The international community must support the local forces motivated to defeat Islamic State: Kurds and Iran.
By Mohammed Ayoob*
In the wake of November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, French President François Hollande declared full-fledged war between France and the Islamic State. The fact is that France had already declared war on the Islamic State in September 2014 when its Air Force joined the United States in bombing ISIS targets in Iraq. It expanded its air role in the war to Syria a year later. ISIS has retaliated with its brutal, unconventional attacks on civilians in Paris.
The response to these acts of terrorism from France and its allies, especially the United States, which has been leading the war against ISIS, has been predictable – intensified airstrikes. Experience suggests that this strategy may substantially degrade the ISIS power, but that airstrikes alone are unlikely to bring the terrorist group to its knees.
Public opinion in the United States and Europe, disillusioned by the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, will not permit deployment of their ground forces once again in the Middle East. Such deployment would also be politically unwise and only reinforce the image of the West fighting Islam, thus bringing more recruits to ISIS ranks. Local allies with capability to undertake ground action must be an essential component of any strategy for defeating the ISIS.
The Middle East has only two clusters of force capable of and motivated enough to target ISIS on the ground: The first is composed of the Kurds, particularly the PYD, or Kurdish Democratic Union Party, in Syria and the peshmarga militia of the Kurdish autonomous territories in Iraq, capable of coordination as demonstrated in the battle for Kobani against ISIS. The second is composed of Iran and its allies, including the Hezbollah of Lebanon and some Shia militias in Iraq trained and equipped by Iran.
Unfortunately, Western support for both these clusters is hamstrung by other geopolitical considerations. Support for the Kurdish forces has run into opposition from Turkey, which considers any acquisition of territory by the Syrian Kurds as a grave danger to its territorial integrity, especially since it perceives the PYD to be an arm of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, fighting for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.
Until recently, Turkey was willing to turn a blind eye to excesses of the Islamic State and considered the extremist group a bulwark against Syrian Kurds expanding their control over regions adjacent to Turkish territory. Recent ISIS bombings in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey have dented this benign perception, and more members of the Turkish strategic community recognize the danger posed by ISIS to Turkey’s social fabric and even its territorial integrity.
In this context, the United States in particular should use its leverage with Ankara to persuade Turkey’s AKP government to give up its kneejerk negative reaction to PYD acquiring territory in Syria and setting up an autonomous entity in northern Iraq. It should further encourage Ankara to resolve Turkey’s own Kurdish problem by resuming negotiations with Kurdish leaders that have stalled over the past year – for reasons principally related to AKP’s objective of projecting itself as the defender of a centralized Turkish polity to attract ultranationalist votes in the parliamentary elections held earlier this year.
Turkey’s policy toward the Kurdish Autonomous Authority in Iraq during the past two decades could provide a model that Ankara can follow in relation to the Syrian Kurds. From being the foremost opponent of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, Turkey turned full circle in the 1990s and become the economic lifeline and strategic partner of the Kurdish autonomous region. Such a relationship has been enormously beneficial to both parties and helped constrain PKK activities in Iraq.
Therefore, it’s not inconceivable that, given American persuasion and the changing political climate in Turkey, that the Turkish government could reduce its opposition to the Western powers coordinating their campaign against ISIS with Kurdish forces on the ground.
Iran for its own reasons – both ideological and strategic – has major interest in defanging ISIS. Wahhabi-inspired ISIS considers Shia Muslims not just heretics but apostates, a position that takes the Saudi perception of the Shia to its logical conclusion. ISIS-controlled territories are creeping toward the Iranian border. Moreover, Iran has begun to realize that the major threat to its Syrian ally, the Assad regime, may now be coming from ISIS rather than the motley opposition forces engaged in challenging Bashar al-Assad since 2011. ISIS must be decapitated to work out an arrangement for Syria in which Iran’s Syrian allies continue to have a reasonable amount of influence.
Iran is the only country in the region with well-trained surplus military manpower that can be deployed to take on ISIS. Tehran is already involved in training and supplying the Iraqi army and various Shia groups fighting ISIS in Iraq. Iran and its ally Hezbollah are also involved in helping Assad against his enemies in Syria. The Iranian military involvement in the war against ISIS would have expanded considerably, in the opinion of this author, had it not been for Tehran’s apprehensions that such enlargement would hamper the beginnings of a rapprochement with the United States, considered by many policymakers in Iran as essential for the country’s economic well-being.
With the Iranian nuclear deal now in early stages of implementation, Washington must recognize its convergence of interests with Tehran regarding the Islamic State menace. Coordination of military strategies with Iranian forces operating on the ground against ISIS, with the US and its allies attacking ISIS targets from the air, is no longer inconceivable. The United States and its allies should consider this option seriously if they want to destroy ISIS capabilities that cannot be achieved by airstrikes alone.
The danger of direct Iranian intervention possibly pushing some Sunni groups in Iraq to support ISIS has been exaggerated. Sunnis in Iraq are generally disillusioned with ISIS and brutal, often counterproductive tactics. Sunni alienation from Baghdad is largely the result of the Iraqi government’s policies and can be overcome only by a major change of course which the government is too weak to fully undertake. Furthermore, a reversal of fortunes for ISIS, consequent upon a coordinated Iranian-Western-Russian intervention, is likely to detract from its appeal among Iraqi Sunnis.
Russia’s role in the fight against ISIS cannot be ignored. Moscow is now fully engaged, not only in trying to save the Assad regime but also decapitating ISIS. This objective has taken on new urgency following the recent downing of a Russian commercial airliner in Egypt for which ISIS has taken responsibility. Russia corroborated this claim by announcing that a planted bomb brought down the airliner. The Obama-Putin meeting on ISIS in Antalya and the coming visit by Hollande to Moscow and Washington signal new coordination among the Western powers and Russia. This also works in favor of Iranian participation in the war against ISIS, with Tehran and Moscow increasingly seeming to coordinate strategies relating to Syria in particular. Therefore, bringing Iran in as a part of the grand alliance among Western powers and Russia is no longer a remote possibility as suggested even a few months ago.
A coordinated strategy among Western powers, Russia and Iran against ISIS is bound to ruffle Saudi feathers since Riyadh considers Tehran its primary regional adversary. However, Washington should be able to control the damage to Saudi-American relations. Given the current state of the oil market and with the Iranian nuclear deal lowering tensions with Tehran, Saudi Arabia no longer has the strategic clout in US policymaking circles as taken for granted in recent decades.
Moreover, it’s time that the Saudis realize that ISIS is but a continuation if not the culmination of Saudi Arabia’s religio-political ideology and the Saudi regime bears heavy responsibility for letting this menace loose in the Middle East.
*Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and author most recently of “Will the Middle East Implode?” (Polity, 2014).