Combating IS in Iraq and Syria

Combating IS in Iraq and Syria

8-31-14
combatAs Islamic State fighters continue to gain ground and terrorise and murder whole populations in Iraq and Syria, many defence and security experts believe it will take a complex military action, a long-term commitment and new regional alliances to uproot IS’s ‘caliphate’ from these two countries.
Any attempt to defeat IS in Iraq, however, will also depend a great deal on how the Sunnis’ legitimate grievances are addressed by the new government in Baghdad. In Syria, defeating IS is a more complicated matter as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has also committed war crimes, is still firmly in power and is no ally of the West.
The savage brutality of the IS jihadists – as shown by the beheading of American journalist James Foley and a Kurdish fighter, as well as the recent mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers and religious minorities in Iraq – has shocked the world’s conscience.
The United Nations said in a report last week that IS militants have committed “mass atrocities” in Syria, including the recruitment of children as fighters, the carrying out of frequent public executions and the flogging of women.
It is no exaggeration to say that IS today, which has carried out acts of genocide and does not play by any rules, is the greatest challenge to international peace and stability in the world. A concerted, well-planned global effort is needed to defeat it on all fronts: military, political, diplomatic and economic.
The US has already carried out some airstrikes against IS positions in Iraq, and the mainly Kurdish peshmerga forces, who are now being armed by the West, have managed to retake some lost territories from IS, including the Mosul dam, which represented a strategic victory for the Kurds. Military force alone, however, will not defeat IS in Iraq; there must be no popular support for the jihadists among the Sunnis, who have been alienated by the divisive policies of outgoing Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
This can only happen if the soon to be formed new government led by Haidar al-Abadi reaches out to the Sunnis and is an all-inclusive administration which clamps down on those Shi’ite militias that have been attacking Sunnis. It is no secret that IS jihadists have been able to exploit a wave of Sunni resentment against the government in Baghdad.
Should IS lose the support of the Sunnis and an effective anti-IS coalition is put together, including Sunni tribes, the Kurds, and of course, the Iraqi army – aided by airstrikes and limited action by foreign special forces (it has been reported that such forces from the US and UK are already operating in Iraq) – then IS can be defeated in Iraq.
Although this might be difficult to imagine, the Iraqi government should, when reaching out to the Sunnis, do its best to forge links with former Saddam Hussein soldiers, who teamed up with al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion and who are now in partnership with IS. It is due to this latter alliance that IS managed to conquer vast areas of Iraqi territory.
These soldiers, who formed what is known as the Naqshbandi Army (JRTN), are made up of former Baathist officials and retired military generals. However, divisions have already emerged between the secular JRTN, which does not support the Islamist caliphate, and IS, and there have been reports of shootouts between the two sides.
There have also been reports of a number of former Iraqi officers and Baathists being abducted by IS, and presumably, killed. Should this split become permanent, and the new Iraqi government offers an olive branch to the JRTN (difficult but possible), which it accepts (also difficult but possible), then that could contribute greatly to IS’s defeat.
Of course, reaching out to the Baathists could also create great unease among Shi’ites and Kurds, who have long memories of persecution under Hussein, but Iraq is a different country now, and it is everyone’s interest to defeat IS.
The US and its European allies should also encourage Saudi Arabia, which has influence with Iraqi Sunnis, and Iran, which has close ties to the Shi’ites, to play a constructive role in Iraq. Turkey, too, a very important regional player, needs to play its part in supporting Iraq and defeating IS. Sunni Muslim nations need to make it clear that they do not support IS, and that they will do whatever it takes to combat it.
Of course, the war against IS can never be won unless these jihadists are defeated in Syria. After all, it was the war in Syria which allowed IS to operate so freely in Iraq and which led to the establishment of the ‘caliphate’ in an area covering both countries.
Unfortunately, taking the battle against IS in Syria will be more difficult than defeating the jihadists in Iraq. First of all, unlike in Iraq, the West has no allies in Syria, except for the Free Syrian Army, whose military and intelligence capabilities are questionable. So as President Barack Obama considers airstrikes on IS in Syria, there will be intelligence gaps on potential targets, fears that the jihadists may have captured anti-aircraft weapons and the possibility that the Syrian government may use its air defence system against US aircraft, although I doubt that will be in Assad’s interest.
Taking the battle against IS in Syria will be more difficult than defeating the jihadists in Iraq
Should the international community make a deal with Assad in order to defeat IS? Such a question presents a huge dilemma for policymakers today. There is no doubt that IS presents more of a threat than Assad; however, the Syrian regime has an appalling record in this war and has committed numerous war crimes. A UN report published last week stated that Assad’s government has used chlorine gas in eight separate incidents in April and May of this year. The report also detailed the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian Air Force, which were dropped on civilian neighbourhoods.
A new strategy is badly needed for Syria; however, it must acknowledge that the status quo is not acceptable. Last week, French President François Hollande said the West had failed “to find a solution for the situation in Syria”, saying the consequences were clear.
“Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues without restraint its policy of repression. Refugees continue to gather, their numbers increasing every day, in the neighbouring countries. And terrorist groups are winning more territory – that’s the result,” he said.
President Obama has so far insisted that the West would not contemplate working with President Assad against IS, but there is no doubt that the war against IS has to be taken to Syria. A public official deal with Assad is out of the question because it will give the impression that the West is siding with the Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam) against the Sunnis, and this could serve to increase Sunni support for IS.
Somehow, some sort of equation will have to be reached in which Assad turns a blind eye to Western airstrikes against IS in Syria (as well as the use of foreign special forces), while the international community continues to encourage some sort of truce between Assad and the moderate rebels in order to concentrate on the humanitarian aspect in the country. Easier said than done, I know, but certainly worth a try.
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