Middle East


Overcoming ISIS: Transcending Sectarian Rivalries

ISIS militants in Iraq.

"We will conduct a systemic air campaign," U.S. President Barack Obama said in his latest speech on defeating ISIS. "What we can do is systematically roll back the organization, shrink the territory where they're operating, decimate its ranks, cut off its sources of support in terms of funding and equipment, and have the threat methodically and relentlessly reduced," he said.

Central to restoring political stability and defeating ISIS forces could well be both the military and political forces of President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. Assad, after all, has powerful regional allies. And ISIS is a regional as well as international threat that requires strong systematic accord among states of the region to defeat.

The ISIS composition is intertwined with the Syrian conflict, where rebels are still working to oust Assad. As with Iraq, the militant rebellion against Assad comprises thousands of disaffected Sunnis. "The war [in Syria] gave them a lot of access to heavy weaponry," analyst Michael Knights wrote recently on ISIS. The chaos of local forces fighting local forces allowed ISIS to secure Syrian territory, just as it secured territory in Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqi troops are deserting each month, many of them swelling the ranks of ISIS. Analysts are referring to these deserters as well equipped and trained fighting forces—trained and armed, that is, by the West, which has flooded the region with weaponry.

Arming locals to fight a political problem has proved disastrous. One reason is that the political chaos of Iraq and Syria embodies profound religious undertones, and dealing with it through sectarian rivalries has manifested greater warfare, radicalized locals, fomented animus and created massive political insecurity. Islamic State is a grotesque outgrowth of that—of prolonged Middle Eastern warfare among locals—and the political consequences for the Middle East are grave.

"ISIS had so far consistently focused on what militants call 'the near enemy'—leaders of Muslim countries like Bashar al-Assad of Syria—and not 'the far enemy' of the United States and Europe," Fawaz Gerges, professor at the London School of Economics, notes. Their appeal isn't simply military. Their cause has benefited from the sectarian policies of the Baghdad and Damascus governments.

In resolving the crises of Syria and Iraq, Western strategists appear to give only lip service to geopolitical institutions of the region. Even with the turbulent Arab Spring, key frameworks exist in the Middle East with the power to transcend ancient religious rivalries, such as the Arab League and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. When asked last week why the United States can't work with the Assad regime and Iran against Islamic State, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said, "Any U.S. cooperation with these countries would immediately explode the coalition needed with Sunni forces." Relying on sectarian foment to realize political stability is akin to fighting fire with fire. The United States is again basing a strategy to deal with a radicalized militia force in the Middle East on sectarian religious rivalries rather than progressive accord.

The Arab League, the Cooperation Council for the Arab states of the Gulf, the Non Aligned Movement, The Shanghai Cooperation Organization—these are powerful political frameworks already in place that transcend sectarian rivalries. And they are being overlooked as a means to realize political strength in Iraq and Syria by NATO and the West. When asked why the region's states can't deal with the Islamic State, Jeffrey replied, "These nations are not united, have different political approaches and require leadership that can only come from the West." The very existence of these organisations and the strength of the ISIS caliphate movement would argue otherwise.

Defense Regulation

Realizing political stability in the Middle East is not necessarily a question of arming locals to fight for it. Overcoming radicalized militias to the tune of ISIS would take more than fostering more warfare via local tribes. ISIS thrives on warfare. ISIS garners weapons, fighters and momentum via warfare. James Carafano, vice president for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., says ISIS armaments are predominantly a mix of Soviet tanks, advanced U.S. systems and black-market arms. "They've apparently taken enough U.S. weapons from the Iraqi military in Mosul to put them in good shape for a long time," Carafano said. ISIS now has rocket launchers and U.S.-made M60 machine guns that go from Croatia through Saudi Arabia into Syria and ISIS, according to Brown Moses, a U.K.-based blog authority on Syria.

"ISIS appears to have learned from many of the mistakes made by terrorists in the last 20 years," Carafano added, and has used that to train its 10,000-strong militia. "You name it—finances, social networking, arms trafficking, recruiting—they are reading the terrorist playbook, and smart military strategy is certainly part of that."

Strengthening the regional framework, however, would enable defense regulation, collective security and economic growth, all of which transcend sectarianism. Regional bodies engender broader political accord. Such accord can empower nascent state systems, as in Iraq, because of the dynamics of a greater political framework. Look at how ASEAN and the European Union have lifted state systems in the South Pacific and Europe. Yet the latest strategy shaping up from NATO to deal with ISIS augurs more of the same—arming locals to fight the problem, this time Sunni Muslims. There is no guarantee of loyalty, much less political stability.

"I am not ready to send troops from the south to liberate Neneveh or Anbar or any other areas. I want the people of Nineveh to liberate their area … and Anbar's people to liberate their areas, and they will be backed by the elite forces," Iraq's newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said at a press conference in Baghdad recently. He is ready to support Sunni tribes willing to liberate their own towns. Fomenting a sectarian backlash could play right into the hands of ISIS. "Islamic State believes that if it can provoke [Shi'ite] Iran into combat, the largely Sunni states from Morocco to Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will join forces with it," Jeffrey said. More ominously, if ISIS manages to manifest great warfare, "this could lead to an even greater threat to regional stability, draw in U.S. allies Turkey and Israel, and encourage Iran and other states to seek nuclear weapons."

Empowering Sunnis politically should involve progressive accord with Shias through intra-state commerce and regulation. All-inclusive political representation is required to achieve collective security and, most importantly, the defense regulation that is crucial for disempowering ISIS.

Already states in the Middle East are forging ties to fight against ISIS. Senior Iranian and Saudi officials met for the first time in a year last week, a meeting on ISIS that the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian described as "positive and constructive." Through Saudi and Iranian assistance it could well be possible to form more inclusive governments in both Syria and Iraq that transcend sectarianism. At the same time, strengthening regional ties would enable regulation of armament channels utilized by ISIS.

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