New US intervention in Iraq has odd dynamics

While the world’s attention has been mainly focused on the war in Gaza, the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Islamic State’s campaign of terrorism in both Syria and Iraq has continued. In Syria, fighting between the Islamic State and Bashar Assad’s forces has led to some of the bloodiest days of the conflict so far.

In Iraq, things seemed to have reached a stalemate, with the Islamic State’s rapid advance through the country stopped short of Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq. All the same, more than 1,700 Iraqis were killed in July, making it one of the deadliest months since the height of the Iraq War.

Then, earlier this month, the Islamic State captured three towns in northern Iraq from Kurdish forces and now appears to have taken control of the country’s largest dam. It marks the first defeat of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, and the Kurdish capital, Irbil, is now threatened.

Members of the small Yazidi ethnic group in northern Iraq have perhaps fared the worst. Having been driven from their towns, between 10,000 and 40,000 predominantly Yazidi civilians are now stranded on a barren mountain with few supplies. They are facing an extraordinarily grim choice, between death by dehydration if they stay where they are or being slaughtered by the Islamic State if they flee.

Who are the Yazidis? There are about 600,000 Yazidis worldwide, mostly in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Though often considered an offshoot of the Kurds, they consider themselves a distinct ethnic group. They follow a distinct religion that blends elements of Sufi Islam and Zoroastrianism. Like with its view of Shiites, Christians and a number of other groups in Iraq, the Islamic State considers them apostates and has killed at least 500 Yazidis thus far.

Why is the U.S. intervening only now? While the U.S. sent 300 military advisers to Iraq last month, the Obama administration has been wary of direct military intervention on behalf of the Iraqi government, making such aid contingent upon the formation of a government that gives greater political representation to Sunnis and Kurds, and preferably one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in charge.

But al-Maliki has shown no willingness to form such a government, and in the meantime the lay of the land in Iraq has worsened. The situation facing the Yazidis has been called a potential genocide, with President Barack Obama using the G-word on Thursday. The taking of the Mosul Dam could portend catastrophic consequences. And the peshmerga, thus far considered the only fighting force in Iraq capable of rolling back the Islamic State, have now been dealt a string of major defeats. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s fighters are getting dangerously close to Baghdad.

In short, things got much worse, much more quickly than anticipated.

What will a U.S. intervention entail? There doesn’t seem to be much reason to doubt Obama when he says that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.” This administration has shown little enthusiasm for intervention in Iraq or Syria and likely will try to keep this mission as limited as possible.

Of course, all interventions are subject to mission creep, and a limited campaign of airstrikes to “prevent a potential act of genocide,” as the president put it, could easily turn into a longer air campaign on behalf of the Iraqi government against the Islamic State, a somewhat awkward proposition given Iran’s role as Baghdad’s primary patron. While it seems unlikely that a significant number of American boots will be back on Iraqi soil anytime soon, one of the Obama administration’s signature achievements — ending the long U.S. military engagement in Iraq — looks a lot more tenuous than it did a few months ago.

How does this end? While essentially every government in the Middle East is united in its opposition to the Islamic State, nobody seems able to stop it. (In addition to its gains in Iraq, the group recently made its first major foray into Lebanon.) So far, it has worked to the group’s advantage that many of the governments it is fighting — Syria, Iraq, the U.S., Iran, Kurdistan — are also at odds with each other. Whenever the group faces a setback on one front, it seems to melt back into the wilderness and launch a new campaign somewhere else.

Ironically, the Islamic State’s campaign against the Kurds may end up helping unify Iraq. Until this month, it looked like the destabilization caused by the Islamic State’s rampage would aid the cause of Kurdistan, which has been pushing for full independence from Iraq for years and had been feuding with al-Maliki’s government over oil revenues. Now, al-Maliki is ordering his air force to help the Kurds. Iraq’s various factions, as well as Baghdad’s odd-couple patrons, Iran and the U.S., may be forced to work together to confront the most serious threat the country has faced since the worst days of the Iraq War.

It seems highly improbable that the Islamic State could hold out indefinitely with everyone from the U.S. to Iran to al-Qaida opposing it. But the group has certainly defied expectations thus far.

Joshua Keating focuses on international news, social science and related topics at Slate. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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