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Earlier this week, militants backed by Sunni tribal leaders stormed Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, driving out city dwellers in droves. Now, the group – known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – is pushing their way toward Baghdad. Who comprises this group, and what do they want? And how should the United States respond?
We spoke with Daniel Kurtzer, S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies and former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, to discuss the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and what threats they pose to stability in the region.
The militants fighting in Iraq comprise the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Syria), a ruthless terrorist group that experts say is more dangerous today than al-Qaeda. They have established a base of operations in Eastern Syria and are operating freely in Western Iraq, as they advance toward Baghdad.
Q. How much of a threat do they pose to stability in the region?
Of all the current threats in the Middle East—and there are several—this is seen by everyone as the most pressing and dangerous. Even if this group does not take over Baghdad, its ability to operate almost with impunity, and the vast amount of weapons and cash it has acquired, make it an immediate threat to the entire region.
Q. Has this group made moves like this in the past? What else might we expect from them?
The group emerged in full force during the Syrian Civil War, and its degree of organization and discipline soon propelled it into the forefront of groups fighting the Asad regime. One of its main targets has always been Iraq, in large part because of the vulnerability of the Maliki regime—which has done little to advance the prospects of stability or democracy in the country—and also because of the simmering frustrations of Iraq’s Sunni minority. At a minimum, this group can be expected to increase its involvement in regional and international terrorism in the name of promoting its radical brand of Islamic militancy.
Q. What do these takeovers mean for Iraq? Turkey? Syria? And the United States?
Iraq’s fragile unity and dysfunctional politics make it ripe for internal change. Indeed, the ISIS assault could plunge Iraq into a long-term “failed state” status, including the breakdown of borders and the emergence of Kurdish demands for independent statehood.
Turkey has a strong army and has shown willingness in the past to confront challenges to its stability, but Turkey will weigh carefully the risks and benefits of possible military action to contain ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
For Syria, ISIS’ growing strength spells deep trouble for the Asad regime over time, but also deep trouble for whatever is left of the non-Islamist opposition.
And for the United States, the choice is stark: does the ISIS threat constitute the kind of danger to American national security interests that President Obama has said is necessary to consider U.S. military action? Indeed, without U.S. intervention, it is hard to see who else can slow down the ISIS advance; but it is also hard to see how U.S. intervention can be contained to air power alone without troops on the ground.
WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.
Daniel Kurtzer S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Kurtzer served as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt. Throughout his career, he was instrumental in formulating and executing U.S. policy toward Middle East peace process.
“For the United States, the choice is stark: does the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria threat constitute the kind of danger to American national security interests that President Obama has said is necessary to consider U.S. military action? Indeed, without U.S. intervention, it is hard to see who else can slow down the ISIS advance; but it is also hard to see how U.S. intervention can be contained to air power alone without troops on the ground.”