Following spectacular successes in routing government forces and other opponents in both Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the establishment of an Islamic State (IS) on June 30, 2014 to the absolute astonishment of a stunned world.
The IS controls 2/5ths of the Syrian territory and 2/5ths of Iraqi territory. It holds assets worth over $2 billion – cash taken from banks and government treasuries of the towns it has taken over in Syria and Iraq; ransom money from those kidnapped (including almost $135 million reportedly paid by European governments or companies to secure the release of their kidnapped nationals); revenues of about $2 million per day from sale of oil from the four oilfields in Syria and one in Iraq that it controls; from fees and taxes; from funding from entities and individuals in Gulf countries, and looting from businessmen and common citizens in territories that it controls etc. It is virtually self-sufficient, economically and financially. It is very well-equipped militarily, having captured huge amounts of sophisticated weaponry. It has about 10-12,000 fighters in Iraq, mostly Iraqi, and perhaps thrice as many in Syria, majority Syrian, with at least one-third being foreigners, including many from Western countries. The world has not seen any terrorist entity like the IS.
There is no option but to defeat the IS. Otherwise Iraq and Syria will unravel and instability will cascade throughout West Asia with disastrous consequences for the world at large.
Positive omens are emerging in Iraq. The formation of a national unity government is finally under way and once Sunnis start being given their rightful role, objectives publicly supported by both Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sunni population will almost surely reject the IS’s medieval ideology and brutal rule and defeat them as they had done earlier in 2008, in Anbar Province routing the Al Qaeda in Iraq – the IS’s original avatar. The Baa’thist and other Saddam era army officers and personnel who had temporarily allied with the IS are beginning to leave. The IS cannot be sustained without the support of the Sunni population at large. The US air strikes enabled the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Special Forces, who, unprecedentedly, worked together for the first time, to recover control of the Mosul dam, and on August 31, the town of Amerli that had fallen to IS control in June.
Even the traditional enemies of the Kurdistan Regional Government's leader Masoud Barzai, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, pitched in to help, and escorted the Yazidis to safety. The Sadrists, who had fought bitterly against the Americans, have publicly requested US help and cooperation but without putting their troops into Iraq.
Significantly, GCC countries that have in the past, with considerable justification, been accused of financing the spread of Islamic extremism, have finally accepted that this virus is the greatest existential danger to them. It is significant that the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, had an excellent visit to Saudi Arabia last week. Repeatedly affirmed by King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that the Islamic State is now its and the GCC’s preeminent enemy and defeating it is their top strategic priority. A variety of proactive measures have been initiated.
For the first time since the end of World War II, countries that have held opposing views on most regional issues in West Asia are all together, without exception, strongly opposing the IS. There are hundreds of US military advisers in Iraq and more will be deputed; US airstrikes have been increasing. Significantly, traditionally non-interventionist Germany, other EU countries, and Australia and Canada have announced weapons supply to the Kurds. Russia has provided Sukhoi fighters and a lot of other weaponry. Extensive help has been available from Iran – not merely weapons and funds but officers and small units of the Al Quds Force. Iran, for the first time, is supplying weapons to the Kurds. Iran and the US are cooperating although there is understandable defensiveness for both sides about admitting it publicly.
Though there is a lack of clarity on how exactly the US intends to prosecute the war against the IS, on Aug 29, US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly announced intentions of proactively leading an effort to establish a truly multinational coalition of states and entities against the IS and seeking UN Security Council endorsement.
Though the US, French and British leaders publicly maintain that they will not cooperate with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in combating the IS, in due time, ways will be found around current anti-Assad reservations. Meanwhile the US has started reconnaissance flights over Syria. Encouragingly, supplying arms to ‘moderate’ rebels by Western and GCC countries and Turkey is under review as these arms have in the past fallen in the hands of the IS. The Assad regime has also started confronting the IS more assertively.
Having said all this, the world must brace up to the reality that far more brutality, death, destruction and violence in West Asia lies ahead than has already been witnessed as the war against the IS truly gets under way.