07/23/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Al Qaeda's Prison Attack Indicates Bleak Prospects for Iraq's Stability

In the 19 months since the Obama Administration effectively removed the last of the U.S. troops in Iraq, the embattled state has seen slight progress -- something virtually unparalleled since the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Some of this progress stems from improved relationship between Iraqi Kurds and Iraq's Shiite government. Kurds have had more leverage in dealing and negotiating with the government as a result of the enormous and previously unforeseen deposits of oil underneath Kurdish territory in the north and northeast regions of the country. In fact, this past June marked Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's first visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in over two years. Unfortunately, continued sectarian violence in Iraq, especially between the Sunnis and the Shiites has cast a worrisome shadow over this progress. For his part, al-Maliki has "encouraged talks" between the two groups, but with a promise to continue military assaults against Sunnis he perceives as threatening. These talks are not likely to happen anytime soon. However, there certainly remains an air of general stability in the country -- an air that Iraq has not experienced in quite some time.

With al Qaeda's simultaneous attacks on two jails in Baghdad yesterday, this air of stability has quickly evaporated, and once again the world wonders if Iraq is on the brink of devolving into a failed state similar to Somalia. Insurgents armed with suicide bombs, car bombs and RPGs took the lives of approximately 120 guards and special-op forces, ultimately freeing between 500 and 600 prisoners. Much to everyone's chagrin, a member of the Iraqi parliament told Reuters earlier that many of those who escaped were senior-level al Qaeda members who had received death sentences following their convictions.

Following this mass prison break, the question of what this attack means for the future of Iraq remains. For one thing, al Qaeda has flexed their muscles and demonstrated their capability to wreak havoc on the Iraqi people. It is worth noting that one of the jails attacked -- the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, which gained notoriety for the abuse U.S. soldiers once inflicted on their prisoners -- is one of the most high-security facilities within Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as this particular faction of the terrorist organization is known, is estimated to have members numbering between 2,000 and 3,000, according to an article today in Time magazine. With no shortage of mujahideen ready to continue escalating the violence, Iraqi military forces may need to prepare for a lengthy and bloody campaign.

The serious problem of the AQI is further compounded by the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria. The fighting between Sunnis and the Alawite minority, which includes President Bashar al-Asad, has no end in sight and is threatening to spill over into Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. The escalation of this sectarian conflict could quite possibly be a deathblow to Iraqi's stability as a full-blown civil conflict flooding into Iraq would likely cause unprecedented casualties, while putting an end to the notion that Syria's maladies can be cured by the Western world. Furthermore, a large-scale civil conflict in Iraq would divert the Iraqi military's attention so far from AQI that the terrorist group would have no trouble growing substantially, perhaps even to the point of being a serious threat to not just Iraq, but the entire world. This would be a tragic resurgence, given the resources that the U.S. invested in Iraq for almost a decade with the goal of ridding Iraq of al Qaeda.

In the past 19 months since the last U.S. troops left Iraq things have appeared to stabilize and head in a positive direction as the country worked its way towards a democratic government and less sectarian differences. But, perhaps that was only a veneer. Yesterday's attack has illuminated in what condition Iraq has been left. The Iraqi government would be foolish to think that NATO, the U.S., or any combination will be rushing back to their assistance anytime soon -- President Obama campaigned the first time around on pulling troops out of the Middle East, and his Administration will likely be characterized by his ability to make good on his promise and facilitate that. But without our assistance, what is the next step for Iraq? Can the Iraqi military itself overcome the challenges al Qaeda poses? There is a lot hinging on the Middle East these days -- for now, it appears, all we can do is wait and see who makes the next move.