By now it’s clear that the civil wars in Syria and Iraq are one. Both battles are complex, but as they have intensified over the past several years both have taken on an increasingly sectarian character, pitting rebel Sunni forces against entrenched Shiite and Alawite governments in Baghdad and Damascus. And because no compromise solution seems in sight in either case, radicals and extremists have gained the upper hand, with a network of Sunni Islamists either allied with Al Qaeda or representing Al Qaeda spinoffs, perhaps even more radical than Al Qaeda itself. Indeed, the group leading the battle in Iraq—which actually began in Iraq, first as Al Qaeda in Iraq and then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—is more militant than the Pakistan/Afghanistan-based organization, which criticized ISIS for refusing to cooperate more smoothly with other parts of the Sunni-led opposition fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.
In the United States, President Obama is being blamed by the Republicans and various hawks and neoconservatives for the crises in both Iraq—see, for instance, the editorial in The Wall Street Journal today—and Syria, though in neither case do the charges hold water. In Iraq, they say, Obama pulled American forces out too quickly, having not worked hard enough to arrange a long-term security partnership with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, creating a security vacuum that allowed the insurgency to regain its footing. And in Syria, they say, the Obama administration didn’t support the anti-Assad forces strongly enough, thus weakening the moderate, nationalist forces there, so that radical Islamists such as ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and many, many others could emerge as the leading fighting force.
Neither one of these charges makes much sense. In Iraq, the White House did indeed try to extend the American presence, but Iraq’s nationalists and its independent-minded prime minister, facing a rebellious, anti-American parliament—and, of course, strongly influenced by Iran—wouldn’t allow the US role to continue under the conditions that the American armed forces demanded. And in Syria, the United States rightly stayed out of the fight, except for some weak political support for the moderate opposition, because there was no way to affect the outcome of the civil war in that country, in which Assad’s troops are making major gains, without empowering the very radical Islamist forces that the United States opposes. That’s especially true for the idea that Washington might have supplied the Syrian rebels with ground-based and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, since those arms would have likely gone straight into the hands of Al Qaeda, ISIS and others.
Still, the twin crises in Iraq and Syria are extremely dangerous. In Iraq, ISIS has taken control of most of Anbar province, including Falluja, which it has held for six months, and now it controls Mosul, Iraq’s second- or third-largest city, and its forces are driving south and east toward Salahuddin province, including its capital, Samarra, and toward the oil-rich region around Kirkuk. Already, they’ve surrounded Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and reportedly taken control of Iraq’s most important power-generating station at Baiji. In Baghdad, the capital, there’s nervousness, and obviously sectarian anxieties are rising there.