U.S. officials are performing verbal contortions trying to minimize the significance of events in Iraq. The fall of Ramadi, just 70 miles from Baghdad and the capital of Anbar Province, the country’s largest, is a disaster for the Iraqi people and for America’s strategy in the region.
For many in the United States, the reflexive reaction at more bad news from the Middle East is, “Why is that our problem?”
That’s understandable after all the heartache that intervention in Iraq brought to this country.
But the fact is that every time the United Sates tries to pretend that what goes on in the Middle East is only “their problem,” reality hits back at home.
There’s no need to review here the many ways in which that has happened in the past. And this is not to say that the chaos in the region is solely or even primarily a problem for America to solve.
But the ultimate way in which this conflict ends will have long-term repercussions for the entire world.
There are two winners so far in the war engulfing Syria and Iraq. Those winners are the Sunni terrorists of the self-described Islamic State, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s revolutionary Shiite regime, particularly its most radical elements.
The losers are the moderates; the people who want to be left alone to live normal lives, or who want their countries to move away from utopian ideologies that seek to dominate others and dictate how they should live.
The losers so far are the people for whom we should be rooting, the people who need America’s support; the ones who can take the region in a direction of peace and reconciliation so that the Middle East stops being the infected wound of the world from where all manner of poisonous ideologies spread to the rest of the planet after festering in local conflicts.
When Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the fall of Ramadi by saying, “I am absolutely confident” that it will be reversed, and when Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley described ISIS as “on the defensive,” their sentiments echoed George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished.” Their statements, much like Bush’s, amount to an embarrassing and transparent bit of denial. Their wishful thinking is sad.
But it is also alarming, because not acknowledging that there is a problem means that the problem will only get worse. And that is precisely what is happening.
The fall of Ramadi is a victory for ISIS now, and it will likely become a victory for Iran in the weeks and months ahead. Either way, it is a major setback for the objective of future peace, stability and reconciliation, a notion that looks more elusive by the day.
Even if ISIS is pushed out of Ramadi, the city’s collapse — which came amid ISIS-executed massacres and triggered large-scale evacuations by terrified residents — will leave a damaging legacy in Iraq.
ISIS was able to capture the Sunni-majority city because the Iraqi government and its army — dominated by Shiites — have been unable to muster the strength needed to support Sunni areas.
Now the counter-offensive against ISIS there will be led by Shiite militias that are closely linked to Iran.
Among them will stand Iraq’s Hezbollah, whose yellow flags already fly on the battlefield, imitating the triumphant banners of Hezbollah in Lebanon, now fighting in Syria on Iran’s orders to help save the regime of President Bashar Assad, Iran’s closest friend and a brutal dictator who has slaughtered Syrian civilians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
Washington’s strategy is a failure.
Its efforts to stop ISIS have only served to strengthen the Iranian regime.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria, but the United States is focusing its attention almost exclusively on Iraq, even though the two countries are essentially mired in the same war.
At this rate, Iraq will be dismembered, and one of the pieces, the one including Baghdad, will become effectively an Iranian affiliate, while the Sunni areas will fall under ISIS control. The Kurds will potentially emerge with independence, but under serious threat from their neighbors.
Ramadi’s fall is a flare-launch, a warning that the U.S. strategy must undergo revision.
The Obama administration must exert greater pressure on Iraq to strengthen moderate Sunni tribes.
It must pick up the pace of training for Syria’s moderate forces, and it must work to block not only ISIS but also Iran’s advances in the region, which are creating anxiety among America’s Arab allies and accelerating a perilous regional arms race.