ISIS Threat: Game Changer in Middle East
Andrei AKULOV | 15.08.2014 | OPINION

ISIS Threat: Game Changer in Middle East

On August 11 Iraqi President Fuad Masum asked Haider al-Abadi, the deputy Speaker of Parliament, to form a new government. Previously Abadi had been nominated Prime Minister by Shia parties instead of incumbent Nouri Maliki. Addressing the nation Fuad Masum said he hoped Mr. Abadi would succeed in forming a government that would «protect the Iraqi people». «The country is now in your hands», the President told the new head of the government. Following his nomination, Mr. Abadi called on Iraqis to unite in the fight against ISIS militants. 

Mr. Maliki rejected Abadi's nomination, saying he had no legitimacy making it clear he wants to stand for a third term. He made a defiant speech on July 10 refusing the calls to step down. But his attempts to cling to power will hardly lead anywhere. With the Kurds and Sunnis alienated, now even the Shia majority has concluded that he is not the right person to weld the country together against the radical Islamist threat. The threat is grave, universal and demanding urgent action.

While the events in Ukraine occupied the radar screen, the black awe-inspiring banner of the blood-thirsty ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group, which is viewed as extremist even by Al Qaeda, started to wave over a large part of Iraqi territory. The first generation Al Qaeda militants, trained and aided by the US, killed Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the second waged combat against Americans in Iraq, the third is fighting in Syria against Bashar Assad. The Islamic State has footholds in Syria and Libya, now it has spread its activities on Iraq to declare the establishment of independent Caliphate. Its armed formations are moving close to Arbil now. 

Two months ago the jihadists captured Mosul threatening Baghdad. Shia volunteers responded to ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s call and took arms to defend the capital as well as the Shia holy places of Kerbela and Nejef. The jihadists changed their mind and turned to Iraqi Kurdistan, a quasi-state which has actually enjoyed informal independence for twenty years. The extremists destroyed everything they saw on the way, including Shia and Christian shrines. Around 200 thousand Christians had to leave homes and escape to Arbil. Dozens of thousands Kurdish Yezidis had to escape to the Sinjar mountains. The world faces another humanitarian disaster while Arbil is threatened by approaching radicals. Islamic State fighters have made substantial gains in northern Iraq in recent months forcing tens of thousands of people who belong to religious minorities to flee their homes. The ISIS formations seized Kara-Kosh, the largest Christian populated area in Iraq, as well as Tall-Kaif, Bartalla and Karamlesh, the towns with large Christian population. Reports are emerging in northern Iraq that Islamic State militants have captured the town of Jalawla, north-east of Baghdad, after weeks of clashes with Kurdish fighters. The group has an influx of volunteers from many other states, it’s a real international terrorist organization created to build a Caliphate by launching jihad against the «infidels». According to the Washington Post, «U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted by US strikes, as U.S. officials said.» The estimates predict the Islamic State will increase its strength, «Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS», said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. «And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories». (1) 

The fighting near the Kurdish city of Sinjar is a game changer too. For the first time Peshmerga fighters failed to reach success while fighting Sunni radicals. Baghdad, no matter in conflict with Kurds, joined the fray delivering air strikes against the ISIS formations letting know the differences are forgotten for the time being as there is a mighty enemy to fight together. Iraq's security forces are supporting the Kurdish fighters, and have already delivered a few plane-loads of ammunition. Syrian Air Force also hit ISIS positions to help Iraq in trouble. It fights the group on its own territory too. The Kurdish warriors have high morale but lack weapons. The US has special relationship with Kurds but it never offered military aid until now. It has just begun supplying weapons to the Kurdish Peshmergas fighting the militants. Arming the Kurdish Peshmerga is a significant shift in US policy. Until now, Washington has been reluctant to arm it for fear of accelerating a Kurdish break-away from Iraq. On August 12, Kurdish forces said they had regained the towns of Gwer and Makhmur from the militants helped by recent US air strikes in Nineveh province.

Let me note that while in Iraq Americans spent about $15 billion and many years to beef up the Iraqi regular forces. As a result the regular Iraqi army soldiers got their feet cold upon seeing the ISIS units approaching Mosul. They threw away the weapons and ran away. That’s the result of US efforts to build a new Iraqi army - well-trained and equipped it panicked and shamelessly abandoned the battle area upon seeing the enemy at the distance. Now the ISIS is the most powerful military force in Iraq. As a result, the US Navy strikes the ISIS formations armed with American weapons captured by Islamists from Iraqi soldiers unable to cope with…fear! 

On August 8 the USS George Bush started the US involvement in the conflict striking terrorist positions. The US joined those who oppose the establishment of a Caliphate stretching from Syria to Saudi Arabia. President Obama said he has no plans to let the US be dragged into another conflict. The administration says the strikes are delivered to alleviate the plight of refugees and save people’s lives. True, but it’s not the only mission. There are US military instructors in Arbil to boost Peshmerga capabilities. By protecting American instructors and the US Arbil-based consulate the US actually fights on the side of Kurds defending the city. It cannot leave them alone; Kurds are the most reliable US allies in Iraq. Letting the ISIS capture Arbil would mean the Kurdish Peshmerga has lost the key position to repel the ISIS advance to the north greatly exacerbating the humanitarian disaster which has already become a serious problem. 

The conflict goes on spreading involving more actors. Iran and Turkey are also looking at the events with alarm. Shia-majority Tehran would hardly reconcile with the existence of a Sunni Caliphate on its border. Turks are moderate Sunni Muslims much more secular than the ISIS extreme radicals. The Turkish government is hardly happy to have a permanent hotbed at the door. The situation creep is gradually shaping an informal tacit alliance including Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Washington. Nobody will admit it exists. These countries have a lot of unsettled disputes and differences to divide them, but the terrorist threat is a common enemy created by the US. If it were not for the US 2003 invasion of Iraq, there would be no ISIS. 

Lebanon joined Damascus and Baghdad as it is also fighting radicals. If the establishment of Caliphate becomes a reality then there will be something very important to unite Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia. 

Egypt and Algeria are considering a joint military operation in Libya to prevent the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in their increasingly unstable neighbor Libya, an Algerian newspaper reported on August 10. According to Sunday’s editorial in the Algerian Al-Watan newspaper, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is «worried» about the threats from its eastern borders. It pointed out that Bouteflika is «prepared to wage a war against Jihadists in the region». The chairman of Egypt’s 2014 Constitutional Committee, Amr Moussa, said in press statements that the «mini-states, sects and extremist factions» in Libya constitute a direct threat to Egypt’s national security. He called for a broad-based discussion in Egypt «to raise the public’s awareness regarding the present dangers», and to build the required support for any potential Egyptian decision to «exercise its right to self-defence». (2)

On August 11 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement pointing out that the fight against ISIS's militants must take place not only in Iraq but in the whole region, including Syria. He stressed that Russia supports the efforts of the Iraqi government to counter the «Islamic State» and calls on the West to fight the terrorists not only in Iraq but also in other countries meaning that Syria should be topping the list. Mr. Lavrov has already raised the issue with US State Secretary John Kerry. The Russian foreign chief also noted that Russia provides Iraq with weapons and equipment and supports the activities of Iraq’s regional partners. (4)

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) argued that the US has made the ISIS stronger by being «allied with them in Syria» in an interview on «The Sean Hannity Show.» Paul stated that while there were many causes to ISIS’ strength, he declared «one of the reason’s they’re stronger is that we have been allied with them in Syria we’ve been funding Islamic rebels... to fight against Iranian proxies in Syria, but now, on the other side of the world, we’d be siding with the Iranian Guard.» The Senator blamed President Barack Obama’s policies for the deteriorating situation in Iraq. «Trying to build a country doesn’t work», he added. (3)

The 2003 coalition invasion has killed hundreds of thousands civilians triggering widespread looting, civilian infrastructure destroyed or badly degraded and a wave of sectarian violence triggered on the scale the Iraqi nation had never seen. The withdrawal of American forces at the end of 2011 left Iraq without viable stable political system which would take into consideration the religious and ethnic differences the US failed to address. The US Syria’s policy did not prevent an influx of radicals into the country changing the complexion of the opposition. Now al Qaeda fighters enjoy safe havens there used for spreading the process of destabilization to other countries, like Iraq, for instance. Now the US is facing the results of its own policy.

Endnotes:

4. http://ria.ru/world/20140811/1019623099.html
Tags: Al Qaeda  Iraq  Middle East  Syria 

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