Iraq is not a you problem

By Syed Meesam Razvi

ISIS militants brutally execute Iraqis en masse
ISIS militants brutally execute Iraqis en masse

The news of Iraqi cities being overrun by ISIS took the western news media by a storm but the western allies who once formed the coalition that brought down Saddam largely stood on the sidelines, calling it an Iraqi issue that needs to be dealt with by Iraqis. President Obama in his recent address said “We can’t do it for them” impressing on the Iraqis to figure it out on their own and called in to question the effectiveness of a “short-term military action”. Many western pundits are also busy selling this as a preamble to an ugly internecine regional war between the Shi’a and the Sunnis, arguing that the west is better off to not get involved. But buyer beware: Iraq is not a you problem.

Leaving this for the Iraqis to sort out and assuming it to be sectarian warfare would be a mistake. The drama in Iraq is the newest season of what has been transpiring in Syria and represents the broader struggle for influence in the region – of which Iraq has now become the theater. An unlimited flow of funds from sympathizers across the Gulf States coupled with apathy from United States and the west has now emboldened these radical elements to a point where progress against Al Qaeda in the last thirteen years is close to being completely reversed and a safe haven in regions of Syria and Iraq – not very unlike the Afghanistan of Taliban in 2001 – is about to be handed to ISIS. Of note is that ISIS is no longer just a splinter of Al Qaeda, rather, it considers itself a state which now boasts real territorial boundaries with its own judiciary and armed forces.

This of course has not gone unnoticed among the powers that be in the Shi’a world and already, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential Shi’a clerics in the world has called upon Iraqis to take upon arms to defend Iraq. ISIS, which has demonstrated its brutality by conducting summary mass executions of Iraqi civilians and soldiers during the capture of Mosul is very much capable of causing harm to the Shi’a holy sites in Najaf, Karabala, Kadhmain or Samarra. Any such actions by ISIS will most definitely inflame the situation and provide an excuse to Iran, Hezbollah and militant Shi’a groups to directly intervene, inviting a surefire reaction from Saudi Arabia and turning the idea of a regional Shi’a-Sunni conflict in to a self fulfilling prophecy.

The repercussions of what happens in Iraq will not only be limited to Iraq but would create a dooms day scenario that will reverberate from Lebanon to Bahrain to Nuclear Pakistan where significant Shi’a-Sunni populations have been at loggerheads for decades. It is in no one’s interest especially the United States’ to let this play out by itself – the bull needs to be taken by the horn or spectators will be wounded.

A decisive military strike that immediately reverses the territorial gains made by the ISIS, followed by diplomacy resulting in a regional security pact, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia play a role in the stability of Iraq, Syria and the region will be pivotal.  But diplomacy minus an immediate and decisive military strike would result in failure. The situation requires the United States – the only capable master surgeon – to make a decisive surgical cut instead of magically hoping for the wound to heal itself and let it fester.

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