|Iraqi Army and Shia Militants during the Tikrit Offensive last week (source, Al Jazeera)|
Iraq is gone. Where once there was Eastern Syria and Western Iraq there is now the Islamic State (ISIS). For all practical purposes Kurdistan is a de facto state in the areas formerly known as Northern Syria and Northern Iraq. And now with Iranian military and Iranian backed Shia militias doing the fighting while the US sits this campaign out, I think you can just start thinking of Eastern Iraq as Western Iran.
Last September, when I wrote about the disaster in the making that the US approach to ISIS was creating, I was not entirely accurate in my short term predictions. I did predict that ISIS would be particularly dangerous to Jordan, and I did predict that they would not destroy themselves right away, and that they were rewriting the maps of the Middle-East, and that they would spread to other parts of the Middle East. But even though I wrote about the Sunni-Shia divide, I somehow failed to see that this could also lead to a vastly expanded sphere of direct Iranian influence. Like anyone else, I get blinded by emergent threats to global stability, and forget about countries that we have been at odds with for decades.
Now ISIS has been pushed back from Tikrit, in an offensive that the US didn't have much to do with. The offensive was led by Iranian troops and Iranian backed Shia Militias. You may recall that these are the guys that we spent so much time, money, and lives fighting a few years back. The Iraqi military was unable to even slow ISIS, and the US leadership decided that decisive action would be too politically difficult, so a power vacuum was left for Iran to step into. For the Shia in Iraq, the US approach has meant that the only thing standing between them and the mass murder of their men and systematic rape and enslavement of their women was Iran and Shia militias. For the Sunni in areas now controlled by ISIS they face the threat of reprisal massacres by Shia Militias. So for the Sunni residents of the Sunni Triangle, ISIS is the only thing standing between them and slaughter. Bad times all around.
I have a hard time imagining Iraq ever going back to what it was before the US invasion.
I know that there are a lot of people who think that Iran and ISIS are the same, or likely to team up against the US, but that is wrong. It may be possible for the US to convince itself (for a while) that things aren't going so bad for our strategy, because peace between Iran and ISIS is, if anything, probably less likely than peace between the US and either ISIS or Iran. The Atlantic ran an excellent article recently that I feel should be required reading for anyone that wants to talk about ISIS. There are a number of valuable insights to be gleaned from the article, but one of the key things to take away is the difference between the way ISIS treats Christians and Jews versus the way ISIS treats Shia Muslims and other Islamic sects.
ISIS adheres to a doctrine of Sharia law based on (their interpretation of) the practices of the Prophet Muhammad during the initial expansion of Islam. When I wrote about how Islam is not incompatible with Western culture I talked about Sharia Law and the ways that the Islamic Caliphates preserved the foundations of Western Culture from a destructive early Christianity, but the Sharia and Islam that I talked about was not the same as what ISIS seeks to bring to the world.
(I want to be very clear that I am not saying that ISIS is un-Islamic. I'll leave the deciding who is or is not Islamic to ISIS. I think that Obama was foolish to try to make that claim. ISIS is not representative of mainstream Islam, and they reject all the values that created a flowering of Islamic art, culture, and power, but that doesn't mean that they are not Islamic)
ISIS pursues a very specific version of Sharia with the stated goal of bringing about the end of the world (literally, they want to usher in the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world). In order to achieve their goals they base their application of Sharia on the strictest possible interpretation of the Quran and only the portions of the Hadith attributable to the Prophet. The rest of the intervening centuries of elaboration on Sharia is discarded and only their interpretation of Sharia remains.
What this means is that Christians in ISIS occupied territory are able to live in (relative) peace provided they acknowledge the supremacy of ISIS and pay a tax. For Shia, and groups like the Yazidi (whom ISIS considers witchcraft practicing apostates), ISIS considers them to be apostates, and by their interpretation of the Quran (or at least the Hadith) is pretty clear that death is the only option for dealing with apostates. That means that for the majority of the population of Iraq, especially in Eastern Iraq, an ISIS victory means ethnic cleansing and mass murder.
Under Saddam, the Kurds and Shia were opressed by a relatively secular Saddam and the Sunni Arab minority. After the US invaded and tried to install Western style democracy, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs were oppressed by the Shia Majority. ISIS represents an opportunity for protection and power for the Sunni living under their control. A unitary Iraq represents death and strife.
Now just to be clear, I don't think that Eastern Iraq is actually going to be annexed by Iran. The two countries fought the deadliest war since WWII, and there is a lot of bad blood, but I do think that Iraq is no longer going to be a regional balance to Iran. Whatever is left of Iraq when the dust settles is more likely to be a tail wagged by Iran's big dog.
This backdrop should also be remembered when pondering the negotiations between the US and Iran over their nuclear ambitions. Iran's nuclear ambitions already threatened the balance of power in the Middle East, now they are able to expand their areas of influence on the ground as well as through international negotiations.
I cannot pretend that I know what path is best for dealing with Iran. I know much less about those issues than I probably should.
What I do feel pretty confident about is that Iraq is now an unrecognized casualty of the US led response to ISIS.
I was originally envisioning this as a much larger article, but I think that it might be best to leave this entry short, and split some of the other ideas I am working on into other pieces. One that I want to put together is looking at why ISIS appeals to so many people from all over the world. But my next entry on this topic is going to be about why we need to stop calling ISIS a terrorist organization. ISIS is not a terrorist organization it is an insane theocracy centered on a millenniarian death cult and a state sponsor of terrorism, but it is an actual de-facto state at this point.