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 jihadist 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.
Now looming is 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, the Kurdish Regional Government 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 and reaching into the Syrian heartland. The almost century-old border drawn by European imperialists between the countries has disappeared. The new region — called by some, depending on where they sit, Sunnistan or the Emirate — 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, or 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.
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 jihadists, 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 jihadists, 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 ISIL will reap real gains in money and arms from the conquest of Mosul, a city of almost 2 million that is the capital of Iraq’s northern oil belt. Those resources will assist ISIL in pressing ahead in Iraq and Syria. Any successes ISIL scores will help it draw recruits, especially from abroad.
It’s difficult to say how 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 jihadists 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? After 13 years of war, 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. 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.