But this does not a sectarian civil war make. We must be quite careful not to conflate the interests of Iraq’s Sunni citizens with the interests of the extremist and largely imported ISIS fighters. For example, one of Prime Minister Maliki’s most prominent political rivals is Atheel al-Nujaifi, who happens to be the governor of Nineveh province, in which Mosul resides. If there is any Iraqi politician more embarrassed by the fall of Mosul than Maliki, it is Nujaifi (whose brother is the parliamentary speaker and also a Mosul native). These two prominent Sunni politicians have no love for Maliki, but their interests in retaking Mosul certainly overlap with the prime minister’s desires. This could be a critical development, for if Maliki has been no Nelson Mandela, that is in no small part because there has been no de Klerk to guide the Sunni Arabs into accepting their subordinate role in the new order.
So what is this primarily about? Syria. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has its roots in Iraq, but came to full maturity in Syria. It is in Syria that ISIS has made its reputation and — most critically — gained the crucial infantry fighting skills that have enabled its impressive performance against the more moribund but far larger Iraqi Army. If the current situation in Iraq can be said to be the fault of the White House, it would have far more to do with its Syria policy (or lack thereof) than Iraq policy, though the blood and treasure invested in Iraq tends to draw Americans’ attention to Baghdad.