciplined and imposing presence, and it is shocking that it has failed to prevent the advance of ISIS. The Kurdistan Regional Government has asked both the central Iraq government and the U.S. for heavier arms and for airstrikes against ISIS.
Taken together, CREDO on balance believes that the U.S., having broken Iraq by its invasion and occupation, bears a special responsibility to help, but equally importantly, not to make matters even worse. We believe that President Obama's actions of the past few days are reasonable steps so far. The advance of ISIS, with its possible genocidal implications, is unlikely to be stopped unless the Kurds receive support, and the only immediate support available is from the U.S.
We are under zero illusion that ISIS can be defeated by air strikes or that the engagement of U.S. ground troops will do anything but make the situation worse than it already is. But we should also not pretend that ISIS is conducting what might be called a traditional civil war, whose only beef is with the Maliki government. Instead, there is ample evidence of shockingly brutal treatment of those who oppose them, with beheadings, mass executions, forced marriages, destructions of religious symbols, and possible genocide.
ISIS can only be stopped by a combination of a stronger, well-armed, highly motivated local ground force operating in their home regions and the removal of legitimate Sunni grievances by the formation of a coalition government in Iraq.
CREDO supports a multi-step approach to this specific crisis:
1. A rapid substantial expansion of humanitarian aid to refugees in northern Iraq;
2. Immediate delivery of appropriate weapons as requested by the Kurdistan Regional Government;
3. Immediate convening of the U.N. Security Council for a resolution authorizing third party military force to defeat ISIS in Iraq;
4. A brief window of U.S. targeted air strikes of ISIS forces threatening Kurdistan, religious minorities in northern Iraq, and Americans in the region to give time for longer term approaches to take shape and prevent genocide. Any U.S. military involvement should be explicitly subject to the War Powers Act, with a short time period before Congressional authorization is required. History shows that an open ended engagement without Congressional approval is likely to expand and end badly.
We recommend this approach with hope for the best but also with acknowledgement that we might have underestimated the risks of even limited military engagement.