Two years after the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the stability of the country is threatened once again. 2013 marked the bloodiest year of conflict since 2008 with nearly 8,000 civilians and over 1,000 members of security forces killed in sectarian violence.
The oppressive treatment reserved to the Sunni minority by the Shia majority government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has opened the door to al-Qaeda's ex- affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to gain influence and entrench itself to the point that the black flag of al Qaeda has been raised over Fallujah, a city for which the U.S. Marines fought hard and shed much blood in 2004.
If it is premature to be talking of an Iraqi Civil War, yet we must recognize that the government is challenged and is far from reigning supreme on its national territory. Despite the recent break up with al-Qaeda, ISIS is nonetheless not alone in defying the government as some Sunni tribes have openly challenged the government and took sides with the Islamist group while some tribes are still neutral and others are leading the re-taking of Fallujah from ISIS alongside Iraqi security forces, effectively creating a complex game of alliances.
The whole province of Anbar is currently threatened by ISIS forces and the neighboring provinces are affected as the 2000 fighters-strong terrorist group took three villages earlier this month in the adjacent province of Salahuddin. Despite making the headlines for mishandling explosive material, killing some of their own recruits in the process, ISIS has been able to strike at the heart of the Iraqi state and the international zone, demonstrating their capabilities and the fragile security situation in the country.
Within a few months, the U.S. is scheduled to deliver Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter planes and drones to provide much-needed air power to the Iraq government in the hope to stabilize and assert the government's control over the country. Military might is not enough, however, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself stated that the "purely military approach will not succeed in stopping terrorism, much less in healing the sectarian, ethnic, and regional rifts."
Nonetheless, much-needed firepower should help secure the tactical dominance of the Iraqi security forces, keeping in mind the strategic objective, in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's words, of "isolating them (al-Qaeda) politically, and to create the social and economic conditions that will deny them any local support in the future." With the upcoming parliamentary election on April 30, 2014, it is the nascent Iraqi democracy that may be at stake if al-Maliki cannot prevent al-Qaeda from undermining the electoral process.
A failed or disrupted election combined with continuous unrest and violence in the largest province of the country (Anbar), sectarian in-fighting, and a powerful, well-armed group such as ISIS in control of a territory straddling over the Syria-Iraq border cannot bode well for Iraq's future as well as for the stability of the entire region. However far we may be from a real balkanization of Iraq, we should not underestimate such scenario as events in Syria undoubtedly impact what takes place in its neighboring country. Some already imagine "the birth of a new Arab state, called by Arab and regional observers: the Emirate, or the Emirate of Iraq and Sham, or colloquially the Emirate of al-Jazira (the Arab heartland), that would stretch from the West gates of Baghdad to the ruins of Aleppo," in effect putting an end to borders drawn for the region as part of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, ending World War I and Ottoman rule.
What can the U.S. do besides the delivery of weapons? Not much. As Secretary of State John Kerry stated, "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis." However, the consequences if al-Maliki were to lose his fight and the unity of his country may very well be the deciding factor in the Syrian Civil War as well as reshape the entire region's geopolitics. As all eyes are on Syria, a series of what seems to be coordinated bombings in Lebanon and Iraq killed over 60 people in a day. With millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, we should not forget that the balance of power and stability in the Middle East resides as much in the Iraqi heartland, Beirut, and Amman as it does in the proxy war that Tehran and Riyadh are fighting over the control of Damascus.
With the improbability of an U.S. intervention in Syria and the last of the American troops out of Iraq, for better or worse, the U.S. and the West may be limited to stay on the sidelines while working through allies in the region while the fate of the region is in the balance.
The "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region should not distract us from the vital strategic importance of the Middle East for the West as well as the world. A turbulent, warring and chaotic Middle East is in no one's interest. If Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 was misguided, the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was perhaps the second greatest strategic mistake committed by American leadership regarding that country. Let's just hope there won't be a third in just over a decade.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: