The lightning advance of the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) towards Baghdad — accompanied by unauthenticated pictures of mass executions by the Islamists — has slowed as the Sunni rebels consolidate their gains, although heavy clashes have erupted near Baquba, close to the capital. While that buys US President Barack Obama some time to carefully weigh his final options in assisting the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is difficult to see how Iraq can return to status quo or preserve its current borders. The bloodbath in the wide stretches of territory the ISIS controls, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit or now, the strategic city of Tal Afar, has fundamentally challenged the legitimacy of a state that, for a millennium, has been the battleground for the Shia-Sunni schism that has resurfaced with a vengeance recently and divided the Middle East along sectarian lines.
The US is not putting boots on the ground, except for the military personnel needed to protect its embassy in Baghdad and perhaps to train Iraqi troops. It has deployed an aircraft carrier and warships in the Gulf and is reportedly considering drone strikes. But apart from the practical difficulty of air strikes against moving insurgent targets, Obama’s conundrum is how his policy of disengagement ended up doing exactly what his predecessor’s intervention in 2003 did — plunging Iraq into sectarian violence and civil war. Notwithstanding all talk of an uncanny cooperation between arch enemies, Washington and Tehran, Obama cannot ignore the reaction of his Arab allies — Sunni states like Saudi Arabia. For, even materially and militarily helping al-Maliki’s government, widely perceived to be Shiite triumphalist, will be read as the US taking sides and helping to indirectly strengthen Shiite Iran. That said, Sunni states too are concerned about the violence and intolerance the ISIS is unleashing. Washington and Tehran cannot afford to take things slow. Just as Iran, much like Turkey, cannot countenance a Sunni ISIS caliphate in western Iraq and eastern Syria, the US would be loath to waste its soldiers’ blood and the money poured into remaking Iraq.
The ISIS advance seeks to upend a century of history, even as it wreaks destruction on human lives and shrines. While Baghdad must prepare its troops to push back against the rebels and take all the help it can get, the only means of preserving the state of Iraq is through a wider, more inclusive and representative government. To begin with, once the ISIS is defeated or restricted, there cannot be a renewed and more virulent Shia triumphalism targeting Iraq’s Sunni minority.