Iraq observations

Military collapses come fast, creating pressure for prompt action. Domestic politics weigh heavily on the decision. Will the administration be blamed for losing Iraq if it does not order military intervention? Or will history judge the president wise for keeping U.S. forces out of war? As Americans debate assisting Iraq, including the possibility of military intervention, here are 10 things to keep in mind.

1. Assisting Iraq now is not an extension of the Iraq War. Today's Iraq differs markedly from that of 2011 when U.S. forces departed. Iraq's nascent democracy has become more autocratic and more sectarian. Instead of national reconciliation, Kurds and Sunnis have been excluded from power. Iraq has become a satrap of Iran, providing vital support to Syria's President Bashar Assad, whose regime the United States opposes.

2. America's own strategic interests must be the sole determinant of any U.S. action in Iraq. The United States has no military alliance with Iraq. No binding treaty obligation. No moral responsibility. Iraq rejected a continued U.S. military presence in 2011. America's debt to those who made sacrifices in the Iraq War is best served by ensuring that any further sacrifices serve American objectives.

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3. The battles for Syria and Iraq will be fought out on the ground by local belligerents. Absent a major military intervention, external powers will remain at the margin, and even then may not be able to determine the final outcome, but they will still be targets.

4. Iraq hopes American airpower will be provided to to buy time to develop loyal Shia militias. The United States would, of course, not replicate Syria's indiscriminate bombing campaign, but with inadequate intelligence and no American forces on the ground to designate targets, the risks of collateral casualties would be high.

5. Iraq's civil war further exacerbates already growing regional tensions between Sunnis and Shias. The Shia-dominated Maliki government has alienated Iraq's Sunni population. The mobilization of Shia militias around Baghdad and Iran's growing assistance to the Maliki government will deepen the divide. U.S. military action would be seen as siding with the Shias, especially if Sunni civilians are killed as a consequence. Whether American interests in the region are best served by aligning with a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus alliance is debatable, but that is a strategic decision, not to be arrived at through incremental tactical responses to events.

6. The stunning military victories of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) eclipse al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan, which expelled the group. Al Qaeda's new fronts were already bending toward ISIS's rival center of power. But U.S. military action in Iraq could facilitate reconciliation among al Qaeda's internally warring factions by providing a common external enemy against which all jihadists can and must now unite.

7. America's war on jihadist terrorism is not about to come to an end. ISIS's ideology and strategy are merely a more extreme version of Osama bin Laden's jihad. Its military victories in Iraq give it cash andf weapons and will bring it further financial support and foreign recruits. Meanwhile, Syria's civil war continues with jihadists playing a major role. New jihadist fronts have emerged across northern and western Africa. Taliban allies surge in Pakistan and will try to exploit the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. Because Americans may not be as interested as they once were in the war on terror does not mean terrorists are no longer interested in the United States as a target. The jihadist threat is bigger than ever.

8. The borders drawn by colonial powers a century ago have been erased. Syria has become a mosaic of pro-government enclaves, insurgent strongholds and contested no-man's lands continually punished by Syrian air power, turning 40 percent of Syria's population into refugees. Iraq is effectively partitioned. ISIS controls a swathe of territory across eastern Syria and western Iraq. Kurds have seized Kirkuk and control the north. With Iran's assistance, Iraq's Shias will hold the east and south. Will American commitment to territorial integrity and nation-building confine it to dealing only with existing national governments or will it adopt a more flexible policy reflecting realities on the ground?

9. The forgotten constituency in both Syria and Iraq are the Sunnis who are unrepresented in Damascus and Baghdad but who are appalled and terrified by the jihadists whose actions repel foreign support. Once America's allies against the jihadist insurgents in the so-called "Anbar awakening," Sunnis could again become America's base in the region. This would require a long-term strategy of political support and some military assistance initially aimed at enabling them to defend themselves against official oppression and jihadist tyranny.

10. The democracy project engendered by the Arab Spring has run into the sand. Where strongmen do not rule, chaos and civil war reign. America's commitment to democracy prevents abandonment of basic principles, but the reality is very different. 

Jenkins is senior adviser to the RAND Corporation president and the author of Al Qaeda in Its Third Decade: Irreversible Decline or Imminent Victory? and the commentary "Generations of Terrorism."