It’s widely agreed that the collapse of Iraq would be a disaster for American interests and security in the Middle East and around the world. It also seems to be widely assumed either that there's nothing we can now do to avert that disaster, or that our best bet is supporting Iran against al Qaeda. Both assumptions are wrong. It would be irresponsible to embrace a premature fatalism with respect to Iraq. And it would be damaging and counterproductive to accept a transformation of our alliances and relationships in the Middle East to the benefit of the regime in Tehran. There is a third alternative.
That alternative is to act boldly and decisively to help stop the advance of the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—without empowering Iran. This would mean pursuing a strategy in Iraq (and in Syria) that works to empower moderate Sunni and Shi’a without taking sectarian sides. This would mean aiming at the expulsion of foreign fighters, both al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah regular and special forces, from Iraq.
This would require a willingness to send American forces back to Iraq. It would mean not merely conducting U.S. air strikes, but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground. This is the only chance we have to persuade Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have an alternative to joining up with al Qaeda or being at the mercy of government-backed and Iranian-backed death squads, and that we have not thrown in with the Iranians. It is also the only way to regain influence with the Iraqi government and to stabilize the Iraqi Security Forces on terms that would allow us to demand the demobilization of Shi’a militias and to move to limit Iranian influence and to create bargaining chips with Iran to insist on the withdrawal of their forces if and when the situation stabilizes.
This path won't be easy, but the alternatives are much worse. Doing nothing means we will face a full-scale sectarian war—Syria on steroids—with millions of refugees and tens or hundreds of thousands more dead, along with a massive expansion of Iranian control into southern Iraq and an al Qaeda safe haven stretching from the Tigris to the middle of Syria.
Throwing our weight behind Iran in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, as some are suggesting, would make things even worse. Conducting U.S. airstrikes without deploying American special operators or other ground forces would in effect make the U.S. Iran’s air force. Such an approach would be extremely shortsighted. The al Qaeda threat in Iraq is great, and the U.S. must take action against it. But backing the Iranians means backing the Shi’a militias that have been the principal drivers of sectarian warfare, to say nothing of turning our backs on the moderates on both sides who are suffering the most. Allowing Iran to in effect extend its border several hundred kilometers to the west with actual troop deployments would be a strategic disaster. In addition, the U.S. would be perceived as becoming the ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran against all of the forces of the Arab and Sunni world, conceding Syria to the Iranian-backed Bashir al-Assad, and accepting the emergence of an Iranian hegemony soon to be backed by nuclear weapons. And at the end of the day, Iran is not going to be able to take over the Sunni areas of Iraq—so we would end up both strengthening Iran and not defeating ISIS.
Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations. All paths are now fraught with difficulties, including the path we recommend. But the alternatives of permitting a victory for al Qaeda and/or strengthening Iran would be disastrous.
Frederick W. Kagan, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project. William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.