The battle to halt the rapid expansion of the Islamic State now informs both regional politics and Western foreign policy in the Middle East.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has replaced Israel at the top of Washington’s agenda — alongside oil.
It was only when the IS threatened to overrun Arbil that the US took the decision to intervene militarily. To date, this has consisted of just short of 100 air strikes since 8 August, either directly targeting Isil convoys or providing air cover to Kurdish Peshmerga forces attacking Isil troops and installations on the ground.
Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, is home to around 5,000 Americans employed either by the city’s large US Consulate or the eleven US oil companies who have been tapping the region’s extensive oilfields since the 2003 invasion. In all, there are 26 Western oil companies operating in Kurdistan (as compared to three Iraqi companies).
The American intervention has seen instant results, with Isil retreating from territory it controlled round Arbil. Most significantly, the strategically important Mosul Dam was wrested from Isil after a fierce battle. The militants had threatened to blast the dam which would have had catastrophic results, potentially annihilating half a million people.
However, the US and its allies should not rejoice too early. Like Al Qaida, Isil retreats swiftly from an unwinnable battle, redeploying its energies elsewhere — in this case, to expand the other half of its ‘Caliphate’, Syria.
Under intense bombardment by Isil, Tabqa — the last outpost of the Bashar Al Assad regime in Raqqa province — fell on Sunday. Isil forces overran the city and the nearby Syrian air force base, where they seized Manpads (Man Portable Air Defence Systems) which are capable of bringing down not only drones and helicopters, but fighter planes.
Isil is now advancing on Aleppo, and has already seized a number of towns and villages north of Syria’s second-largest city following fierce battles with other rebel forces including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Saudi-sponsored ‘moderate’ Islamic Front. Isil has demonstrated that it is now the biggest, and strongest, of the forces fighting the Al Assad regime.
Regional and Western military advisers concur that Isil has to be tackled in Iraq and Syria simultaneously, and that, ultimately, air strikes alone will not suffice. In similar campaigns in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, personnel on the ground have directed drone and fighter plane strikes.
This leaves the US in a very awkward situation. Whereas just one year ago, Obama was on the brink of striking the Al Assad regime, he now needs its military cooperation — in the air and on land — to deal with a more immediate and more menacing, enemy.
Al Assad’s chance for rehabilitation
Al Assad has long been aware that his chance for rehabilitation on the international stage lies with defeating the extremists and he has played his cards with characteristic cunning. The regime waited until Monday to make its first ever public comment on Isil, when Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’llem told a press conference that the regime is “ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror”. He, however, offered an important caveat: any Western moves to combat Isil inside Syria must be in consultation with Damascus otherwise they will be interpreted as acts of aggression.
The first US intelligence drones flew over Syria on Tuesday, seeking to identify Isil targets. Although the US denies it has sought approval from Al Assad, the fact that these sorties have not met with outcry from the regime suggest that a tacit agreement is in place. Certainly, the Pentagon would not risk flying manned fighter planes into Syrian airspace without permission.
With the whole region in the grip of the most violent sectarianism, the US — whose main regional allies are the so-called ‘Sunni bloc’ consisting of the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey — finds itself in the paradoxical position of siding with Shiite regimes in Baghdad and Damascus to eliminate the Sunni, Salafi, extremist Isil.
The ‘Sunni bloc’ is similarly challenged as the imperative to unseat Al Assad is replaced by the pressing necessity to quash Isil. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministers of the ‘Arab Friends of Syria’ met for an emergency summit in Jeddah, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia putting aside their recent differences in order to tackle this more immediate problem.
As well as the territorial threat to states bordering Iraq and Syria (Jordan, Kuwait and the KSA), the region’s Sunni regimes fear the encroachment of Isil ideology and politics, and the attendant danger to their grip on power.
Isil is not altogether unpopular. In some Sunni towns and villages in Iraq and Syria, its fighters have been welcomed (for now at least) as outlaw heroes, putting larger, regular armies to flight, liberating Sunnis from Shiite oppression (as they see it), providing social services and subsidising basic foodstuffs.
In addition, the Isil’s gruesome deeds fail to horrify a younger generation which has been brought up on the extreme violence depicted in computer games — until they are on the receiving end, of course.
Like the West, the Sunni bloc governments hoped that the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition would, with limited help, somehow overcome Isil. That is clearly not going to happen; but if they now shelve plans to depose Al Assad — who is widely reviled for the massacre of 200,000 civilians to date — they risk protests at home and the Gulf States will have wasted the millions of dollars they poured into funding and arming the ‘moderates’.
In the black and white world of popularised sectarianism, the hidden agendas of domestic and foreign powers can suddenly be revealed in sharp relief.
The unprecedented chaos and confusion in the Middle East is a direct result of the West’s meddling. It is an immense historical irony that the ‘war on terror’, which has been used to justify so many interventions, has produced the biggest and most dangerous terrorist entity of modern times: Isil.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: http://www.raialyoum.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@abdelbariatwan.