Reports on Wednesday indicate that warplanes may have finally begun bombing militant positions deep within Iraq, two weeks after major cities first fell from Iraqi government control. These aren’t American planes, however, or even Iraqi planes. According to witnesses, it was planes from Syria who did the bombing, killing civilians and making the choice over how to react to Iraq’s crisis even more difficult.
The strikes from planes that witnesses say could be seen bearing the Syrian flag were launched on Tuesday against “a municipal building, a market and a bank in the district of Al Rutba, according to an Anbar provincial official and Mohammed Al Qubaisi, a doctor in the district’s main hospital,” the Wall Street Journal reported. The aftermath of the strikes, however, didn’t appear to have wound up injuring key members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or their Sunni-militia allies. Instead, reports indicate that the missiles killed 57 Iraqi civilians and injured more than 120 others.
Tuesday’s strike wouldn’t be the first time that Syria has taken action against ISIS — also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — since the militants’ surge began. Earlier this month, Syria and Iraq’s government reportedly coordinated to strike ISIS targets simultaneously on both sides of the border. Last week, the Syrians also bombed rebel-held areas just 60 miles from the border with Iraq, “a day after tribal elders in the town along the Euphrates River pledged allegiance to ISIS.” This strike, however, marks the deepest run into Iraqi-territory and the largest number of civilian casualties such a sortie has occurred.
News of the Syrian strikes comes amid reports that Iran also taking further action in its neighbor. Tehran is “flying unarmed surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance,” the New York Times report on Tuesday. Already members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had been reported as fighting alongside the Iraqi government and Shiite militias in beating back ISIS. General Qasim Suleimani, who has control over the IRGC’s Quds Force and one of the most feared men in the Middle East, has also been seen in Iraq, coordinating Iran’s role in the Iraqi counterattack against ISIS.
As ThinkProgress has previously noted, the twin crises in Iraq and Syria have produced a web of players that while aligned in their opposition to ISIS, remain either adversaries or outright enemies otherwise. In this case, the United States has been working to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power for the last three years. The U.S. meanwhile, while trying to find a diplomatic solution to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, doesn’t exactly have a lot of love for the regime in Tehran. This leaves Washington in an awkward place where using force against ISIS will mean taking the same side as two countries it has scorned in the very recent past.
This now has the United States searching for a new way forward in both Iraq and Syria. As the WSJ is reporting, however, this is easier said than done. “Syria and Iraq are largely a single problem,” one senior defense official told the Journal. “If we really get into this, you will have to look in to Syria to solve some of these problems.” While Obama has yet to make a decision on striking ISIS targets within Iraq, the door is also open to taking action in Syria, as one senior administration official confirmed to reporters last week. But given that a solution to Syria has vexed the White House since 2011, it seems unlikely that a new one will develop spontaneously in the coming weeks.
Congress, as it was during last year’s debate over whether the U.S. should launch strikes into Syria over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, is torn over just what to do over Iraq. The broad contours from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue all seem to be the same as the White House: force political engagement with Sunnis from Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki; consider the use of force to slow ISIS’ advance; rule out combat troops returning to Iraq.
Where lawmakers differ, however, is just how far to go in those aims, and what the process will be to get there. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), usually a stalwart ally of the Obama administration, said on Wednesday that he is in favor of the White House coming to Congress for an explicit authorization to use force before launching any strikes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), though, has said that the executive branch has everything that it needs in place already to take action. Things are no clearer from the GOP. Normally joined at the hip on foreign policy, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) are at odds over whether the U.S. should work with Iran to counter ISIS.
Unlike last year’s Syria debate, however, there’s likely no diplomatic deal that can be struck that will totally halt ISIS’ advance. And al-Maliki has outright rejected the idea of forming a new unity government to help quell the political crisis that’s been allowing ISIS and its Sunni allies to solidify their gains without resorting to their usual harsh methods seen in Syria. “The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process,” he said during his weekly press conference. In recent pronouncements, the administration has tied further aid aside from the military advisers being sent to Iraq to al-Maliki’s reform.
All of this means that as far as choices go, the Obama administration’s options for the most remain both limited and terrible. However, there is one new suggestion out there about how to stop ISIS: let them finish the job and oust Maliki. John R. Maguire, a retired former CIA deputy station chief in Baghdad, told Newsweek that he was recently told on a visit to the country that once ISIS has taken down Maliki, Sunni groups working with them for now will turn on ISIS and perform the same role they did in 2006. Then, as part of the so-called “Anbar Awakening,” Sunni tribes who had previously supported the insurgency began working with the U.S. to stop the advance of al Qaeda in Iraq — the precursor of ISIS.
Going with that course of action, however, would mean either taking a completely hands-off approach to Iraq, or finding a way to differentiate between core ISIS and the various Sunni groups that are — for now — working alongside the terrorist group. Selling the American public that a hands-off approach is the best way to stop ISIS may be easier than one would think, given the opposition to sending troops back to Iraq. Much more difficult would be convincing the Shiite militias that have been amassing, including fighters returning from Syria, that allowing ISIS to move forward is in their best interest. And for now, the Sunni groups the U.S. depended on during the Anbar Awakening have been sitting out the currently conflict.
Meanwhile, there’s not only the concurrent refugee crisis occurring, but also new calls for Kurdish independence, given the dominant position the Kurds have against both Baghdad and ISIS at the moment. On top of all that, Obama’s tanking foreign policy poll numbers also likely have White House officials concerned. Taken together, the National Security Council will probably need several more meetings before coming to a firm conclusion about what to do about Iraq.