Last night, President Barack Obama addressed the American public on his decision to authorize two missions: one focused on providing humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of stranded Iraqi civilians from religious minorities fleeing from militants, and the other, to initiate US air strikes should militants advance against the Kurdish city of Irbil, where US military and diplomatic personnel are stationed. Thus, President Obama constructed his military action within the framework of a counteraction. In other words, airstrikes that commenced earlier today were a response to artillery fire launched by militants against Kurdish forces protecting Irbil.
The decision to take military action began with concerning developments earlier this week, as the crisis in Iraq metastasized and moved closer to Iraqi Kurdistan. Militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or the Islamic State, IS)—an al-Qaeda splinter group that recently declared the establishment of a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria—overwhelmed Kurdish forces safeguarding areas in Nineveh province. The clashes led to the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands religious minorities, clearing the way for ISIS’s threatening advance towards Irbil. While the White House’s humanitarian response was most certainly appropriate given the dire circumstances of those Iraqis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the United States has committed itself towards direct armed intervention—which has the prospect of influencing the security and political dynamics on the ground going forward.
Within Iraq, ISIS is unable to make major territorial gains outside the Sunni areas of central and northern regions of the country. The sectarian fault lines will more or less hold, promoting the fragmentation of Iraq along those borders. Without further outward expansion, the dynamics underlying the insurgency will likely turn inward.
ISIS’s move to consolidate power within Sunni territories and deepen its governing roots may lead to fissures within the wider Sunni insurgency. The negotiating power of Sunni political, tribal, and reconcilable insurgent leaders at the table in Baghdad is only relevant if ISIS is their curable disease, not an untreatable cancer. US military involvement could intensify power competition within the Sunni insurgency by incentivizing other insurgent factions to contest areas held by ISIS.
However, from another perspective, ISIS could potentially benefit from a limited US military response—one which would fail to threaten the group’s survival in any meaningful way, while serving as a massive propaganda tool in consolidating more of the global jihadi movement. It could also up the risk of ISIS plans to start targeting US personnel based in the region.
Aside from the security dynamics, another piece of the puzzle lies on the political front, where Washington’s armed intervention could affect the gamesmanship in Baghdad in forming a new government. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long called for US military action against Sunni insurgents (for reasons that are beyond security), such intervention has the possibility of adding to his staying power and undercutting the prospect of a power-sharing agreement suitable to the Sunni parties.
ISIS continues to receive local support within the Sunni community and remains connected to the wider Sunni Arab insurgency. Should airstrikes continue on ISIS, some Sunnis might perceive such actions as undercutting the political goals of the overall insurgency. Many Sunnis had hoped to reach a new power-sharing agreement (which includes a new government, formed without Maliki, willing to meet a set of political demands) before ISIS were degraded. Today, it is uncertain how the US role will develop going forward, and how that will influence the dynamics in getting to a viable political solution.
President Obama appears willing to exert hard power to maintain stability in Iraq, but remains fully aware and cautious of mission creep, rightfully emphasizing the limitations of US intervention. Despite this awareness, initiating airstrikes commits the United States to the conflict that could threaten to draw it into a deeper involvement over time.
The ultimate objective of US military action remains unclear and open-ended, resting on the maintenance of security in areas where US personnel are based. By defending Irbil in the interest of protecting Americans, it follows that the same rationale would apply to defending Baghdad, and by extension, the Maliki regime and forces loyal to it. As long as Maliki remains in power and Sunni insurgents remain a threat towards Baghdad, the United States runs risk of the Sunni community attaching the United States’ defensive military posture to efforts toward preserving the Shia regime.
President Obama’s decision to help save tens of thousands of stranded Iraqis from religious persecution at the hands of the ISIS was the right call, and more needs to be done on the humanitarian effort. While one could question the necessity of US military action, the White House must now recognize that such actions could lead to unexpected, second-order consequences. There is a distinction between taking measures to protect US personnel in war zones (such as total evacuation), and becoming an armed participant in an ongoing civil war. For better or worse, Washington has committed the latter.
Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.