Al-Qaeda, which has surged in strength on both sides of the Iraq–Syria border, captured two important cities in western Iraq on Friday. The seizure of Fallujah and Ramadi underscores the growing threat posed by the renamed al-Qaeda franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The two cities were key focal points for the Sunni insurgency against U.S. troops and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government over the past decade. Fallujah was the site of a crucial defeat for al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists in 2004, while Ramadi was the site of a similar defeat in 2007.
The two cities are the largest and most important cities in Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. Nearly one-third of the 4,488 U.S. troops who died in the Iraq war were lost in pacifying Anbar province. Fallujah, which was the site of two major battles, saw some of the bloodiest combat that U.S. troops have faced since Vietnam.
Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq has been bolstered by spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has boosted sectarian tensions in Iraq. But al-Qaeda’s comeback also reflects the mistakes of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, whose heavy-handed policies have alienated and provoked Iraq’s Sunni minority. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated power and bolstered his Shia political allies at the expense of Sunni moderates who have largely been squeezed out of power.
But al-Qaeda’s comeback in Iraq was also enabled by the neglect of the Obama Administration, which greatly downplayed the security consequences of its abrupt pullout from Iraq after it bungled negotiations to extend the presence of a small U.S. force to advise, train, and support Iraq’s fledgling military.
The Administration was eager to pivot away from the Middle East after prematurely declaring an end to the war on terrorism and proclaiming that “the tide of war is receding” in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
The Obama Administration has also made a bad situation worse through its disastrous Syria policy, which lagged far behind conditions on the ground. The Administration remains wedded to a chimerical diplomatic solution in which Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime negotiates its own demise, something that is not in the cards.
Meanwhile, the failure of the Administration to provide meaningful support to secular and moderate forces within Syria’s fractured opposition has demoralized Western-leaning rebel factions and helped enable the rise of al-Qaeda and other Islamist radicals inside Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry asserted on Sunday, “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” and he ruled out the deployment of U.S. troops but declared that “we’re going to help them in their fight.”
Kerry could start by recognizing that the fight against al-Qaeda is not just Iraq’s fight but also America’s. While he has focused on chasing the “Holy Grail” of Arab–Israeli peace, al-Qaeda has greatly expanded its operations in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and North Africa.
The Secretary of State should put a higher priority on bolstering strategic cooperation with Iraq and other allies battling terrorists rather than mounting a quixotic diplomatic campaign for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that could produce another Hamas-dominated terrorist state.