The world is facing a nightmare scenario in Iraq and across the Middle East, according to veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, and Kenneth Pollack, a former former CIA intelligence analyst.
The situation in Iraq is looking grim as Sunni militants make new gains on the ground. Last week, militants seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then moved south capturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. There have been some reports that the group is committing mass murder.
Government and Shiite forces allied on the ground north of Baghdad are trying to prevent the militants from pushing further south. The town of Tal Afar has also fallen into the hands of the forces of ISIS or ISISL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Iraq and the Levant and refers to the more ancient territory of Syrian and eastern Lebanon.
On Sunday, two U.S. Navy ships and the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush arrived in the Persian Gulf. But on Friday, President Obama emphasized that the U.S. will not send any troops back into combat in Iraq, although he has asked his national security team to prepare other options to support Iraqi security forces.
"Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together," President Obama said. "In that effort, they will have the support of the United States and our friends and our allies."
Today, Pollack, who has served on the National Security Council and is now at the Brookings Institution, and Amanpour weigh in on the conflict spreading across the Middle East.
According to Amanpour, the big question hanging over Iraq right now is whether ISIS will be able to capture Baghdad in the same way it seized Mosul and Tikrit. While this could be more difficult—Baghdad has as many as 9 million inhabitants and will be heavily guarded, unlike Mosul and other cities taken by ISIS—it is clear that vast change is coming to Iraq even if ISIS does not capture the nation's capital.
"This is very possibly the end of Iraq as we know it," says Amanpour. "There will be a de facto partition—the Kurds in the north, ISIS controlled territory to the west of that, including Al Anbar, the famous Sunni heartland, and then a Shiite big state down from Baghdad to the south encompassing all of the majority Shiite areas and the Shiite shrine cities."
Amanpour says that many believe it will be "incredibly difficult" to retake the territory that ISIS has already captured. She adds that the current crisis was birthed years ago and has evolved over time.
"When ISIS's precursor—the Al Qaeda in Iraq—had really wrecked Iraq, particularly the west and the place was in a massive civil war, President Bush and General Petraeus ordered a surge and defeated these people, but it was also political," she says. "When President Obama pulled the U.S. troops out, this started to go to hell again in a handbasket."
The Syrian Equation
When American troops withdrew from Iraq, violence began to erupt in the nation which, when coupled with chaos in Syria, allowed ISIS to grow and move easily across the border to plan and regroup.
"Syria has been left to fester, and therefore these Islamic jihadi groups have been allowed to do their planning and do their training moving in and out and across borders," says Amanpour.
Amanpour says that it is critically important to try and hold off ISIS—she says that doing so will require the U.S. to bolster Iraqi forces, or establish a tactical alliance between Iran and the United States. Additionally, recreating a government of national unity in Iraq is a top and urgent priority to fend off ISIS, Amanpour says.
"Maliki cannot do it on his own—he is sectarian, authoritarian, and he is viewed really, as a Shiite dictator right now," she says.
Some contend that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not want residual U.S. forces left behind, and the U.S. government did not force the issue, even though it was likely a third party mediator needed to remain because of the historical tensions between groups in Iraq.
"Whatever happened, they did not create what most military commanders said had to happen, and that was to keep a residual U.S. force in there to train, and to keep training, equipping and planning with Iraqi forces," she says. "When it withdrew its forces, [the U.S.] didn't have any leverage, and then therefore over the last several years Maliki has been able to simply shut out the Sunnis and create a Shiite dominated leadership."
Now, the Iraqis must somehow come together to hold the line against ISIS and create a coalition to push them back.
"Many believe that is going to be incredibly difficult and that what's going to happen is harden, de facto partition lines," says Amanpour. "But people have to understand that unless the swamp in Syria is drained, this is not going to have a chance in hell of succeeding in Iraq—any attempt to push back what's happened in Iraq will simply keep getting bolstered in Syria. This is a very, very dangerous world-shattering situation. I'm not going to say that it's global World War III, but in that area—in Iraq, Syria, and possibly shattering the stability of Lebanon and other surrounding countries, this could be a very, very dangerous thing.
Amanpour says that what's happening right now is reminiscent of 1994, when the Taliban swept Afghanistan, which then gave way to Al Qaeda.
"These people—ISIS—are even worse than Al Qaeda," she says. "They have splintered off from Al Qaeda because they don't think Al Qaeda is radical and brutal enough. This is a very dramatic situation, and a lot of it has been enabled by letting Syria fester like this over these last few years."
U.S. Teaming Up With Iran?
Kenneth Pollack says that it might be necessary for Iran and the United States to team up to tackle ISIS, however ironic that notion may be.
"At the end of the day, Iraq is in extremely dire straights," he says. "We need to get the situation stabilized, and that's going to require getting any help that we possibly can get. And, at the end of the day, we and the Iranians do have some similar interests in Iraq—we both want it stabilized."
Pollack says that given the way Iraq was handled, the U.S. has essentially turned Iran into a regional player.
"We now have to recognize the reality is that as we pulled back, as we disengaged, they moved in," he says. "In 2005, the militias were largely in charge in Baghdad, and the United States was trying desperately to find someone that wouldn't be too divisive. We hit upon Nouri al-Maliki...He was a mid-level official in one of the smaller Shiite parties, and the assumption was that this guy wasn't threatening to anyone, and that's why he got to be prime minister."
Prime Minister Maliki was able to hold his own during the beginning of his tenure, says Pollack. But around 2008, he began to "rise above his narrow Shiite background," says Pollack.
"He became something of a national unifying figure," he says. "After that, he then kind of devolved back to his origins—he's someone who's deeply suspicious of Sunnis."
After American troops left Iraq, Pollack says that Prime Minister Maliki began acting in a more paranoid fashion and began going after his rivals.
"That kind of split the Iraq that he had helped to start to unify," says Pollack. "But when you've got a security vacuum, when you've got a kind of nasty sectarian dictator, which unfortunately is what Nouri al-Maliki has become, it becomes almost impossible to keep a country like this together."
Though Pollack supported an invasion in Iraq in 2003, he says he did not support the invasion President George W. Bush launched—back then, he says that he warned the invasion was "going to create as many problems as it solved."
"I said it was going to push the country into chaos, warlordism, and civil war—I specifically said we should not be doing it under those circumstances," he says. "Well, that's what we did."