The Iraqi Army is in full retreat, falling back toward Baghdad in the face of an unprecedented thrust from a conventional force of an unconventional nature: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This group, which formed more than a decade ago as an al Qaeda affiliate group participating in the Iraqi insurgency, has grown and evolved into a field force of division size. When the West repudiated Syrian rebels’ request for weapons and fighters, ISIS was one of several Sunni Islamist groups to cross the Iraqi border in order to take up arms against the Syrian Government. After carving out a private fiefdom encompassing most of eastern Syria, the group launched a surprise attack on Iraq with the stated goal of restoring Sunni dominance to the country by deposing the Shia government of Prime Minister Maliki, annexing tracts of the country into their holdings in Syria to form a transnational caliphate, and sacking holy Shia shrines in four major Iraqi cities. In under two weeks, ISIS has broken its American trained and equipped adversaries and advanced to within 150 miles of Baghdad.

The campaign has eerily parallels to the 2006-2007 sectarian civil war in Iraq: again, Iraq’s future as a unified country is uncertain. Most of the territory taken by ISIS comprises the Saddam era locus of power in Iraq, home to Iraq’s sizable Sunni minority. There are even reports of former Baathist military personnel and Sunni militias joining the ISIS drive on Baghdad, seeking to avenge injustices against Sunnis supposedly committed by the Maliki regime. The retreating Iraqi army has abandoned the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, which is being invested by ISIS forces and is making a stand with whatever tribal forces the regional government can muster. Shia forces loyal to Maliki have been rocked by the desertions of almost sixty high ranking military officers, yet are organizing a counterattack against ISIS with loyal Shia civilians and militiamen who have volunteered to assist the national army. Yesterday, Maliki has reached out to the United States for assistance.

President Obama is at a crossroads, hounded simultaneously by hawks who contend he did not do enough in Syria and can’t afford to let Iraq fall after the costly war there, and others who believe the U.S. has intervened enough and that Iraq needs to prove it can stand on its own. 275 American troops have been deployed to Iraq to defend U.S. officials in country and to advise the Iraqi military. Though the President has ruled out American involvement in ground combat, airstrikes are still on the table, and a carrier battle group has been deployed to within striking distance of the Persian Gulf.

While the President should take measures to keep Baghdad out of ISIS hands, his first priority needs to be the containment of the international fallout of the war. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of supporting ISIS, while the Saudis contend that Iran has deployed Revolutionary Guard formations to defend Shia shrines in a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The two rivals have denied the allegations, but Saudi Arabia has denounced the repression of Sunnis in Maliki Iraq and Iran has pledged to take any measures necessary to protect the shrines. The United States will be best able to serve its partners and allies in the region if it can seek to limit foreign intervention in the conflict. Otherwise, over a decade of American foreign policy could be unraveled in a matter of weeks.

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