Last night, insurgents from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized Mosul, the largest and most important city in northern Iraq. While Ramadi and Fallujah, Sunni-dominated towns in al Anbar have long been peripheral to Iraq, Mosul is not: Saddam Hussein recruited much of his officer corps from the town. Divided between Kurds and Arabs, Mosul has been more an ethnic flashpoint in Iraq than even Kirkuk, a city two hours away which receives the lion’s share of Western attention. And it has long been tense. I visited Mosul earlier this year. As I approached the city, soldiers at Iraqi checkpoints repeatedly warned me to stay away, telling me it was not safe for a Westerner. Already a tinderbox, the Syrian refugees at almost every intersection begging simply added fuel to the fire.
The Washington Post reported on a press conference given by Osama Nujaifi, brother to Mosul Governor Atheel Nujaifi, and the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, easily the most important Sunni Arab politician in Iraq:
When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” he told a televised news conference in Baghdad. All key facilities are now controlled by the insurgents, including the airport and the prisons, said Nujaifi, who is from Mosul. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis,” he said, appealing for international and government help to retake the city. “Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.
Mosul’s fall to al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents should be a wake-up call both to the West and to the Arab world. A few lessons for the White House to learn:
- It’s time to dispense with the nonsense that insurgents in Iraq exist because they dislike Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Al Qaeda is not on the warpath because the Iraqi army raided a protest camp in Ramadi. We shouldn’t be fooled. Al Qaeda is savvy enough to feign grievance to get the West to turn on itself, but at its core it is about ideology. Despite what the State Department or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel may believe, not all terrorism is rooted in poverty or grievance which can be resolved by diplomacy, concessions, or incentives. Sometimes, ideology simply has to be defeated. A decade ago, Gen. David Petraeus appeased insurgents in Mosul and the result was disastrous; we shouldn’t urge anyone to make the same mistake again.
- Inaction on Syria has had a cost. Prime Minister Maliki has been warning for years that the radicalization inside Syria could destabilize Iraq and he has been right. That doesn’t mean the United States should arm Syrian rebels—the time for that would have been three years ago before the influx of al Qaeda. Sometimes leadership means doing the dirty work directly, and not simply leading from behind. Boots on the ground? No. But targeting high value regime and al Qaeda targets. Maybe it’s time to consider that. Sanctioning Turkey if it allows its borders to be crossed with impunity for the price of a $40 bribe by radical jihadis? Certainly.
- President Obama entered office believing Iraq to be original sin. He ordered a troop withdrawal on the simple premise: If Iraq failed, he could blame Bush. And if it succeeded, he could brag about how his withdrawal enabled it. But that premature withdrawal would put security at risk was fairly obvious.
So what should the West do?
- Al Qaeda loves a vacuum, but the United States should not give it one. It’s time to partner with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to provide him what he needs to roll back al Qaeda, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Iraqi Kurdistan will likely need help caring for persons displaced from Mosul, and the United States should provide that as well.
- Obama cares about his legacy. So does Secretary of State John Kerry. Neither may like it, but their legacy is more likely to be Iraq than an Iran deal or Arab-Israeli peace. Obama flubbed Syria at great expense to regional security. Iraq is now at the tipping point. Either the United States re-finds its leadership and recognizes that al Qaeda isn’t on the run, or we condemn Iraq to be a replay of Syria. Let’s hope Obama has the vision to realize that leadership matters.
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