The expansion and barbarity of the Islamic State group leaves no doubt that it must be stopped without delay. On August 12 Amnesty International released a statement accusing the group of “ethnic cleansing” in northern Iraq. The next day, the UN said “all possible measures must be taken urgently to avoid a mass atrocity and potential genocide.” It has since declared its highest level of emergency in Iraq.
As such, it would be difficult for those with the ability to intervene not to do so. However, they must ensure that they do not end up doing more harm than good – that is no easy feat. Taking on the Islamic State group carries great risks, despite the necessity of doing so.
Much depends on participants’ methods of intervention, agendas and goals, as well as reactions and perceptions of them. In this regard there is little synchronisation, and even open divergence and contradiction. The situation is as complicated as it can get.
Middle Easterners are inherently suspicious of Western intervention in the region given its destructive record. Many also oppose Iran’s growing influence, as well as Iraqi Kurds’ territorial expansion and aspirations for independence. That all these parties are involved may inadvertently cause others to rally to the Islamic State group, and not necessarily because they share the same ideology.
After all, its rapid expansion in Iraq since June has been helped by being part of a coalition of Sunni forces that does not share its jihadist outlook. They have fought alongside the group due to vehement opposition to Nouri al-Maliki – who has just stepped down as prime minister – and more broadly to Sunni disenfranchisement since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
France and Britain are ready to supply arms to the Kurds to fight the Islamic State, and London says it is sending helicopters and fighter jets to aid the relief effort in northern Iraq. However, the involvement of either country may bring back bitter memories of their colonial rule over the Arab world – and in Britain’s case over Iraq itself – at a time when some colonial borders are being redrawn.
In the case of Britain and particularly the US, the disastrous legacy of their invasion and occupation of Iraq is ongoing. President Barack Obama seems to be adopting a familiar foreign policy of indecision, contradiction, and making things up as he goes along – none of this helpful to Iraq.
“I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force,” he said, while carrying out airstrikes. He insists there will be no commitment of ground troops, but there are already several hundred in Iraq, and US officials say more could be announced. They say there is no plan for a “sustained campaign”, yet Obama has said: “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks. This is going to take some time.”
He says “we’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq.” Besides the fact that this caliphate was declared several weeks ago, how he thinks he will thwart it with limited airstrikes in Iraq and none in Syria is a mystery. A senior Pentagon official acknowledged that the airstrikes are “unlikely” to affect the “overall capabilities” of the Islamic State group.
Much like his predecessor, George Bush, added to the list of justifications for invading and occupying Iraq, Obama seems to be doing the same regarding operations against the Islamic State group. His reasons range from protecting US personnel and facilities, to helping the Kurds defend themselves, to averting “a potential act of genocide” against Yazidis, to safeguarding minorities in general, to averting the creation of the already-existent caliphate. As if these various goals require the same strategy.
Obama is caught between public wariness of further involvement in Iraq, and those who say he is not going far enough there. There is also criticism, domestically and in the region, that while he is engaging in Iraq, he has not seen fit to do so in neighbouring Syria, where almost 200,000 people have been killed in the last few years, and where the Islamic State group is just as much of a threat. For all the criticisms of Obama’s policy, there does not seem to be one to speak of.
Either way, it seems to have already benefited the Islamic State by splitting al-Qaeda. While the latter has been openly critical of the former, and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting against the Islamic State, US airstrikes have led to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula calling on Islamists to target the US. Iran’s military involvement in Iraq – and Syria – may also be playing into Islamic State hands, with Arab opposition to Tehran’s regional influence running high.
The Kurdish dimension also raises concerns and complications. The Islamic State group may have picked a fight with the Kurds to garner support (or at least lessen opposition) from those in the region – Arabs, Turks and Iranians – who are wary of Kurdish national aspirations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Ankara says it will not get involved in Iraq unless the Islamic State threatens its border.
Of all the various forces fighting the Islamic State group, much – if not most – US and European military aid is going to the Kurds. Furthermore, US airstrikes began following Islamic State advances against them – particularly their capital Erbil – and have focused on Kurdish areas. This despite the fact that Islamic State fighters had been making gains and committing atrocities in Iraq, and prior to that in Syria, long before taking on the Kurds.
A Kurdish referendum on independence from Iraq is due to take place in the coming months, which will likely result in an overwhelming yes vote. Meanwhile, the Kurds have seized on fighting between Sunni militants and the Iraqi army by expanding their territory by as much as 40 percent, including the oil-rich, mixed city of Kirkuk.
Should the Kurds beat back the Islamic State group and hold the referendum, their bolstered military may enable them to fend off opposition to independence or territorial expansion. This may explain their neighbours’ reluctance to help them militarily, particularly compared to the commitments of US and European support. For now, Turkey’s stated opposition to the referendum, and Baghdad’s dispute with the Kurds over unilateral oil sales, are of strategic value to the Islamic State group.
Thus far, Baghdad’s actions have exacerbated the situation, with Maliki stubbornly clinging to power until recently, and his reliance on Shia militias adding fuel to the sectarian fire. Furthermore, the government has committed “serious abuses” against Sunnis, and its airstrikes “are wreaking an awful toll” on civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. As long as this continues, the Islamic State will find recruits among local populations.
Regardless of the extent of foreign involvement, ultimately its demise may depend on whether there is another Sunni “awakening” in Iraq, as there was against alQaeda years earlier. Besides the lack of efforts to support such a movement, its creation will be much harder this time, given that Sunni sacrifices against al-Qaeda came to nothing, as the government broke its promises of integration, wages and other benefits.
However, Maliki’s resignation provides an important opportunity. Sunni leaders have already stated their conditional willingness to join a new government and fight the Islamic State group. Maliki’s successor Haider al-Abadi is also endorsed by the major players in Iraq: the country’s top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US. This may usher a degree of cooperation between these rivals, which will be crucial in combating the Islamic State group.
However, much depends on whether Abadi can meet Sunni demands, end their disenfranchisement and form an inclusive government. These are challenges fraught with difficulty, uncertainty and obstructive parties.