Religious fanatics from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—commonly known as ISIS or the Islamic State—expelled Mosul's Christians from their homes in a ruthless campaign of religious and ethnic cleansing. The city was captured in a lightning advance that consolidated a vast territory that now reaches from Syria deep into Iraq. The group was initially called ISIS for their control of land in Iraq and Syria, but their objectives are larger. The name "ISIL" references their desire to capture a broad area, including land from Israel to Iraq known as the Levant. Wherever it marches, ISIL flies a black banner of death that threatens innocent persons.
Who is ISIL? Like many things in the Middle East, the answer is complicated. Assad, the current ruler of much of Syria, has been particularly brutal towards the country's Sunni Muslim population. The uprising against the Assad regime left a power vacuum in the region. In the ensuing struggle, affiliates of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters poured in. The ungoverned space has attracted bad actors from around the world—even from Europe and America—all with a twisted form of religious zealotry. Outside sources use the area as a proxy battlefield to settle old scores. Awash in oil money, the Middle East has provided the resources to fund ISIL and other extremist organizations. Iraq's feckless former Prime Minister Maliki contributed to the problem, causing great disaffection among Iraq's Sunni population. The Iraq army collapsed in front of an ISIL advance that claimed oil fields and U.S. arms. A questionable decision by President Obama in 2012 to not demand a status of forces agreement with Iraq after the war created additional vulnerability.
ISIL is better financed, better armed, controls more territory, and commands a bigger army than al-Qaeda ever has in its dark history.
President Obama has formed a plan of action for neutralizing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I believe overall the strategy deserves support. As specifics unfold, three points should remain essential: First, this is an international effort, without U.S. combat troops on the ground. Second, we must demand a regeneration of Iraq's commitment to fight ISIL and protect vulnerable minorities.
Third, the Kurds must be armed and empowered to provide protective zones in northern Iraq.
One component of the President's strategy demands ongoing scrutiny: arming and training "moderate" Syrian rebels to fight against ISIL. Two months ago, I offered an amendment to stop the prospect of the U.S. arming so-called Syria moderates due to serious concerns that this was an ad-hoc policy that could make a bad situation worse. Many Republicans and Democrats voted for the amendment. Shifting loyalties in the Middle East make it difficult to vet supposed moderate groups. Additionally, if they were defeated, more U.S. arms might end up in the hands of ISIL. We must ensure that we do not worsen an already terrible situation.
Action has risks, but the consequences of inaction are too grave to ignore. We are faced with a number of bad options. The way forward will be difficult, and great prudence is needed. The Islamic State is a threat to all persons in the world and a threat to civilization itself.
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