To think of mass graves is to think backwards in history—Babi Yar in Ukraine or the one million Jews still being unearthed from the Treblinka death camp. To see similar images today, shown in vivid color photos right down to the grains of sand in the makeshift ditch, is startling. Yet that’s exactly what the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has provided us, along with boasts that the dead are 1,700 Shias from the Iraqi army.
The country that once concealed Saddam Hussein’s mass graves is once again the site of anachronistic brutality, but this time with a modern twist. ISIS has proven savvy at using social media to broadcast its destruction across the world. Earlier this year they released photos of two men in neighboring Syria suspected of being spies, covered in blood and crucified on crosses.
Ultraviolence has been ISIS’s trademark for over a decade. In 2002, American diplomat Laurence Foley was assassinated outside his home in Jordan. His killing was orchestrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamist. Zarqawi later moved to Iraq where, after the American invasion in 2003, his Sunni militia flourished. He later declared loyalty to Osama bin Laden and his group became generally known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the progenitor of ISIS.
Zarqawi’s fighters carried out some of the most sanguinary acts of the Iraq war, including an attack on the Red Cross and the decapitation of businessman Nick Berg with a knife. The group made few distinctions among its enemies. Its goal was to establish Iraq as part of a Sunni caliphate, and everyone who didn’t subscribe to this psychotic scheme—Americans, moderates, Shias—were targeted without pity.
Shias were the linchpin of AQI’s hatred. When Americans and Iraqis led an offensive on the Sunni town of Tal Afar in 2005, Zarqawi actually declared war on Iraq’s entire Shia population. This was the AQI playbook: exploit violence to inflame ethnic tensions and provoke widespread civil war between Shias and Sunnis. Such a conflict, Zarqawi hoped, would result in the destruction of the Shias and the restoration of a Sunni caliphate across the Middle East.
Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, and by 2007 AQI was viewed as reckless even by some jihadists. Sunnis, including many who used to fight under Zarqawi’s banner, grew tired of the constant killings. Backed by American weapons, this newfound wave of moderation stunned the jihadists and led to the relative pacification of Sunni Iraq.
But AQI never stopped trying to spark a Sunni-Shia war. In 2012 the group attacked a number of Shia targets in Iraq. Afterwards AQI spokesman Abu Muhammed al ‘Adnani gave a demented stemwinder of a speech calling for the extirpation of the Shias:
So, Iraq, Iraq, O people of the Sunnah. Stop the black extension that is coming towards you. Cut off the head of the [Shi’ite] snake, the tail of which is amongst you. Know that the coming stage is a stage of real confrontation and war against the despicable [Shi’ites], whether you like it or not, and that the war of the Sunnis with the [Shi’ites] is not a sectarian war, like people are braying about. A sect is part of something, and the [Shi’ites] don’t have anything to do with Islam; they have their own religion and we have our own.
This is the goal: needle and prod the Shias with acts of violence while dehumanizing them in the eyes of Sunnis until both groups are so polarized that war breaks out. Since then AQI has changed its name to ISIS, secured parts of Syria, and rolled through northern Iraq. It is now closer than ever to achieving its dream. An ethnic-flavored civil war already has broken out in Iraq, with Shiite Iran sending forces to fight ISIS and its Sunni allies. If ISIS can slaughter enough Shias (think more mass graves) and destroy a Shiite holy site or two, it will fuel a conflict that could engulf the region.
The Obama administration seems reluctant to do anything about Iraq. (Though chirpy press releases note that John Kerry has been dispatched to the region. How comforting!) But the president can’t avoid what could be one of the thorniest dilemmas of his presidency. America can’t let ISIS control Iraq—far better for Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government to remain in power. But America also has no business taking sides in a Sunni-Shia religious conflict.
Many Sunnis already see the West as aligned with the Shias. We propped up Maliki’s government, which has shown more interest in persecuting Sunnis than representing them. We also initiated de-Baathification, perhaps the stupidest policy in a very stupidly managed war, during which members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party, including Iraq’s half-a-million-strong military, were exiled from public life. This sent many Sunnis into the waiting arms of the AQI insurgency. Although Iraq recently watered down its de-Baathification law, it’s still a sore subject with many Sunnis.
The United States made the mistake in 2003 of seeing the divide in the Middle East as between autocrats and democrats. In fact, it’s between Sunnis and Shias, and always has been. Now ISIS is trying to pry open this medieval schism with medieval acts of violence. As Sunnis rage through Iraq and Shiite Iran asks for help, America needs to think carefully about its next move.
We can’t empower ISIS through inaction. But we also can’t empower Iran through action. Like I said, good thing John Kerry’s on his way.