Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It’s time for a coordinated response in Iraq and Syria

Much of the discussion about Iraq today has been focused on the potential terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Almost nothing, however, is being said about Syria, and how it fits into any effort to reverse ISIL’s gains.

What most governments appear consciously to be ignoring is that there is an organic link between Iraq and Syria. And that is precisely the message ISIL has sought to confirm in its claims to be erasing the borders between the two countries on the path toward a new caliphate.

For Iran, any acknowledgement that the situation in Syria is partly responsible for creating ISIL risks turning into an indictment of the Islamic Republic’s role in the country. Indeed, Iran’s support for Bashar Al Assad’s repression of the uprising against his rule has been perceived as an effort by Shia Iran to bolster a minority regime against the Sunnis.

The American perspective has been somewhat different. By portraying the situation in Iraq as, principally, a terrorism issue, and by failing to mention how the situation in Syria has affected this, Barack Obama has once again sought to avoid a debate over a reorientation of Washington’s Syria policy.

But whatever is done in Iraq can never be complete unless a complementary policy is adopted in Syria. The reasons are fairly obvious. First, eastern Syria has provided ISIL with a vast territory that escapes any government control and that contains oil reserves the group has exploited to finance itself.

Second, with an open Syrian-Iraqi border, militants facing military attacks in Iraq can always slip back into Syria while waiting for the situation to blow over. And given Sunni discontent in Iraq, undoubtedly there would be many opportunities for ISIL to return there, especially as it is unlikely the Iraqi government can seal the border with Syria.

The only realistic means to ending the ISIL threat is to alter the environment in which it is operating. That means, above all, putting an end to the vacuum that ISIL has been able to fill in both Syria and Iraq. On the Iraqi side, it doubtless also means persuading prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to open up to the Sunnis, whose discontent ISIL has latched on to.

Mr Al Maliki was never sympathetic to the Sunni Awakening, the American-led effort to mobilise the Sunni tribes of Anbar against Al Qaeda in Iraq. When the Americans withdrew from Iraq, the prime minister cut funding to the Awakening councils, one of several measures that pushed the Sunnis to turn against the central government in Baghdad.

Unfortunately, Mr Al Maliki is not a conciliator by nature, and the Shia-centric policies he has pursued have had the backing of Iran, the most influential actor in Iraq. Yet unless the prime minister better integrates Sunnis into the Iraqi state, they will remain hostile to him, and ISIL will take advantage of this.

Moreover, Mr Al Maliki’s policies have alienated the Kurds as well, making them press forward toward de facto independence. Therefore the Iraqi prime minister’s approach is only accelerating Iraq’s break-up into separate sectarian or ethnic entities, and this will continue unless he changes course.

In Syria, too, a parallel strategy must be pursued to deny ISIL a separate area over which it has control and in which it can finance its operations. This would involve arming and training Syrian opposition groups opposed to ISIL. Already, ISIL has reportedly sent weaponry and equipment back to Syria in an apparent bid to follow up its successes in Iraq with steps to expand its area of control in Syria. This has to be prevented.

The Americans do not seem opposed to such action, and indeed in a speech at West Point recently Mr Obama declared he would “work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators”. But there are many ways to interpret such a mandate, and until now the United States and its partners have not clearly defined what this support might entail.

The irony is that the American fear that terrorist groups may get a hold of American weapons through the Syrian rebels has already taken place because of the sudden disintegration of the Iraqi army, which Washington had considered reliable.

For now Mr Obama says he has taken no final decisions on what to do in Iraq. There is even talk of American collaboration with Iran in combating ISIL. All this opens potentially interesting doors. However, given US-Iran differences over Syria, there can be no serious prospect of integrating Syria into a counterterrorism policy embraced by the two countries.

It would be a mistake for the Obama administration to take action in Iraq that places it on one side or the other in the escalating sectarian conflict in the country. ISIL’s success has been to anchor itself into a widespread movement of Sunni dissatisfaction, one that has the backing of many Arab states. By fighting ISIL, the Americans may be seen as bolstering Iraq’s Shia community against the marginalised Sunnis.

One way to avoid this is by giving the mainly Sunni Syrian rebels the means to oppose and defeat ISIL and show that there is no sectarian agenda behind American decisions. Dealing with Iraq while doing nothing in Syria will only allow ISIL to survive. It is time for officials to address this reality head on.

No comments: