The lightening takeover of large parts of Syria and western Iraq last week by Sunni Muslim extremists has totally scrambled U.S. efforts to deal with a burgeoning conflict that threatens to engulf the entire region — and the situation got worse over the weekend when the insurgents announced they had murdered some 1,700 Shiite soldiers captured in the areas they control. The challenge for the Obama administration is that there are no good options to protect our immediate interest in halting the insurgents' advance that don't also work at cross-purposes to our long-term policy goals there.
The apparent motive for the atrocity, if confirmed, was to spark reprisal killings of Sunnis by Shiites in parts of the country still under government control, leading to an all-out sectarian civil war aimed at tearing the country apart and facilitating the rise of an Islamic caliphate based on Sharia law in the territories controlled by the insurgents. The rapidly deteriorating situation gives the lie to the chorus of criticism out of Washington that we wouldn't be in this position if the Obama administration hadn't withdrawn all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Given the dysfunctional political culture of Iraq's Shiite-led government under President Nouri al-Maliki, coupled with the ongoing civil war in Syria, the U.S. would be in an even worse spot if we still had troops on the ground because they would quickly become targets for both sides of the conflict.
What has complicated the Obama administration's ability to respond to the prospect of Iraq being shattered into separate ethnic and sectarian enclaves is that fact that any intervention invariably would be viewed as threatening by our regional allies while at the same time emboldening their enemies. Shiite-led Iran, which backs the embattled Maliki regime in Baghdad, is anathema to the Sunni governments of Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, which are supporting Sunni militants trying to topple the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. But if the U.S. were to intervene to block their advance into Iraq it would run the risk of appearing to be helping Iran expand its influence — even though the U.S. also wants to see Mr. Assad forced from power.
It's often said that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the tangle of conflicting alliances and sectarian enmities in the region makes it almost impossible for the U.S. to act in a way that both bolsters the Iraqi government's control over its territory and at the same time constrains Iran's regional ambitions.
The U.S. considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and is in the midst of an effort to thwart its evident desire to develop a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama has said that all options, including air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, remain on the table if the nuclear talks with Iran fail. Yet by launching air strikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, the U.S. could find itself effectively providing friendly air cover for Iranian troops dispatched by Tehran to prop up Mr. Maliki's teetering government in Baghdad.
The absurdity of the present situation has created a strategic conundrum for the U.S. of not being able to live with the Iranians — but of not being able to live without them either. That is why President Obama's announcement Sunday that the U.S. is considering military action in Iraq only makes sense in the context of a broader political settlement in which Mr. Maliki accepts the need to reach out to his country's minority Sunnis and form a more inclusive government in which their interests are represented.
So far Mr. Maliki has consistently refused to do that, and as a result his leadership has been a disaster for Iraq. Unless he now shows a willingness to change course, there is little the U.S. can do to keep the country from descending further into chaos. The best of the bad options available to U.S. policymakers at this point would be to press Iran to encourage Mr. Maliki to reconcile with the Sunni tribes that are at least passively supporting the insurgents and open a dialogue with them aimed at forming a more inclusive central government that is capable of defending Iraq's territorial integrity.
Whether the Iranians would be receptive to such a proposal is anybody's guess, but it may be the last best chance to keep Iraq from turning into another failed state that over the long run threatens not only its immediate neighbors but the U.S. homeland and Europe as well.
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