The fall of the Iraq city of Ramadi to Islamic State is significant — but not because of the strategic importance of the capital of the Anbar province. Rather, the failure of Iraq's official security forces emphasizes a fundamental quandary facing the anti-Islamic State coalition.
If Islamic State is to be defeated, there must be effective ground troops. Right now, the only effective ground troops outside of Iraqi Kurdistan seem to be Shiite militias with close ties to Iran.
So the coalition has to choose between two evils. Is it better to fight Islamic State effectively while facilitating Iranian domination of Iraq? Or to let the insurgent group take and hold territory while hoping for improved performance from the Iraqi security forces?
One appealing solution would be for the U.S. to leave the question to Iraqis, and provide air support to whichever force the Iraqis choose to fight Islamic State.
But which Iraqis? The Baghdad government of Haidar al-Abadi was picked as an alternative to its predecessor’s overreliance on the Shiite militias. But now Abadi apparently thinks he, too, has little choice but to rely on the militias. Abadi’s government is dominated by Shiites — and it’s also close to Iran, if not as close as the government of Nouri al-Maliki.
As for the Sunnis who live in Anbar, they seem to be divided about whether to support the deployment of Shiite militias or not, as my colleagues Eli Lake and Josh Rogin point out. Well, they might be. Living under Islamic State is very bad. But living under the militias might well be pretty bad, too.
What's more, at least some Sunnis in Anbar probably see Islamic State as a tool they can use to gain leverage over the Baghdad government to get the patronage and services they were promised during the U.S.-led surge in 2007.
With the Iraqis divided, and the militias headed for Anbar, the anti-Islamic State coalition must decide for itself whether to provide air support to them. The decision has consequences. In Tikrit, the coalition held back air support while the militias were deployed, and provided it only after they were replaced by Iraqi security forces. This was hailed as a success for American pressure. This time, the option of withholding support and demanding Iraqi forces may be unrealistic.
So what’s the right thing to do? It’s true that the constantly growing Iranian role in Iraq is detrimental to the country’s long-term health and security, not to mention U.S. interests. Nevertheless, the U.S. should provide air support to the militias in Ramadi and try to beat back Islamic State despite the obvious and significant costs of this course of action.
The reason has everything to do with figuring out which is the lesser evil right now: growing Iranian control or expanding Islamic State sovereignty. Iran is already playing a major role in dictating policy in Baghdad. The power it further gains from the use of its militias is incremental — differences in degree but not in kind. For the U.S. to recognize that the only credible non-Kurdish ground forces are the Iranian-backed militias is painful. But it doesn’t change the fundamental strategic situation.
By providing air support and (ideally) assuring the militias’ victory, the U.S. will be adding to Iranian prestige. It will be, essentially, fighting alongside Iran against Islamic State. But everyone will still know that U.S. air support played a major role in ensuring the hoped-for victory. To that extent, Iran’s prestige will be mitigated.
In contrast, allowing Islamic State to increase its territorial reach without a serious fight contributes to the transformation of Islamic State from a ragtag group of jihadis into a functioning quasi-sovereign state. It’s crucial to remember that what differentiates Islamic State from al-Qaeda is precisely this claim to be a sovereign controlling territory. In the eyes of potential recruits, it is this claim that transforms followers from suicide bombers to utopians. Many more young Muslims have joined Islamic State in its brief existence than joined al-Qaeda in more than 15 years. This differential illustrates the tremendous appeal of the utopian sovereign.
To defeat Islamic State regionally and globally, there’s only one solution: take away its sovereignty and prove the organization’s dream can’t become a permanent reality. The more the group achieves sovereignty, the more it will grow.
And for Islamic State supporters, the possession of sovereignty isn’t perceived as incremental. They consider sovereignty binary: either they have it or they don’t. Thus, sovereignty over a regional capital like Ramadi isn’t just a difference of degree — it’s a difference of kind.
If it were possible to defeat Islamic State without the Shiite militias, that would be the preferred course. But so long as it isn’t, the coalition should accept reality and back the militias. Just like Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran is deriving advantage from the rise of Islamic State. That’s unfortunate, but at the moment inevitable.
Right now, the highest priority should be to beat Islamic State. Once that’s done, there will be time enough to assess the gains Iran has made — and explore how they can be reversed.
To contact the author on this story: Noah Feldman at firstname.lastname@example.org.