The news from Iraq has been so bad for so long, it has become difficult to distinguish the merely depressing from the genuinely disastrous. But the fall of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, to jihadi forces this week provided a shock well above and beyond the quotidian misery — one that looks like a turning point, or even an end point, for post-Saddam Iraq.
Past the columns of refugees — hundreds of thousands of them — and US-trained Iraqi troops stripping off their uniforms to blend in with the crowds now looms the specter of a rump Iraq: a Shiite-dominated core in the east and south of the country. As the state weakens, the northern Kurdish region may come to the aid of the central government against the rebels on its doorsteps. But over the long term, it will likely try to slip the noose of Iraq’s Sunni-Shia conflict. Word Thursday that Kurdish peshmerga had seized Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern city that has been a point of dispute since 2003, suggests that the dissolution of the Iraqi state could come soon.
No less transfixing is the view to the west, where now a vast ungoverned space yawns, starting from Falluja, a mere hour’s drive from Baghdad, and reaching hundreds of miles into the Syrian heartland. The almost century-old border drawn by European imperialists between the countries has disappeared. The new region — called Sunnistan by some and the Emirate by others, depending on where they sit — is a black hole of extremism that threatens states in every direction.
Lesson number one of foreign policy in the 21st century ought to be: Allow no states to fail, ungoverned spaces to emerge, terrorist safe havens to be established. But that is easier said than done. Avoiding the current mess would have required a different prime minister than the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, who has missed every opportunity to govern inclusively and address the grievances of the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Even with Maliki, Iraq might have limped along for a time, but the Syrian civil war hastened the crisis. The radicalization among Syria’s Sunni Muslims, stoked by conflict and supporters in the Persian Gulf, who see in the possible fall of the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar Assad payback for the Shia ascension in Iraq, has nourished monsters — al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which toppled Mosul and is, amazingly, too extreme even for al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan.
It is worth remembering that both groups were born in Iraq, spawned by the rebellion against the US occupation. The irony that Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, is now under the control of jihadis, verges on inexpressible. George W. Bush and team toppled Saddam to break a non-existent alliance with al Qaeda, though Saddam was precisely the kind of secular Arab despot that Osama bin Laden despised. Now, where once there were no jihadis, al Qaeda’s offspring sweep all before them.
Whether Iraq survives as a state is an open question. But other consequences of the current mess will raise anxieties in many capitals in the West and the Arab world before that issue is resolved.
The first is that the worst of the bad guys in the region will be much strengthened. ISIL will reap real gains in money and arms from the conquest of Mosul, a city of almost two million that is the capital of Iraq’s northern oil belt. Knocking over banks and emptying armories is a strategy for resource replenishment that has served al Qaeda affiliates well from Yemen to Nigeria, but none of them has won a prize as rich as this historic city.
Those resources will help ISIL press ahead in Iraq and on its other front in Syria, where it will deepen the fight against Bashar al-Assad and his allies from Lebanese Hezbollah. And, completing this vicious circle, any successes ISIL scores against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad or the Shia-supported regime in Damascus will help it draw more recruits, especially from abroad, where nervous governments have watched the flow of young men to the region surpass the numbers that traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq combined after 2001 by as much as a factor of five.
It’s difficult to say precisely how all these factors will shape the terrorist threat to the United States and its allies. We shouldn’t fall for the belief that all change will spell inevitable doom. If the recent past is any indication, the jihadis of Sunnistan will compete and butcher one another as ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra have in the recent past. But it would also be foolish to think that the churn in the region will all turn inward, or that extremists and sectarians will be magically consumed by their hatred.
What can be done? It’s early to say, except that after 13 years of war in West and Central Asia, no one in Washington — rightly — will contemplate putting US boots back on the ground. The Obama administration will continue to provide Maliki with arms, now that his forces are again accepting help from the United States, though the airstrikes against ISIL that some call for are hard to imagine. For the future, it will require real imagination and effort to contain the demons now proliferating in the eastern reaches of the Fertile Crescent — at a moment when Americans would most like to look away.
Daniel Benjamin served as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. He is now director of Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.