Taking on ISIS
Vol - XLIX No. 36, September 06, 2014 Editorials
There is just no easy and clear way to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Actions by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have contributed to a deterioration of the already catastrophic Syrian civil war and the possible disintegration of Iraq. There is no question that this radical Islamist group, which thrives on medieval methods, primeval ideologies and brutality, has to be militarily defeated. How it is to be done is a difficult issue. The outcome of any event, even if it leads to the defeat of the ISIS, seems to be one that is going to be bloody, chaotic and one of further despair for the long-suffering people of Iraq and Syria.
The rise of the ISIS has been facilitated by a number of forces and circumstances, each having its own set of consequences. The US invasion of Iraq and the post-occupation policy of dismantling the secular state apparatus in the country in the hope that a dependent nation could be created allowed the seeds of Al Qaida to be sowed on the back of Sunni anger against the new establishment. The sectarian attitude of the Shia-dominated governments led by Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister fanned the rising waves of Sunni resistance so much so that former Ba’athist forces sought an alliance with the battle-hardened ISIS which had made significant advances in the Syrian civil war.
The Syrian civil war had provided ISIS the opportunity to utilise the “great game” played by various proxy forces intending to destabilise the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. Suffused with finances and weaponry supplied to the Syrian opposition by various groups – financiers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and helped by Turkish indulgence in allowing foreign recruits to the ISIS cause to get free passes through the Turkish-Syrian border, the group over-ran resistance from the Syrian regime and took control over a large area in northern Syria. The US also played its role in funding the rebellion against the Syrian regime, only to see the ISIS and other allied forces reap most of the largesse.
Presently, the ISIS has control over one-third of Iraq and a significant number of towns, cities, and oil refineries in Syria, and has established a “de facto” state. The ISIS sought to expand its territory into the northern and oil-rich areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) beginning with the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. In doing so, it subjected Iraqi minorities – for example, the Yazidis – to brutality. The Yazidis were driven into refuge in the Sinjar Mountains, as the Kurdish peshmerga (armed militia of the KRG) withdrew protection when it could not take on the better-armed ISIS. It was left to the Kurdish militias from Syria and Turkey – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the socialist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – to rescue a large number of Yazidis, even as the US finally swung into action to protect its KRG allies and assets. The pluralist and feminist YPG, an offshoot of the PKK’s Syrian affiliates, has remained the most effective force against the ISIS advance in Syria.
Despite ideological differences, the Kurdish peshmerga has now formed a tentative alliance with the PKK and the YPG – even as the US has sought to help the alliance to take on the ISIS in northern Iraq. It is an uncomfortable position for the US; it has proscribed and categorised the PKK as a “terrorist” organisation. The PKK, which seeks a loose transborder confederation of Kurdish areas, persists with insurgency in Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member, although the two are also engaged in a tortuous peace process.
The US seems to have a Janus-faced policy towards the ISIS. In Syria, the US prefers the heat to remain on the Assad government and is reluctant to recognise the threat the ISIS (and other Islamist forces such as the Al Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra) poses to Syrian unity. This has meant that the ISIS has used its territorial acquisitions as buffers. With its financial resources and US-sourced weaponry captured from the Iraqi army, it is a formidable opponent to the Syrian government.
Iraq and Syria are in shambles. The inability of the Iraqi government to stem the advance of the ISIS has emboldened the KRG to assert its autonomy even more and has increased the prospects of Kurdish irredentism. The radical Sunni character of the ISIS coupled with its attacks on the Shia community has worsened the already poor relations between the two communities in Iraq. The Iraqi citizenry has no desire for further US involvement, which should rule out US unilateralism. Besides, it is the unstated policy of the US to eventually balkanise Iraq and Syria (Iran’s ally) that has resulted in the rise of the ISIS in the first place, even as this was not intended. The US antipathy towards Syria and differences in the UN Security Council do not guarantee any agreement resulting in a reasonable resolution on intervention. The Gulf monarchies realise the threat that the ISIS poses to their own retrograde monarchies but are unable to look beyond their antipathy towards their geopolitical enemy, Iran. Yet it is clear that the only way ISIS can be militarily defeated is if the Syrian regime, the Iraqi government, the Kurds and Iran (which too sees the rise of ISIS as a threat) are empowered and unitedly take on the new caliphate.