Scramble for Iraq

America’s toppling of Saddam Hussein unleashed new forces in the Middle East. The latest fallout: the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS fighters ride in commandeered Iraqi army vehicle, Mosul, June 23, 2014. Associated Press

Nearly a dozen years after the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, an extremist group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has swept through the Sunni populated areas of Iraq. The dramatic turn of events demands answers to a number of questions: To what extent did the U.S. invasion change the broader region? And how will ISIS’s campaign affect future developments in the Middle East?

To start with, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad certainly unleashed sectarian and extremist forces that the Iraqi dictator had hitherto suppressed and/or prevented. The attempt to build a democratic system in Iraq led ultimately to a new constitution and to the institutionalization of political forces that had not had the opportunity to participate in the country’s political life before 2003. The rivalry, as well as the occasional collaboration between those political forces, for good or bad, became part of the new and complicated political dynamic that followed the fall of Saddam. Regional powers, primarily Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Syria and Turkey, were sucked into the vacuum left by the ouster of Saddam—and this created a new regional dynamic that has become part of life inside Iraq. What happens in Iraq, the past decade has shown, does not stay in Iraq. Conversely, what happens in the region now flows directly into Iraq and becomes a part of its political reality.

The American Project
When we put aside the question of whether Bush administration officials genuinely believed that Saddam possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), building democracy in Iraq becomes the predominant remaining motivation for the American invasion. Indeed, if we parse the conflicting official pronouncements along with the accusations and analyses from administration critics, the building of a democratic system emerges as a co-equal rationale for the war—along with the destruction of the presumed WMD and the defeat of terrorism. President Bush stated it very clearly, in a speech before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council in 2005: besides the defeat of terrorists and the training of Iraqi security forces to keep fighting them, “a vital element of our strategy [in Iraq] is our effort to help the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East.”

One would have to judge the overall mission as unfulfilled, if not an outright failure. Al-Qaeda recruitment rose to an all-time high during the first two years of the American presence in Iraq. This led to the establishment of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which, under Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, wreaked havoc all over the country; AQI killed American soldiers, blew up Iraqi ministries, and murdered Iraqi Shia on camera and placed the videos of these deeds on the Internet for the world to see. True, the American occupation of Iraq cannot be blamed directly for regional developments that could have taken place with or without the presence of U.S. troops, but elements of the occupation undeniably contributed to such developments.

The first two major policy decisions taken by the Bush administration were the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the purging of Saddam’s Baath Party loyalists from the Iraqi public sector—so-called de-Baathification. Both decisions were rooted, theoretically and practically, in the overall goal of building democracy—on the grounds that you could not build a new political system without fully destroying the old one. Bush administration strategists believed that the die-hard supporters of Saddam (“dead-enders,” in the view of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) were ideological enemies of democracy, and therefore rooting them out was critical to securing the future of the new Iraq. Sadly, both decisions led to a power vacuum—particularly on Iraq’s borders, which could not be protected adequately by the relatively small number of foreign coalition forces in the country—and to an internal bleeding and the sowing of deep divisions between the country’s eclipsed Sunni minority and its newly empowered Shia majority. Had de-Baathification remained focused on the uprooting of Baathis from the upper echelons of the party and high level state officials under Saddam, it would not have had such a far-reaching impact on social cohesion. In the hands of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), it turned instead into a McCarthyist campaign against Sunnis at all levels of government and in a wide variety of professions. The sense of victimization among ordinary Sunni citizens had much to do with their apathy towards the spread of AQI in their main cities. The gate was open for AQI’s seductive appeal for jihad against the “new-age crusaders,” and Muslim fighters from all over the Middle East flowed into Iraq.

The rapid growth of AQI had domestic and regional consequences. In a sectarian environment, inside and outside Iraq, the rapid growth of Sunni extremism logically and inevitably led to the counter growth of Shia militias. Given the strong desire to protect their holy shrines and their worshippers from AQI, and given the willingness and readiness of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group to assist in the matter, the rise of armed Shia militias did not take very long. Along with the already trained and Iran-supported Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), soon came Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well as Kataib Hezbollah  and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, the latter two funded by Iran and trained jointly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah. The bitter and bloody civil war that ensued in 2006 was a natural consequence of the sectarian polarization.

The election of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki brought a brief lull. In his first term of office, it seemed that his use of the carrot and stick approach was succeeding in getting these militias to put aside their weapons and join the political process. But it turned out to be the calm before the Arab Spring storm of 2011 and the bloody struggle that erupted in neighboring Syria. Shia militias made a comeback in 2011, encouraged by Al-Maliki, to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. More recently, these militias have again been called on to help fight off the onslaught of ISIS in the face of a woefully inadequate Iraqi army.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
The goal of replacing Saddam’s dictatorship with a democratic republic was certainly taken seriously by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Administrator L. Paul Bremer and the young men and women who filled the CPA’s ranks from the U.S. bureaucracy—mainly Department of Defense contractors—and from the allied governments who agreed to share the burdens of governing Iraq with the United States.

The cost of governing Iraq, along with the growing risk to civilians, led the CPA to speed up the transition to an independent Iraqi government. Between the summer of 2003 and March 2004, the date that the Transitional Administrative Law was signed into law by the IGC, political parties, civil society organizations, and women’s organizations were encouraged, facilitated, and sometimes financed by the CPA. Sensitive to the criticism that the CPA was fostering the transition from foreign occupation to the rule of a few Shia Iraqi leaders, handpicked from opposition to Saddam that had largely lived abroad for at least the last ten years of Saddam’s rule, the CPA tried hard to broaden political participation and find, in particular, Sunni leaders that might be acceptable to the Shia community and yet credible enough with the Sunni population of Iraq—a near impossible task. At the same time, given the eagerness of Iraqi Kurds for autonomy, and the partiality of American and British diplomats to Kurdish leaders, the principle of federalism was pushed early on into any discussion of transitional constitutional documents. Amid all the discussions of elections, constitution writing, and good governance, one had to keep an eye on religious sensitivities and clerical interventions. To that end, the Delphic pronouncements of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani from Najaf had to be taken seriously when made, and solicited when not forthcoming. In addition, the politician-clerics within the IGC also pronounced on the appropriate phrasing of the role of sharia law in the framing of constitutions, temporary or otherwise.

With the ability of Iraqis to organize and voice their opinions in the absence of an overpowering authority, nearly a hundred political parties and hundreds of civil society groups were formed in addition to new religious groups, media organizations, and, of course, the militias. This sudden blooming of pluralism, while of critical importance for the launching of a democracy, was also problematic for securing the very same goal. The ethnic, religious, and political diversity came with inherent contradictions, tensions, and unhelpful and undemocratic attitudes and intentions. The more fundamentalist among the various religious groups had no desire to share power with those of different religious faiths or with extremely secular views; the Shia groups in general, weary of years of oppression under Saddam, had no interest in sharing power with Sunnis, and the latter in turn did not trust the Shia majority to treat them fairly.

To this day, Middle Eastern critics of the occupation blame the United States (and the West) for deliberately sowing the seeds of conflict in Iraq. This is an unfair accusation. The CPA certainly did not create the current and various divisions, interests, and shades of opinion. Diverse identities were part of the social fabric of Iraq. The mutual suspicion and conflicting political goals were the result of years of suppression, a lack of experience in shared government, and a deep uncertainty about the future. The American invasion, and the ensuing democracy project, naturally unleashed these forces, and the CPA, in trying to build an inclusive, yet secure transition, unwittingly facilitated the eventual political and violent clashes that followed. To be sure, there were critical voices, particularly in the State Department, that warned of the sharpness of the divisions and the dangers that might result. The architects of the invasion, however, believed that the divisions and clashes could be managed.

The current turmoil in Iraq, keeping aside the regional aspect of it for the moment, continues to be a manifestation of the multiplicity of organizations with conflicting goals and interests. Hence, the parliamentary nature of the Iraqi system, decided on largely during the CPA days, reflects the difficulty of forging coherent coalitions between the close to fifty political parties still competing for power. Since no one political party is large enough to secure a majority of seats in parliament, elections do not offer a clear way ahead as to who governs the country. Hence, the 2010 parliamentary election results—though giving the Iraqi National Movement (led by Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party) a two-seat edge—enabled Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition to outmaneuver its rival and form a broader coalition (albeit with some regional prodding and facilitation) and earn the right to form a cabinet and rule the country. Instead of negotiating in good faith with his Sunni opposition, Al-Maliki proceeded to hurl accusations against their leaders and treat sit-in organizers as terrorists, totally alienating the Sunni community in the process. Correcting the destructive course embarked upon by Al-Maliki in 2006, and before that by the IGC, is a difficult, long-term challenge.

The federal question, unleashed by the removal of Saddam and the attempt to placate the Kurdish sense of identity and their need for autonomy, is, after a few years of abeyance, returning to the fore in potentially explosive arguments and opposing policies and stands. Disagreements arose from the start, as discussions and negotiations took place over the new Iraqi constitution. The Kurds pushed hard for a loose federal structure which would grant their region wide economic, political, and security autonomy, while the predominantly Shia parties pressed for a more centralized government—so much so that the very word, federalism, took on the meaning of dismemberment of Iraq in the Shia street. The discussion has not been merely academic. In the security sector, the Kurdish peshmerga had a favored status among most American officials. The Kurds had, after all, actually fought alongside the United States and helped defeat Saddam’s army.

Further, the peshmerga had the reputation of being more disciplined and more interested in securing the Kurdistan region than in attacking any other region in the country. There were two problems with making an exception for the Kurdish militia in the attempt to disband all militias in favor of a new central Iraqi security system. First was the image problem of favoring the Kurds over other Iraqis, and second was not looking into the future and how inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic relations might evolve. The disbanding of militias was discussed in the context of agreements between the various leaders, that is, that the disbandment would be voluntary. Within the CPA, the understanding was that exempting the peshmerga would be conditional on their staying within their federal borders, well north of the capital. This failed to address the logical fear that the gray areas, such as the city of Kirkuk, would at some point have to be fought over if no consensus was reached as to their status. In recent years, Al-Maliki, angered by the Kurds exporting oil from their territory to Turkey, cut off funding public programs in the Kurdish areas from the federal budget. As a consequence of the ISIS sweep of northwestern Iraq, the Iraqi army largely abandoned Kirkuk; the peshmerga, citing the fear of leaving the city to ISIS, moved in and replaced the retreating Iraqi army—some Kurdish officials asserted publicly that they would never leave.

Hence, the failure of the American project was double edged. Politically, the CPA failed to negotiate an agreement on militias that would be acceptable to all sides. Militarily, it failed to build a professional, reliable, and sect-neutral Iraqi military. One result: the Iraqi army, regarded as a hostile force by the Kurds and as an occupation force by the Sunnis west and north of Baghdad, proved unable to meet the jihadist threat coming across the border from Syria.

The Regional Factor
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a vacuum right at the center of the Gulf and the Arab world, but more importantly at the center of the struggle for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regardless of what one may say about Saddam himself or about his authoritarian regime, Iraq was a bulwark against foreign incursions and an impregnable rock between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraq has been, and still is, a must-win zone over which there can be no compromise. With the Syrian conflict splitting Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq as supporters of opposing camps, Iraq has turned into a theater for the Syrian war and Iraq’s internal divisions have been exacerbated by Syria and the regional conflict swirling around it.

The Iran-Saudi rivalry dates to the 1960s as the two Gulf giants naturally competed for influence in the region, politically, economically, and sometimes militarily. During the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two monarchies were sometimes on opposite sides of conflicts, such as in the Dhofar rebellion in Oman. Occasionally, the two disagreed on oil policies and prices. Yet, as pro-Western regimes, they found themselves on the same side more often than not, particularly when Iraqis overthrew their own monarchy in 1958 in favor of the Arab nationalist Baath party.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the contest between the two countries took on classic characteristics of a cold war, with ideological, religious, political, and economic aspects. Iran became a revolutionary Islamic republic while Saudi Arabia remained a monarchy; Iran sought to speak for the downtrodden and, at least rhetorically at first, encouraged revolts against monarchies in the region and lent support to Shia minorities in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, thought of itself as the center of the Muslim world, a defender of Sunni communities and preferred a stable regional status quo. On foreign policy, Iran sought independence from the United States and the West, and accused Saudi Arabia of being the gateway for American neo-imperialism in the region.

In classical cold war fashion, the two powers sought to avoid a direct clash, while competing for influence via assistance to favored groups and regimes, and weighing in on the side of their respective protégés in times of conflict. In recognizing certain limits in their conflict, Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to maintain a civil tone in talking about one another in public and tried in particular to mitigate sectarian rhetoric, though it was not easy at times given the difficulty in controlling mutually antagonistic clerics on both sides. Saudi Arabia, being the host country for the annual hajj pilgrimage, remained open to Iranian pilgrims, though the latter were at times politicized and tried to use their visit to Mecca to publicize political issues—necessitating discussions and ultimate coordination between the two countries to prevent the issue from leading to violence.

The balance of power was maintained between the two during the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, with the regional status quo remaining largely stable. The one event that could have changed the balance was the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, which each side saw as an attempt by the other to upend the balance in its favor. The war ended in a stalemate. Changes occurred during the events of 2003 and later 2011, which raised the ante and heated up the conflict considerably. The U.S. invasion of Iraq knocked out a regime that, for better or worse, had held Iraq together for thirty years and had a very strong army that could defend its borders from regional threats. The dismantling of this center of power left the conflict arena for these two giants empty—a situation with mixed results for both. For Iran, the removal of Saddam was a welcome development as was the American intention to establish a democracy, which in sectarian terms meant the replacement of a Sunni/Baathist regime with a Shia-dominated one with obvious historical ties and sympathies to Iran. The downside was the presence of American troops so close to Iran’s borders and under the command of an administration that could in principle attempt to duplicate the experience with a march on Tehran or Damascus.

For Saudi Arabia, the removal of Saddam, after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and at least implicit threat to roll into Saudi Arabia, constituted sweet revenge. The replacement of Saddam with a Shia-led government, however, was an entirely different matter. Saudi hopes for a strong role in shaping the future of Iraq were frustrated by the Americans’ seeming indifference to Riyadh’s concerns and interests. Concern turned to alarm when the intent to pull troops out became certain, particularly when the Obama administration put a serious deadline on it. Miffed, the Saudis did not send an ambassador to the new Republic of Iraq until 2012, and only after pleadings from Washington and in particular from the U.S. military, which needed a good regional intermediary with Iraq’s Sunni community. The Saudis may have never had a real chance to influence events in Iraq, but missing out on the four formative years of Iraq’s history under occupation did not help matters. Iran used the ties it had built with Iraq’s Shia leaders while they were in opposition outside the country to good advantage, brokering deals and lending support to favored groups and individuals. Hence the main power blocs, Dawa, SCIRI, and the Sadr Movement came to depend on Iran and to seek Iran’s advice. By contrast, Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister from 2004–05, a Shia with good ties to the Sunni communities, was favored by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation countries, but did not succeed in leading the country, either during the last days of the American mandate or after the 2010 elections in which his party failed to form a majority coalition in parliament—one of several tests of will between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi theater, won by Iran.

It is not entirely clear what Saudi Arabia’s strategy was in trying to gain influence over Iran in the region or indeed inside Iraq. It was abundantly clear during the 2006 Iraqi civil war, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, and the 2009 Israel-Gaza war, that Iran had established tight connections with non-governmental militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine—militias that could make a difference on the ground. In 2005, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Saudi Arabia supported and encouraged the March 14 Coalition in Lebanon to lay the blame on the Syrian regime, and to seek justice as well as the dismantlement of Hezbollah’s war machine via an international tribunal and a United Nations resolution—two goals that proved totally impractical, and therefore gained Saudi Arabia no victories over Iran in the Lebanese theater. Iran, in the meantime, augmented its alliance with Bashar Al-Assad and Lebanese Hezbollah with money, arms, and a joint defensive strategy that strengthened both allies and formed a formidable tripartite axis in the region. When the Arab Spring began in late 2010, and turned particularly bloody in Syria a few months later, Iran and Hezbollah quickly committed to assisting the Syrian regime with money, arms, training, and intelligence—a combination that has proved successful in keeping Al-Assad afloat to this moment. Saudi Arabia tried to be a player by sending funds and weapons to Syrian rebel forces but, once again, had no troops on the ground, no strategic skills or advice to offer, and failed to recruit Western help for the rebel forces it championed against Al-Assad.

In addition to the Free Syria Army (FSA), Saudi Arabia and Qatar relied on Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq to help the opposition to Al-Assad in Syria. The Saudi allies, however, have been notoriously unsuccessful in fighting in Syria. Iran, in contrast, working with the Al-Maliki regime and Shia militia organizations in both Iraq and Syria, has been able to use Iraq to its advantage in the struggle for Syria.

The ISIS Factor
The ISIS sweep of northwestern Iraq during the summer of 2014, in the context of the regional cold war, is a critical, if complicated factor. The group, born in a merger of AQI with other jihadi and salafist groups during the 2006–07 civil war (an umbrella organization called Mujahideen Shura Council was created for that purpose), established ties to some of the Sunni tribes and youth who were frustrated with the new Shia-led government in Iraq. Bested in fighting and squeezed out of Iraq’s main cities by U.S. and coalition forces, the group’s leaders mostly fled to Syria and seemed to have disbanded during the last two years of the American occupation of Iraq.

The group re-emerged as American troops pulled out of Iraq and the Syrian uprising faced a bloody crackdown by the Al-Assad regime. The group’s return-with-a-vengeance to Iraq certainly complicates the domestic political scene and makes it difficult to even advocate a democratic outreach in the heat of battle, even though it makes perfect sense for the central government to smooth over its difficulties with Sunni and Kurdish oppositionists. The several thousand ISIS fighters should not on their own be able to fight the entire Iraqi security structure, not to mention the now revived Shia militias, the Kurds, and those Sunnis still interested in helping sustain the state of Iraq. The fact is, not only was a seriously disgruntled Sunni population in Anbar province sympathetic, and therefore hospitable, to ISIS, but a tribal fighting force whose numbers are currently difficult to estimate actually joined ISIS in its sweep. The Kurds, whose military help is essential in the Sunni areas adjacent to Kurdistan, took advantage of the retreat of the Iraqi army from Kirkuk to take over the city, certainly with the aim of denying it to ISIS, but also without even the pretense of denying that this also settles the question of who controls/should control Kirkuk once and for all. For the central government of Iraq, even under the leadership of newly elected Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, disarming Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish militias and putting Humpty Dumpty together again will be very challenging to say the least.

Regionally, with absent American forces and antagonized Sunni and Kurdish communities, Iraq’s Shia leaders have become even more dependent on their Iranian patrons, for whom Iraq has become the perfect theater for regional competition—an even better one than Lebanon, given its proximity to Saudi Arabia. On a purely mathematical basis, Iran has more cards to play in this game than does Saudi Arabia. Iran’s assets, aside from its influence within the Iraqi government and army, include the Shia militias. Iran also possesses the IRGC, a force that is already familiar with the Iraqi turf and is willing, ready, and able to assist directly as needed. Syria, with encouragement from Iran, has also leant material and military support to Iraqi forces against ISIS. By contrast, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any real champions on the ground, unless one considers the tribes of Anbar—who previously received more American than Saudi support, but are currently not funded and are largely sympathetic to ISIS, or at least willing (until a better deal is offered by the post-Al-Maliki government in Baghdad) to look the other way as the group takes over Iraqi cities. The Shammar tribe of northwestern Syria, though used by the Saudis in the early days of the Syrian uprising to funnel money and arms to Syrian rebels, doesn’t have a known unified fighting force and, on its own, is not likely to become a factor in the current struggle.

The International Factor
Despite the alarm of the Obama administration over the ISIS sweep and the rush to deliver previously purchased military hardware and dispatch an initial tranche of advisors, U.S. assistance, as has been described by the Obama administration, is not likely to make much difference on the ground. Since the beginning, President Obama has repeatedly said there would be no boots on the ground in any assistance to the Iraqi government, and the airstrike campaign, though enlarged to include several Arab countries and NATO allies, is not sufficient in and of itself to dislodge ISIS from territory it has gained in Syria and Iraq. Iran, by contrast, has sent not only advisors to assess Iraqi needs, but also a small fighting force, with the promise to send more as needed. The IRGC, which could easily put several hundred fighters on the ground very quickly, is more likely to be a key player in the fight. Qassim Suleimani, the IRGC military commander, was dispatched to Baghdad where he is reportedly directing the battle against ISIS—having already gained experience from doing the same thing in Damascus. Iran, unlike the United States, has no qualms about sending in its own military into Iraq should they be needed. Additionally, Lebanese Hezbollah, which has made the difference between success and failure for the Syrian armed forces against the multitude of Syrian rebel groups, has promised to send in five times the forces as were sent to Syria, should the Shia shrines come under attack. This commitment of advisors, troops, and money—when combined with the familiarity of Iran and Hezbollah with the Iraqi terrain and its Shia fighters—makes any promise of American assistance seem a marginal undertaking at best.

The U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS, involving pushing for political reconciliation in Iraq and getting Kurds and Sunnis to help the central government of Iraq fight the extremists, is something that was urgently needed at least five years ago—years wasted in mollycoddling Al-Maliki when he could have been pressured to do the right thing by his own people or resign much earlier than he did. Better late than never.  Nevertheless, the strategy is neither global nor comprehensive. The Arab states joining the fight have been playing a largely symbolic role via contributing redundant air power and no boots on the ground. Turkey and Jordan, the states most concerned because of their common borders with Syria and Iraq, have an as yet undefined role, and the FSA training is to take place in Saudi Arabia, far from the battle zone and with Saudi trainers who themselves lack the critical battle experience needed to do the job well. In addition, the U.S.-Iran understanding over the fight against ISIS is far from clear and has obvious limitations, should boots on the ground, whether American or Turkish, become necessary and find that they have to go up against the Al-Assad regime.

Russia, no friend of Sunni extremism and already a strong ally of the Al-Assad/Iran alliance, has stood ready to supply weapons to the Iraqi government (albeit it at a price). News of the first air strikes by the Iraqi government against ISIS was publicized as having been executed using newly arrived Russian Sukhoi jets. Given the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the impending pull-out from Afghanistan, the perception in the region is that of declining U.S. influence and a relative gain for the Russians in the region.

When the Dust Settles
One can safely say that the American project in Iraq has failed. Putting aside the issue of WMD, the goals of building a stable democracy in the country and reconstructing its security system are now both in deep trouble, with the security system in almost total collapse and the political one stalemated. In a best-case scenario, Iraq is back to square one, back to the situation after the fall of Saddam in 2003. In a worst-case scenario, Iraq could be driven back to the bloody days of 2006–07, only this time without the presence of U.S./coalition troops to back up Iraqi forces and to act as a buffer between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Is the American project responsible for the chaos, or would it have happened anyway? What does this state of affairs mean beyond Iraq’s borders, considering how Iraq has become the main front in the battle for the heart, soul, and body of the region?

It is impossible to answer the first question in any scientific or factual way. If we had to offer an educated guess, most observers would probably agree that had the United States not invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam, or his children, would still be ruling the country today. Saddam’s control of Iraq, though brutal, would have most likely acted as a strong buffer against incursions into Iraq by AQI, and by extension, ISIS. For one thing, the Sunni community, feeling somewhat privileged under him, would not have created as hospitable an environment for Al-Qaeda and ISIS as has been the case under the Al-Maliki/Shia majority rule. The American project created a power vacuum that Iran, Al-Qaeda, AQI, and ISIS, among others, naturally filled. We cannot, however, blame the negative changes in the region on the U.S. invasion of Iraq—nor credit the positive ones to the invasion for that matter. Political Islam has been growing in strength for the past two decades, largely due to the failure of secular Arab nationalism to meet the needs of an increasingly frustrated Arab youth. The Arab uprisings, a major development in the region, would still have happened regardless of Iraq. Growing frustration with Arab dictatorship, lack of responsiveness of the rulers, and failure to solve basic social, economic, and political problems are responsible. It is interesting, for example, that in most cases, the youth who started spilling onto streets and public squares in January 2011, carried and chanted slogans that rarely touched on the United States, Israel, or any foreign policy concern.

As for the impact on the region, the ISIS sweep and reactions to it will likely further tip the regional balance in favor of the Iran/Hezbollah/Al-Assad axis. From an Iranian point of view, the situation in Iraq is too tempting not to jump into. After defeating ISIS forces and driving them out of the areas they now control, Iran would be left more deeply embedded inside Iraq than ever before. Having better control of Iraq gives Iran direct access to the Saudi border, with the potential of lending direct, or at least more effective, assistance to the Shia community in eastern Saudi Arabia. Add to that the increasing power and influence of the Houthi tribes in Yemen, just to the south of the Kingdom, and Iran’s growing influence with them, and the regional balance tips heavily in favor of Iran.

The challenge for Iraq, even presuming an eventual victory over ISIS, will remain one of governance. Anbar, once cleared of ISIS forces, would still be a disgruntled region of the country and the Kurds are likely to cling more than ever to their drive for more autonomy, if not total secession and independence. If fighting off ISIS causes much death and destruction to Sunni civilians and towns, as it well might, and drives the wedge further between Baghdad and Kurdistan, the job of forming an equitable, all-inclusive government in Baghdad will be harder than ever, once the dust of battle settles.

Nabeel Khoury is senior fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Middle East and North Africa Studies Program at Northwestern University. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service, serving in various posts including: deputy chief of mission in Yemen; consul general in Casablanca; deputy director of the State Department Media Outreach Center in London; and director of the Near East South Asia Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In 2003, during the Iraq war he served as State Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad. He has contributed to the Middle East Journal, Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Policy. On Twitter:@khoury_nabeel.