The past few weeks of events in Iraq have been both personally and professionally depressing. The fall of Tal Afar was personally depressing because I spent a year in that area back in 2006-2007 living with and serving alongside an Iraqi battalion as an army reservist on a military transition team in a base along the Mosul-Sinjar highway. I got to know many Iraqi soldiers, particularly Shiite Arabs from the southern part of the country and Kurds from the northeast.
Professionally, the situation is depressing because things have fallen apart in the country and the consequences of any particular number of courses of action portend poorly for the multiethnic peoples of Iraq and numerous other countries in the region. George R.R. Martin could not write a more complicated “game of thrones” than what is unfolding now.
The current state of play looks something like the following. The takfiri radicals of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, have been methodically expanding their areas of control. (Takfir is the practice of excommunicating other Muslims who do not follow their own particular notions of Islam.) Shiites and Sufis are not considered Muslims by them, but they also apply this doctrine to Sunnis who do not accept their beliefs.
To be sure, they have been aided by a coalition of former Baathists and angry Sunni Arabs, who are upset at poor treatment from the Shiite dominated regime in Baghdad’s actions. The men under the black banners have stated that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (this French and British arrangement gave us the borders of the modern Middle East) is dead, that there is now a caliphate and that the Syrian-Iraq border no longer exists. They seized the western side of the city of Mosul (a city split by the Tigris River and ethnic divides) and hundreds of millions of dollars of funds from the Iraqi bank there, as well as Iraqi Army and security forces equipment, including a lot of equipment provided under American military assistance programs. They advanced and are currently pushing toward Baghdad, a divided city due to the sectarian cleansing that occurred there during the darkest days of the war.