Funded by Arabian Gulf petrodollars from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among other places, and for a long while supported, at least implicitly, by the Obama administration, radical Islamist fighters in Syria opposing Bashar al-Assad have been expanding in strength, numbers, and lethality for the last three years. This winter, they and their branches in Iraq converged, first taking Fallujah, then moving on to the spring and summer debacles across Sunni Iraq and the establishment of a "caliphate" in the territories they control in both countries.
It was hardly news that ISIS, a group even the original al-Qaeda rejected, had a strong presence in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the situation defensively last fall in attempting to explain Washington's increasingly controversial and confused policy on Syria, the rebels, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad they were trying to fell. He described the "bad guys" as radical fighters belonging to ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, calling them the lesser part of the opposition in that country, a statement that even then was beyond inaccurate. He went on to describe those "bad guys" as having "proven themselves to be probably the best fighters... the most trained and aggressive on the ground."
Of course, Kerry claimed that the U.S. was only supporting the "good guys," another convenient fiction of the moment.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago: in a meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba, Kerry proposed arming and training supposedly well-vetted "moderate" Syrian rebels to help take the battle to ISIS in Syria but also in Iraq. "Obviously, in light of what has happened in Iraq," he said, "we have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against [ISIS's] presence and to have them not just in Syria, but also in Iraq."
The confusion of this policy remains stunning: Washington hopes to use "moderate" Syrian rebels, in practice almost impossible to separate from the extreme Islamists, "in pushing back against" those very Islamists, while striking against the Assad regime which is supporting -- with air strikes, among other things -- the Maliki government which Washington has been arming and supporting in Iraq. The U.S. has already invested more than $25 billion in support for Maliki -- at least $17 billion of which was poured into the Iraqi military. Clearly that was money not well spent as that military promptly collapsed, surrendering a string of cities and towns, including Tal Afar and Mosul, when ISIS and other Sunni insurgents came knocking.
More aid and personnel are now on the way from Washington. The Obama administration already admits to sending at least an extra 750 Marines and Special Operations troops into Iraq, along with missile-armed drones and Apache helicopters. It is now pushing hard to sell Iraq another 4,000 Hellfire missiles. The Pentagon insists its troops in Baghdad are either guarding the huge U.S. embassy or serving in an "advisory" capacity to the Iraqis, but is also claiming that its forces need "flexibility" in order to carry out their missions. As a result, there are already plans for U.S. pilots to fly those Apache attack helicopters there.
While Washington might be at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the crisis in Ukraine, the Obama administration is undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief that Russian military aid, including fighter planes, is now flowing into Baghdad. Blurring opaque political alliances further, Iran has supplied Iraq with ground attack jets, has drones carrying out reconnaissance missions over the country, and Iranian Kurds could be joining the fight on the ground.
Considering all these twists and turns of the Iraqi situation, political analyst Maki al-Nazzal shared these thoughts with me, which are increasingly typical of Sunni opinion: "Iraq is still suffering from the U.S. occupation's sins and now self-operating to remove the cancer the U.S. planted in its body. Iraqi nationalists and Sunni Islamists have had enough of being wasted through 11 years of direct and indirect occupation and so revolted to correct by guns what was corrupted by wrongful politics."
Meanwhile, the ongoing crisis has sent the government in Baghdad into free-fall just as the opportunistic Kurds of northern Iraq have called for a referendum in the next two months to address a long-fostered desire to become an independent country. Given all of this, hopes for any kind of Sunni-Shia-Kurdish "unity" government that could save the country from collapse have been repeatedly dashed. Making matters worse, with thousands of Iraqis being slaughtered every month and the country coming apart at the seams, even the Shiites in the country's parliament seem deadlocked. "Things are moving faster than the politicians can make decisions," a senior Shiite member of parliament told a reporter.
No wonder the Iraqi army won't stand its ground when facing ISIS fighters, who are more than willing to die for their cause. What exactly is it to die defending? And it's not just army troops who are refusing to put their lives on the line for Nouri al-Maliki. Powerful Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's volatile Anbar Province are also refusing to fight for Maliki, too. In a recent interview, Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman, head of the Dulaimi tribe, insisted that Maliki was more dangerous than the ISIS fighters, adding, "I believe that Maliki is responsible for ISIS coming to Iraq."
Washington's man in Baghdad for so long, Maliki himself now adds to the crisis by refusing to budge, no matter the pressure from his former patrons and Shiite religious leaders.
The Nightmare of Ordinary Iraqis
The disintegration of Iraq is the result of U.S. policies that, since 2003, have been strikingly devoid of coherence or any real comprehension when it comes to the forces at play in the country or the region. They have had about them an aura of puerility, of "good guys" versus "bad guys," that will leave future historians stunned. Worst of all, they have generated a modern-day Middle Eastern Catch-22 in which all sides are armed, funded, and supported directly or indirectly by Washington or its allies.
Meanwhile, ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups have effectively tapped into the tens of thousands of angry young men I saw in Fallujah last year and are reportedly enjoying significant popular support (as, in some cases, the best of a series of terrible options) in many of the towns and cities where they have set up shop.
In all of this, the nightmare for ordinary Iraqis has only been accentuated. I recently received an email from a friend in Fallujah, a city now occupied by ISIS after having been brutally shelled by the Iraqi military earlier in the year. At that time, hundreds were killed and even Fallujah's main hospital was hit. Tens of thousands of people in the city, including my friend, had to flee for their lives. He has now been a refugee for months and summed up his life this way: