The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) now controls almost half of the major cities in northern Iraq — including Fallujah, Tikrit and Mosul — as well as the primary Iraq-Jordan border post. Four more towns fell last weekend.
So far, the Obama administration has sent an aircraft carrier and two guided missile cruisers to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, he dispatched 300 advisers and intelligence analysts to Baghdad. They’re in the process of establishing a joint operations center to learn more about the status of both friend and foe in Iraq. Armed American drones took flight over Baghdad on Thursday.
But more should be done as soon as possible.
Because of the pivotal importance of Iraq and the rapidity of the ISIL conflagration, airstrikes shouldn’t just be on the table — they should be the centerpiece.
However, considering the combustible religious and political dynamics at work in the country, Obama’s coolheaded entry may be the intelligent course — for now. There are two extremes in the current debate about American policy in Iraq, and unsurprisingly, they’re both wrong.
The first chides Obama for dithering while the country burns. When one watches the heinous images emerging from ISIL-dominated chunks of Iraq — Iraqi soldiers falling lifelessly to the ground amid the hysterical shrieks of their executioners — this sense of urgency is easy to share.
But when northern Sunni leaders are so hostile to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government that they prefer ISIL control, the situation isn’t simple. This is why an intelligence-gathering operation should pre-empt any deployment of air power.
If airstrikes are executed carelessly, the consequences (killing too many civilians and not enough ISIL fighters) could be catastrophic for American and Iraqi interests. Iranian claims about noxious American interference would suddenly seem credible to some Iraqis, ISIL would have a powerful propaganda tool, and Sunni leaders would be even less willing to resist the ISIL scourge. Also, ISIL hasn’t yet done much fighting in Shiite-majority cities where they would encounter the most fervent resistance, so the crisis isn’t as time-sensitive as it looks.
Still, at least the first camp recognizes the necessity of a total ISIL defeat in Iraq and the historical efficacy of American air power. The second extreme faction — those obstinately entrenched in their opposition to any continued U.S. involvement in Iraq — are willing to watch Iraq disintegrate and implode at the same time.
When American military personnel — in conjunction with other sources of intelligence on the ground — identify feasible targets, airstrikes should be carried out immediately.
Making the formation of an Iraqi unity government a prerequisite for military action is nonsensical. First, we don’t know how long this will take. Second, the longer the fighting persists, the less likely full ethnic and religious integration becomes. Some commentators seem to have forgotten that Iraqi Shiites constitute more than 60 percent of the population (Sunnis are in the 15 to 20 percent range), and Shiite rancor toward their Sunni compatriots is escalating by the day.
A recent New York Times article explains, “Day in and day out, Baghdad’s Sunnis are closely watched in crowded neighborhoods. Suspicions that they are secretly siding with the Sunni insurgents only grow as the militants get ever closer to Baghdad, they say, and increase their fears of retaliation.”
Why wait for these tensions to congeal before acting decisively?
Furthermore, Iranian influence in Iraq — which is already being exerted with the insertion of the Quds force (Iranian Special Forces) and 140 tons of military equipment and supplies per day — is exclusively concerned with training and reinforcing Shiite militias.
Syrian warplanes have started attacking ISIL positions on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and one such attack reportedly left 57 civilians dead. It would be cruel and reckless to delegate the responsibility of purging ISIL militants to Iran and Syria, both of which are openly contemptuous of Sunnis.
If and when our analysts deem it tenable, the United States should respond to the blistering ISIL advance from the air. An intervention of this kind would demonstrate our commitment to a valuable ally and the aspirations of all its people — not just those who happen to adhere to the right branch of Islam.
Reach Matt Johnson, editorial page intern, at firstname.lastname@example.org.