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On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized limited air strikes on militants in Iraq to stop their advance toward Erbil, where a number of U.S. diplomats, civilians, and military personnel reside. He also promised to send aid to refugees fleeing the militants’ advance. The next morning, warplanes struck the first targets as the United States rushed assistance to a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, the Yezidis, which had recently been pushed into the mountains by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Air strikes are undoubtedly necessary for the narrow purposes stipulated by Obama. But they will have a wide range of unintended consequences -- some relatively manageable, others less so.
Despite Obama’s carefully framed justification for the strikes -- to protect Americans and to help minorities -- the inadvertent beneficiary is the Iraqi government, which gets to retain its free-rider status. So far, Baghdad’s response to the current crisis has been the political equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on a plunging Titanic. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies have done nothing to salvage the Iraqi state, despite the selection of a new president and speaker of the parliament, or to fulfill the prime moral directive of any government: to protect the population from harm. The strikes will almost certainly reassure these officials that their torpor has been justified, that others -- Iran, the United States, or both -- can be expected to do the job. In turn, Iraqi officials’ will to counter the ISIS threat will further diminish.
Second, air strikes will unavoidably mark an already vulnerable minority with the stain of American favoritism. The salvation proffered by American arms now will compromise the group’s status later on -- not just with the militant fighters currently lunging for their throats but with much of the Iraqi population. Although it is still too early to say that the evolution of modern Middle Eastern politics points to the end of the road for Christians and other minorities, things are heading that way; air strikes and aid or not, the Yezidis’ future is bleak.
Third, air strikes will almost certainly unite Sunnis against other sects and boost support for ISIS while fueling disdain for the United States. The gist of the social media commentary on the strikes has been this: For years, the United States has tolerated -- or perhaps even facilitated -- a violent onslaught against Sunni Muslims. The very instant that other groups are threatened, the United States intervenes immediately against the Sunnis. And who benefits from this intervention? The Shia. It is a potent narrative, which the air strikes, however unavoidable, will appear to affirm. Indeed, impolitic language aside, it is hard to dispute the idea that the Shia, particularly Maliki, who has presided over a state that privileges that group while marginalizing Sunnis, will reap the gains of this campaign, at least in the short term.
Fourth, intervention is liable to complicate already tense relations between the United States and its allies on the Arab side of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For reasons that hardly need explanation, these are tremendously important relationships for both sides: the Gulf allies sit astride vital oil and gas reserves; they have virtually unlimited resources; their elites are increasingly educated in, and close to, the United States; and they are as interested as the United States is in preventing a nuclear Iran. To be sure, they are also inclined to counter Iran in ways that Washington finds counterproductive, including by supporting radical elements at the cutting edge of the war against the Shia and by attempting to roll back Iranian geopolitical gains made in the wake of the second Gulf War. Skeptics in the Gulf will perceive the U.S. intervention as a boon to Iranian interests and therefore a departure from shared interests. In turn, they will press for more hawkish measures that, from Washington’s perspective, will further inflame regional politics.
Finally, in military terms, strikes will rapidly hit the point of diminishing returns for the United States. ISIS consists essentially of light infantry. When the fighters mass, or move via convoy, U.S. firepower can be effective at killing and dispersing them. But there are relatively few fighters to begin with -- one of the astounding things about this war -- and they don’t possess installations, depots, or other assets that the United States can menace. In this fight, airpower alone can be used effectively. But winning would require a combination of both ground troops and air superiority. And it won’t be the United States that supplies the ground troops. At the moment, though, the plight of Yezidis and Christians and the imminent exposure of Americans to jihadi raiders make that tomorrow’s concern.