The Islamic State’s leaders are very clever, employing terror as their principal weapon. But their consecutive conquests, and the ease with which they took over large parts of Syria and Iraq, have driven them into the trap of arrogance – they forced their enemies to unite, they provoked the reaction of powerful forces which had avoided tangling with them. Their greatest contribution is that they are forcing the region’s people and the greater powers to take a morally clear stand against them: the slaughter of prisoners and civilians, the pogroms against Christians, Shiites and Yezidis, the destruction of the region’s cultural heritage, demand the immediate and absolute eradication of this threat.
The tragic results of the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with the chronic instability of Afghanistan, have made President Barack Obama loath to use military might. In the one exception – Libya – we need to remember that Washington’s decision to intervene, along with other NATO members, was taken on March 18, 2011, a month after the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi had begun, and only when he was about to smash rebel forces. “It’s over… We are coming tonight,” Gaddafi declared in a radio and television broadcast a day earlier. “We will show no mercy or pity.” Until then, the United States had been wary of getting involved. An appeal by the Arab League, pressure from France and Britain, and the threat of an impending massacre of rebels prompted NATO’s bombardment of government forces, leading to Gaddafi’s fall and death.
What followed in Libya – including US Ambassador Chris Stevens’s murder and the chronic instability that plagues the country – contributed toward America’s avoiding involvement in Syria, even after the regime was accused of using chemical weapons. However, the threat of intervention had the positive effect of getting the Syrian government to agree to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction. The United States and other western countries stayed out of Syria, as the country was carved up into regions controlled by the government and by rebel forces, including the extremists of the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).
In June, ISIS fighters stormed Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, murdered soldiers that they had captured, drove out the Christians and began destroying ancient monuments and the shrines of Shiites, Christians and others. Even though the international community worried, no country wanted to get involved – beside sending military advisers to Iraq (as the United States and its traditional rival Iran did). Also, both Washington and Tehran put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside in favor of someone who could unite the country’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in government. Maliki, a Shiite, has refused. Meanwhile, the Kurds extended their autonomous region in northern Iraq, taking control of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, which they have always regarded as an integral part of their homeland. This provoked further enmity between Baghdad and the Kurdish government in Erbil.
In the matrix of ethnic, national and religious differences, in the delicate balance of power and influence between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, any foreign intervention in favor of either the Iraqi government or the Kurds could set off a chain reaction with unpredictable results. But the Islamic State fighters made sure the deadlock would break. After erasing part of the border between Syria and Iraq they declared a new Caliphate; then, over the past week, they took over towns and villages populated by Christians, Kurds and members of the Yezidi religion. They murdered people, destroyed temples and terrorized the members of these ancient communities, forcing them to run for their lives. With their heavy weapons, the Islamic State fighters forced Kurdish troops to retreat, took over Mosul Dam and came within striking distance of Erbil. An estimated 40,000 Yezidis took to the mountains, where they were trying to survive without shelter, without food, without water.
By now, the fear of unforeseen consequences of military intervention could no longer excuse the lack of action – reality was worse than the worst possible scenario. The Iraqi government and the Kurds were forced to cooperate militarily, Saudi Arabia promised a billion dollars in aid for the Lebanese army when Islamic State fighters took over a Lebanese town. President Obama, invoking the danger of genocide, gave the green light for humanitarian aid to northern Iraq and for air strikes against positions of the Islamic State. If the people of the region come together and, with American air support, the Islamic State is defeated, perhaps the various countries and minorities will have a new chance to see relations between them in a new light – now that they have seen hell’s gates gaping.