The rampage of ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS) through western Iraq is a suicide mission. This is not Mao entering Beijing, or Castro Havana, in a prelude to a long reign. For months, the group had been doing well in Syria and in the Sunni areas of Iraq it controlled by operating under the radar. But the more the jihadist militia comes out in the open, the more exposed, the more vulnerable it gets. The capture of Mosul may be its 9/11 moment: a reckless, hubristic act for which there will be hell to pay.
For ISIL to press so openly though the Sunni areas of Iraq is strategically absurd, albeit tactically impressive at first sight. America spent the best part of a decade building up an Iraqi army that seemingly folded within hours against a ragtag bunch of jihadists. It says something about the current political tensions in Iraq to see Shia-dominated security forces abandoning a large Sunni metropolis and retreating to areas they feel safer in, and are motivated to defend. But a de facto split in distinct Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni areas is a far cry from the prospect of the Talibanization of Iraq under the ISIL, and warnings that the thousands-strong Iraqi army had disbanded are premature.
The war that ISIL wages is not a war of ideology; it is a real conflict that takes cash and food and ammunitions. Neighborhood militias may plausibly get by on their own, but to scale up activity to the level at which ISIL claims to operate today takes massive resources. The question is who, if anyone, is backing these radicals. The natural allies of a Sunni fundamentalist movement fighting it out with Shia regimes in Syria and Iraq would be found in the Gulf. Yet, however bitter GCC governments may feel about the American policy of accommodation with Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, they share too many interests with the United States to flirt with an outfit like ISIL. Riyadh in particular has come out strongly in recent months against Islamists and jihadists. Taking note of those official positions, most commentators have re-routed the alleged money trail to private Sunni donors in the region.
If support really came from the Gulf, donors are not getting their money’s worth, as ISIL operations in Syria have done nothing but split and undermine the rebellion, to the benefit of the regime it pretends to fight. The alternative, an expedient arrangement between Tehran and a murderous, sectarian Sunni group like ISIL, would be unnatural and reads like another of the region’s conspiracy theories. But any strategist worth his salt in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps would have figured out that a strategic withdrawal of government forces from western Iraq would have sucked in ISIL and made Iran’s problem America’s problem.
The same Revolutionary Guards who saved President Assad in Syria are now rushing to rescue Prime Minister Maliki, America’s man in Iraq. Tehran can now bring a bundled deal to its negotiations with Washington. Compared to the possibility of a meaner version of al-Qaeda established on the Tigris, the Assad regime in Syria suddenly looks benign, even as it gases civilian populations. While a gunman suspected of affiliation with Syrian jihadists attacks a Jewish museum in Brussels, Assad goes through the motions of staging an election. The 89 percent of the votes he gathered in the areas under his control can provide enough window dressing for Washington to leave him a spot in the future of Syria.
American pusillanimity and Iranian mastery of regional geopolitics allowed Assad to survive the Arab Spring. Today, Obama’s doctrine for the Middle East echoes the Nixon Doctrine: the reliance on regional capitals, in particular Tehran, to keep the peace. This is a long journey back in time.
Camille Pecastaing is a senior associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.