Ben Van Heuvelen writes: If Obama continues to engage with Iraq at arm’s length — mainly through bilateral diplomacy, weapons sales, and a slightly larger training mission — then Iraq’s Shia leaders will learn once and for all that only Iran really has their back. Already, thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops have reportedly entered the country through at least two border crossings, and the shadowy Quds Force controls homegrown Shia militias throughout Iraq. In contrast to the feckless Iraqi commanders who fled Mosul, these Iranian forces are disciplined, motivated, and ruthless. They are also likely to stoke the kind of sectarian mistrust from which ISIS draws its strength.
During last decade’s Iraqi civil war, for example, Iran’s proxy militias weren’t just attacking U.S. troops and Sunni militants; they were also conducting systematic campaigns of sectarian revenge killing against Sunni non-combatants. Sunni families in historically heterogeneous areas picked up and fled, eager to avoid a power drill to the forehead.
There is every indication that this pattern has begun to repeat itself now. In the months before the fall of Mosul, scores of Sunnis turned up dead in Baghdad, victims of mass executions. Hundreds of families moved out of their homes in Diyala province due to intimidation. The government has been complicit: Iran-backed militias are now reporting to a special division of Maliki’s office, and in some cases, they are conducting joint operations with government forces. The abuses have apparently escalated recently. For example, on Tuesday in Baquba, the capital of Diyala, 44 Sunni prisoners were found dead in a government-controlled prison with bullet holes in their heads.
Quds Force leaders might not be ordering these atrocities directly, but they do appear to take a “boys will be boys” attitude toward horrific violence. As long as they do, it’s difficult to imagine that any Sunni leader will be eager to collaborate with a government that also partners with sectarian killers.
There’s no guarantee the U.S. can wield enough leverage to affect Iran’s behavior, or that Iran exerts enough control over the militias to calm the sectarian frenzy. For this reason, Obama appears disinclined to order air strikes unless the conditions exist for political progress. The nightmare scenario is that the U.S. could find itself bombing Sunni-majority cities while Shia militias run rampant through Baghdad. The war would become increasingly sectarian, with America taking sides. Any military victory would be fleeting. ISIS would no longer need to produce propaganda videos, because the atrocities reported on CNN would be enough to radicalize the next generation of jihadis. [Continue reading…]