On Sunday, an Islamic caliphate—named the “Islamic State”—was declared inside large portions of both Iraq and Syria. The relatively new, yet extremely violent, recently successful, and fully emboldened, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a radical terrorist group seeking to reestablish “the caliphate”—a historical Muslim state, ruled by strict Sharia law, that once stretched over much of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
In the minds of ISIS, their newborn Islamist state is a fulfillment of the long-lost caliphate from the 7th century, and Muslims across the globe are obliged to swear loyalty to the state—and its charismatic leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS claims that al Baghdadi’s line of succession leads to the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a requirement of the caliphate’s leader. His power would be absolute, and the implications massive; but declaring a caliphate does not a modern state make.
The West will reject such a declaration, but what will Al Qaeda do? It remains to be seen how Al Qaeda—the original seekers of an Islamic caliphate—will respond to the audacious move. Al Qaeda and ISIS split angrily over this very question in February, and how a fading Al Qaeda responds to a surging ISIS has big implications for this dangerous state. This move will either embolden Islamists, or open a fissure they cannot repair.
Either way, this new radical, Islamist state needs to be crushed; killed in the crib before it gathers any legitimacy or is able to fortify—militarily, spiritually, and diplomatically—its position throughout Iraq and Syria. Not content to merely wage domestic jihad, this Islamist state, led by vicious killers chopping off heads, will be a radical terrorist state seeking to export violent jihad to America and our allies.
Given the leadership, manpower, and political will, the United States could rout the Islamist State—sending yet another message that violent Islamists who seeks our destruction will not be tolerated. There would doubtless be a backlash against American action, but doing what is right is more important than being popular. However, given that President Obama is hell-bent not to intervene in Iraq, that we’ve only sent 300 “advisors,” and that America’s appetite for more conflict in Iraq is minimal—there must be another option.
Thankfully, there is—the fledgling Iraqi Army. Yes, I know that many Iraqi Army units buckled—dropping their uniforms and weapons—under direct assault from ISIS fighters. After all we’ve invested in them, we all wish they had stood their ground. But, the Iraqi Army units defending the north (2nd Division) had serious and long-standing problemsthat prevented it from repelling a dual-pronged assault from foreign Islamists and resurgent Baathists.
As the Iraqi Army reconsolidates—and American advisors assess the situation—there is reason to be more hopeful in other, more multi-ethnic Iraqi Army divisions. The Iraqi Army’s 1st and 7th Divisions, for example, have a track record of battlefield success. Provided necessary air cover and U.S. adviser support, these units and others could be the tip of the spear in piercing the heart of this new radical Islamist movement.
There’s another reason to fully support this showdown, with the U.S. in the background. While imperfect—especially with Prime Minister Maliki at the helm and Iran in the background—this fight pits the Army of an American-backed, semi-democratic, and more moderate Muslim state against the most violent, dangerous, and radical Islamist elements in the world.
This battle is modernity versus barbarism, rational actors versus radicals—and America needs to support the right side of this historic showdown.
Make no mistake about it, the outcome of renewed conflict in Iraq and Syria has direct implications for U.S. and global security. If we fail, we are looking at a pre-9/11 atmosphere in Iraq that makes the Taliban in Afghanistan look “JV,” to quote the president. The situation is complex, fluid, and impossible to predict—with variables at every turn (not to mention the Kurds, Shia militias, and secular Baathists); but the stakes could not be higher.
Either we support the Iraqis government’s ability to defeat radical Islamists, or we settle into a world where Al Qaeda’s evil spawn is able to control terrain from which to propagate, plan, train, and operate.
In a situation full of bad options, backing the Iraqi Army remains our best option. America should send as many advisers, and provide as much air support, as needed to ensure the Iraqi Army regains the initiative and can defeat this dangerous movement.