By Patrick Poole
Reports that ISIS has surrounded Baghdad and is quickly closing in on the Baghdad International Airport (armed with MANPADS, no less) are troubling. Baghdad itself has been rocked by a series of VBIED attacks in the past 24 hours by ISIS, indicating that the battle for Baghdad has begun.
The possible fall of Baghdad could be the most significant development in the War on Terror since 9/11. And yet many among the D.C. foreign policy “smart set” were not long ago mocking such a scenario.
So what happens if such a situation comes to pass? Here are five key implications (by no means limited to these) if Baghdad falls to ISIS:
1) ISIS will not be claiming to the be the Islamic State, they will BE the Islamic State
Symbolism doesn’t matter much to your average post-modern Westerner, but it still does in the Islamic world, and the capture of Baghdad will hold enormous value. For 500 years Baghdad was the seat of the Abbasid caliphate, and its fall to ISIS would allow the terrorist group to reclaim that mantle. Such an event will electrify the Middle East and beyond, with many Muslims holding firmly to the belief that the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 by Ataturk was one of the key contributing factors in the decline of the Muslim world over the past century. No amount of State Department hashtags or tweets, or pronouncements by Sheikh Barack Obama and Imam John Kerry that there is nothing Islamic about the Islamic State, will be able to negate any claims by ISIS to be the revived caliphate.
2) The Great Reconciliation between jihadist groups will begin
Much of the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS efforts have been trying to leverage other “vetted moderate” groups in Syria against ISIS, with some “smart set” thinkers even advocating engaging “moderate Al-Qaeda” to that end. We are already seeing jihadist groups gravitating towards ISIS, such as the announcement this week by Pakistani Taliban leaderspledging their allegiance to the Islamic State. Other groups of younger jihadis are breaking away from Al-Qaeda franchises in North Africa and defecting to ISIS. Despite bitter rivalries between ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria, namely Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, these other groups will be hard-pressed to deny ISIS’ caliphate claims if they do take Baghdad. In that part of the world, nothing succeeds like success. If Baghdad falls, jihadist groups, some of whom have been openly hostile or remained neutral, will quickly align behind ISIS. And the horrid sound coming out of Washington, D.C., will be of foreign policy paradigms imploding.
3) What of U.S. personnel in Iraq?
The US Embassy in Baghdad is the largest embassy on the planet. And after Obama sent 350 more U.S. military personnel to guard the U.S. Embassy last month, there are now more than 1,100 US service members in Baghdad protecting the embassy and the airport. That doesn’t include embassy personnel, American aid workers, and reporters also in Baghdad. ISIS doesn’t have to capture the airport to prevent flights from taking off there (remember Hamas rockets from Gaza prompting the temporary closure of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport this past summer). If flights can’t get out of Baghdad, how will the State Department and Pentagon evacuate U.S. personnel? An image like the last helicopter out of Saigon would be of considerable propaganda value to ISIS and other jihadist groups. Former CNN reporter Peter Arnett, who witnessed the fall of Saigon in April 1975, raised this possibility back in June. It’s not like the U.S. has prestige to spare internationally, and the fall of Baghdad will mark the beginning of the end of American influence in the Middle East, much like the case in Southest Asia in 1975….