Ahmed Chalabi, the successful, urbane Iraqi exile, told American officials that the Iraqi people longed for democracy and looked forward to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. He also said there was little sectarian friction in the relations between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Unfortunately, his refined assurances proved to be erroneous after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
Things got worse in Iraq when Prime Minister Nuri Al-Malaki botched the country’s chance to make a fresh political start. Instead of bringing Iraqis from different communal backgrounds together, his Shia dominated government promoted sectarianism and ethnicism. Malaki ignored or violated key provision of Iraq’s decentralized constitution as he strove to centralize financial, military and political power. The virulent backlash from Iraq’s disfranchised groups has brought the country to the point of collapse, almost completely negating the investment America made in the country.
The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is also known as ISIL, IS or Daesh. Headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS emerged as a shocking new force in 2014 after evolving out of the remnants of terrorist organizations that the U.S. forces had suppressed. Although ISIS suffered setbacks in 2015, it remained capable of capturing the cities of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. ISIS has proved able to adapt to new tactics and weapons while at the same time disregarding the lives of its fighters. Its militants view combat as a winning situation, they either capture the objective and survive or die in the process and go straight to paradise.
ISIS is proficient in the use of terror. It bombards targets with artillery prior to an attack. ISIS tortures, enslaves and beheads many of those it captures. Such tactics unnerve defenders, they have caused larger Iraqi military forces to flee as ISIS approaches. ISIS is comfortable in the cyber world, it knows how to use the internet. ISIS has its own cadre of skilled web developers. It uses social media to spread fear, attract recruits and encourage believers in other countries to carry out acts of terrorism. Estimates of the size of ISIS forces vary, ranging from 49,000 to 246,000. The CIA estimates that ISIS fields a force of 20,000 to 31,500.
ISIS can be considered to be a melancholy social movement that cleverly manipulates the inhabitants of Sunni Arab areas. ISIS relies on the tacit support of disaffected Sunni Arab tribesmen to help it govern territory. A sizable contingent of ex-Baathist officials and military personnel is known to be embedded with ISIS forces. As it seeks to restore the Islamic Caliphate to its former glory, ISIS abolished the border between Syria and Iraq that has existed since the end of World War I.
Many analysts consider ISIS to be the product of the instability that has stalked the region since 2011, the sectarian warfare ravaging Iraq and Syria gave it a growth spurt. The apocalyptic rhetoric that has been a feature of Islam since its early days is now being cleverly used by ISIS’s media savvy cadres. This has led to certain amount of organizational tension between those adhering to the concept of the End of Days and those tasked with providing the services necessary to run a functioning Caliphate.
Western governments are struggling to deal with the widening threat ISIS poses. The current strategy centers around airstrikes and support for moderate Islamic proxies in Syria and the Shia dominated military forces in Iraq. It may be time for the United States to admit that both Iraq and Syria are failed states because reasonably functioning states would have been able to prevent the rise of ISIS. Syria is ripped by civil war, the democratization process fostered by the United States in Iraq has collapsed. Prime Minister Malaki’s obstinate misrule obliterated the idea of a unified Iraqi state, Iraqi Arabs are now split by the Sunni- Shia divide.
If ISIS is to be crushed, Iraq’s central government has to address corruption issues, allow the Sunnis to govern themselves much like the Kurds in the autonomous region. Other minority groups such as Yezidis and Christians must have their rights respected. Getting Iraq’s Sunnis to leave the informal coalition with ISIS would put a big dent in ISIS’s ability to govern occupied territory. The fumbling sectarian politicians running what remains of Iraq have to be willing to make changes and exploit the differences between ISIS and the Sunni tribes.
Due to its geographical location, Turkey is a key player in resolving the mess in Syria and Iraq. Turkey and the Kurds have long relationship that is fraught with strife, fear and misunderstanding. Turkey’s view of the objectives of Syria’s Kurds may be sadly out of date. Instead blocking efforts, Turkey should support the Kurdish opposition forces located in northern Syria.
The United States, Europe, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Arab Gulf States are all involved in supporting the various warring factions in Syria. This incongruent group (all members of the UN) has to come to an agreement on how to resolve the scorching conflict that is driving Syria’s population into refugee status. Even if it takes a multi-national military intervention, they have to agree on a plan to transform Syria into a viable, pluralistic state in which Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other minorities feel secure. The outside powers have answer the tough question, can Syrian nationhood be restored? Without it or a workable alternative, it is doubtful that the attraction offered by ISIS to disaffected Muslims can be extinguished.