by Sascha Bruchmann. Sascha Bruchmann studied International Law and International Politics in Germany and in the US. He worked as an analyst, covering the MENA region.
A geopolitical analysis of the larger situation in the Middle East reveals that the currently embattled ISIS will not be defeated like its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The current environment in the region will allow it to prevail as the dominant actors are either reluctant or unable to crush it. ISIS will be contained and pushed back into Syria, where it will be allowed by most players to continue its role, primarily as a faction in the civil war dividing the Assad-opposition. The following analysis will highlighting the relevant actors’ strategies in today’s conflicts and is divided into three parts: The first part deals with ISIS itself and the US as an international power, followed by the dominant regional powers in the second part. The third part investigates Iraq, its subnational forces and concludes the series.
Iraq – Suppressing the Others, Business as Usual
Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind the border fences near the Turkish town of Suruc on September 18, 2014. Thousands of men, women and children arrived at the Turkish border roughly 10 km from the besieged city of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish, a Reuters witness said, as Turkish forces initially stopped the crowd from crossing. (Photo: Kadir Celikcan).
The Iraqi central government has not been too concerned about ISIS as long as the Islamist were still fighting the Assad regime and the Kurds
in Syria. Baghdad was seeking the peace dividend after a decade of war. It used al-Qaeda in Iraq
and ISIS as examples of Sunni extremism to justify sectarian policies in front of the international community. It is an unfortunate trend that helped Nouri al-Maliki
as well as Bashar al-Assad
use the “terror threat” more frequent and the West could barely raise its concerns.
Baghdad was unprepared for ISIS. The reports from inside the formerly in Mosul stationed 2nd Division give an insight into incompetence and corruption. Higher officer posts were given to friends and family members not according to merit. The army was neither prepared for war nor for the terror of ISIS. As Iraqis might eventually push back ISIS once they decide for what price each of the groups fights, it does not seem probable that the situation will get any better. The sectarian divide is even greater. The Sunnis once fought alongside Americans and the Iraqi Army expecting returns in the future and were disappointed. They will now expect pay in advance. The Kurds have thoroughly institutionalized their proto-state for the last decade and have now captured even more territory. The negotiations between Baghdad, Sunnis, and Kurds are based on balance of power. This style is typical of international relations, which in itself tells a lot about the state of Iraq. This means that even if Iraqis want to learn from this crisis the tense sectarian situation will force them to continue their current policies. Shias will try to strengthen their grip on power, excluding Sunnis and keeping Kurdistan in Iraq. Sunnis will try to regain some of the lost powers, bargaining with support against militias and terrorists like ISIS. Kurds in some form will work for de facto independence.
Kurdistan – A Conundrum of Forces
The Kurds are no single faction. More than seventy years of fighting against four different states and the different paths these groups have taken divided the Kurdish forces. In Turkey where they have only marginal power the PKK is the dominant faction which upholds militias. In Syria the Kurds are a threatened minority. The People’s protection Units (YPG) fights against ISIS for its survival. In Iraq the Kurds have achieved significant gains. These have led to a separation of forces along to party lines, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani.
There are reports of Yazidi refugees that have recently arrived in Germany giving testimonial to the different behavior of several Peshmerga units affiliated with either of the two competing Kurdish parties and similar stories of singular survivors of massacres of ISIS against Yazidis. They say that Syrian Kurdish forces helped by fighting a corridor from Mount Sinjar whereas the Iraqi ones retreated before and led them into this situation.
The Kurdish forces in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah are reluctant to fight ISIS without beforehand having secured spoils of war like Kirkuk and the surroundings and having secured concessions from Baghdad. In some of the VICE Reports about Iraq Sunni tribal leaders in Kirkuk even accuse Erbil of a more direct complicity with ISIS (see the video below). Even though this might just be the Sunni local misinterpretation of Kurdish reluctance, they perceive a lack of action on the Kurdish side.
In sum, the media have put the Kurds as the force bearing the brunt of fighting against ISIS, but journalists failed to distinguish who is actually fighting and did not ask why. Erbil is using the ISIS incursion into Iraq to gain power (weapons from the West and territory from Baghdad) and all Kurdish actions must be assessed from a Kurdish perspective, not a Western. They do not fight against ISIS to protect the territorial integrity of Iraq, they fight either to protect their territory or to gain from Baghdad, in terms of independence rights or oil revenue shares if not the right to sell their oil. Right now they are preparing a referendum for independence. How should Baghdad act against that after the Peshmerga took the Tigris dam north of Mosul?
In fact Kurdish leaders perceive an alliance between “Arabs” and ISIS – thus see their own actions as legitimized. Underestimating the complexity of intra-Iraqi relations with the Kurds and intra-Kurdish strives for the sake of convenience or to please a temporary ally should not have us forget the reality of a quasistate on Iraqi soil with all the consequences of statehood.
Sunni Iraq – The Empire Strikes Back
Sunni tribes in Iraq in 2007 participated in the surge and helped defeat AQI. However, after their victory the militias and soldiers, called “Sons of Iraq” themselves came under fire from the Maliki central government. Instead of a reward for their contribution they were unemployed or even persecuted. The subsidies were scaled down or cut and politically the Sunnis were sidelined. Maliki continued sectarian politics much like the Sunnis did under Saddam Hussein, but now the Sunnis were the ones out of power. They thought fighting AQI might help them to integrate Sunni tribal leaders into higher government positions, gaining at least some of the lost power since 2003. Now the Sunni tribal leaders again bargain for these denied revenues. Two demands expressed are control of the Defense Ministry and the release of prisoners. For the first half of 2014 the Sunni tribal forces had aligned themselves with ISIS:
By virtue of its structure in Iraq, ISIS is linked both to local tribesmen and old Baathist military officers. For instance, Abu Bakr al-Iraqi, the head of the ISIS military council who was killed in Aleppo a few months ago, was a former Baath general. What the media reports as the capture of cities in Iraq by ISIS is a phenomenon with a political and social background going well beyond ISIS. An armed rebellion against the Maliki government involving various Sunni groups is underway in Iraq. — Rasim Ozan Kutahyali, “Turkey: ISIS magnifies Iraq’s Sunni crisis“, al-Monitor, 17.06.2014.
With Maliki gone, the Sunni-Shia divide is slightly dampened, but not resolved. They will join the fight against ISIS in Iraq if cost-benefit analysis is positive and the risk analysis permissive. ISIS understands this as the core of the contemporary Sunni-Shia dynamic and negotiations. It can influence the Sunni risk assessment strongly. ISIS brutally massacred 700 Syrian Sunni tribesmen of the Al-Sheitaat tribe in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, just an hour up the Euphrates of the Sunni tribes in Iraq that are currently negotiating with Baghdad.
Additionally, ISIS posted videos of captured Al-Sheitaat where these are heard pledging allegiance to ISIS while the Sheikh of the Al-Sheitaat calls to resist ISIS. These actions are designed to put pressure on Sunni tribal leaders. Both sides, ISIS and Baghdad, try to convince the Sunnis who is going to win and whom to support if they want to be on the winning side.
Summed up, the Sunni tribes in Iraq do not perceive ISIS as an existential threat and try to profit from the situation, otherwise they could not bargain. They want power in Iraq. Eleven years ago Sunnis ruled the country, now they barely feel secure of Iraq Army night raids on their homes. ISIS is not their primary strategic interest; Baghdad is.
Unidentified Iraqi militants.
For most actors in the Middle East, particularly for Syria and Iraq, ISIS is a threat to their interests but it is as much a threat to their enemies’ interests. Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Iran dislike ISIS, but for neither of them it is the primary strategic concern in the region. As long as ISIS is not directly at ones own throat, the threat appears limited and everyone tries to use their existence and terror to gain concessions. The Syrian and Iraqi governments are directly targeted, but each of them have larger enemies to deal with. Only for smaller groups like the Syrian Kurds, Yazidi and Christian minorities, is ISIS a vital threat.
ISIS is allowed to exist in a realm between all those competing regional powers. As the US is trying to leave the region, the consequences of the Arab spring have been overtaken by the struggle for regional dominance between Saudi-Arabia and Iran as well as Turkey as the new player in the region since it changed its approach to foreign policy. It is no coincidence that ISIS physically exists between the Iran-friendly capitals Damascus and Baghdad in the West and East and Sunni backers Turkey and Saudi-Arabia in the north and south. Their powers neutralize each other in Deir Az-Zor (Syria) and Niniveh (Iraq), right were ISIS has its stronghold.
Thus, the defeat of ISIS is not so much dependent on the tactical capabilities of the Iraqi Army, but on a shift in regional power politics. Some of the scenarios that could through political chain reactions lead to a coalition that destroys ISIS:
- ISIS attacks Turkey;
- Fall of Assad regime in Syria through FSA/NC;
- Defeat of armed opposition by Assad regime;
- Iran ends support for Assad (e.g. refocus of foreign policy after regime change or bankruptcy);
- Refocus of the US to Middle East;
- ISIS captures Baghdad.
ISIS might well attack Turkey again and the next time Turkey might react. Sooner or later either Assad or the opposition will fall, meaning option two and three might take years but one will essentially come. In between the larger players it is more likely that Iran is afraid of raising costs and has to cut its support than the US running out of air strike capacity and the ability to shape alliances. The capture of Baghdad is unlikely, but war is always unpredictable. However, more gains by ISIS will mean that all actors have to recalculate the balance of power in Iraq. Capturing Baghdad means that Kurds and Sunni tribal leaders will probably align to counter the growing threat of ISIS.
Eventually, none of these scenarios is likely in the short run. Thus, the most probable alternative is that a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army supported by US intelligence and air strikes will push ISIS back further. Once ISIS is being pushed back, the Sunni tribes will join the fight against ISIS to be on the winning side. However, none of those players want to be dragged into the Syrian war. Therefore, ISIS will survive in Syria, where it has ever since 2007. For the time being, until the geostrategic situation in Syria and Iraq changes, it is a product of those crises, even fueled by them. Unless the Syrian civil war ends and Iraq finds a new modus vivendi there will always be a safe haven for the group or its successor by name.
To close with the strategic view that has been at the start of this series we should not forget that in order to strike ISIS in Syria the US might want to have the invitation of the government – by all accounts still Assad – or a UN mandate to intervene. Just hours after the first US air raids in Syria Russia’s foreign minister has questioned the legality of those, another issue of tension amongst the US and Russia these days. The second round of strikes was directed against ISIS’ oil infrastructure, which Assad wanted to retake intact or at least buy supplies form there. The prompt public critique from Russia, an Assad ally, is the consquence. Thus, three rounds of US air strikes in Syria are not the end of the strategic conundrum over how much to do against ISIS in Syria, they are only the beginning. The Chinese will not actively work against a crisis where they have only marginal interests and the US is pinned down instead of free to manoeuvre assets towards Asia-Pacific. The regional as well as the strategic powers’ constellation still opens a window of opportunity in which the Islamists can survive.
For the time being: ISIS is here to stay.