Many Americans are surprised to see Fallujah back on the front pages of newspapers. How did things get so bad that the Iraqi government was compelled to call for American support in its battle against an al-Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?

This crescendo of violence is the culmination of two well-established trajectories.

The first trajectory is the worsening violence in Syria and the way in which the unrest has bled into neighboring states. While Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have borne the bulk of Syria's refugees, Iraq has suffered greatly under the weight of Syria's oozing sectarianism. In many ways, Syria (a Sunni majority country long ruled by an Allawite minority) is the mirror image of Iraq (a majority Shi'a country long ruled by a Sunni minority). Iraq had only begun to heal from its sectarian war when the venom of Syria's conflict began to permeate its politics.

Realities on the ground took a turn for the worse with al- Qaida affiliates in Syria declaring their ambition to establish a Sunni Islamist state in the territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Over the past year, militant relationships barely cold from Iraq's sectarian fury were rekindled as insurgents made inroads into Anbar province, sending suicide bombers into Iraq much as Syria did during Iraq's own war.

The second trajectory is the growing authoritarianism of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and its marginalization of Iraq's Sunni minority — long-evident trends that the U.S. government overlooked in its rush to exit Iraq in the glow of success. Since the complete withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011, Maliki has become increasingly brazen in his efforts to remove Sunni political leaders from power. He has targeted senior Sunni figures for arrest, forced out popular Sunnis from posts of responsibility in his government, and reneged on pledges to integrate Sunnis into government institutions.


Advertisement

Now, the convergence of these two trends — the worsening situation in Syria and the heavy-handedness of the Iraqi government — has produced a dire situation in Anbar province: Al-Qaida affiliated militants incubated in the Syrian mayhem have found common cause with Iraqi Sunnis who harbor real, and in many cases legitimate, grievances over their place in the new Iraq and their treatment by the Iraqi government.

After more than two years of paying insufficient attention to the cauldron that was bubbling in Iraq, the U.S. government is now feeling the heat. But it is still unclear that Washington understands what must be done to solve the crisis. Iraq needs arms and intelligence — which Secretary of State John Kerry has said we will provide — but it also needs a concerted political strategy to persuade the prime minister to change the course of Iraq's increasingly sectarian and divisive politics. The United States forfeited much of its leverage with the Iraqi government when it withdrew from the country. Perhaps the current crisis provides the U.S. with new avenues of influence: Make a more robust military and intelligence relationship contingent on political changes that promote inclusion.

Maliki has made clear his preference for a “majoritarian” democracy — one in which a presumed Shi'a majority government could govern unfettered by minority wants and preferences. While this longing is understandable given the inefficiencies and frustrations inherent in leading an unwieldy coalition, it ignores the fact that Iraq cannot and will not be stable if major groups are excluded, particularly if those politics continue to be organized along sectarian or ethnic lines. The country therefore needs to recommit to the cumbersome practice of national unity governments.

Similarly, Washington needs to nip in the bud any intimations by the Iraqi government that the current security situation will cause national elections, currently scheduled for April, to be postponed. (These elections, after all, could allow a new leader to emerge.) The Obama administration has been reluctant to take to take a tough line with Maliki for fear of weakening the prime minister and creating a vacuum that might then expose the fragility of its proclaimed success there. But asking the prime minister to change course is not unthinkable. Though his recent record would not encourage optimism, he has in the past shown an ability to pivot when the situation demands it. In the national elections of 2010, for instance, he succeeded in portraying himself as a nationalist who was interested in looking forward and building a country for all Iraqis.

Indeed, we should expect the increasingly pressed Iraqi government to make all sorts of overtures to Sunnis in the coming days. Whether it can convince tribesmen in Anbar to fight alongside Iraqi government forces, rather than against them, will be critical to the outcome of the current conflagration in Fallujah, Ramadi and across Anbar. But ensuring that these overtures are meaningful and sustained is essential if Iraq is to withstand the pressure from the Syrian war.

Kerry said that this is a fight for the Iraqis to win. Few will disagree with that statement. But it both diminishes the U.S.'s stakes in the outcome and the tools now in America's grasp to make any military success more than transient. Positive outcomes cannot be delivered by the U.S. But their chances of materializing rise considerably if the Obama administration uses its new leverage for clear and consistent goals of a political, not just military, nature.

Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a Bloomberg View columnist.