Canberra 18 November 2014

[This is the first part of a two-part series analysing the on-going conflict in the Middle East]


The world is continuing to look at the Islamic State (IS) as yet another, and admittedly more potent, terrorist or ‘jihadi’ network. This is a rather simplistic view since the current conflict in the Middle-East cannot be equated with a fight against a terrorist organisation by the rest of the civilised world. The IS is different—it wants to create a state and rule it; followed by world domination and its overarching strategy is oriented towards this ultimate aim. The declaration of a Caliphate, in line with this objective, has brought the IS fame (could be termed notoriety), funding, and a flow of foreign fighters willing to die for the cause. The IS has also created physical infrastructure that can be, and have been, targeted. It is time for the world to review the character of the IS and devise a strategy that has better chances of winning than the one that is currently being followed.

What is the Islamic State?

The group calling itself Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham, or Daesh for short in Arabic and known to the outside world as ISIS, ISIL or simply as IS, is a serious threat to regional stability that, if not degraded and ultimately destroyed, has the potential to destabilise the entire world. The IS fighters, who cannot be dignified by the term soldiers, are highly motivated and unified under one command, being led by the self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, Abu Bakr is also considered a divisive force within the jihadi forces because of his insistence that the IS is the only legitimate group carrying forward the Islamic ideology. The immediate aim of the IS is to remove the Shia dominated regimes in both Iraq and Syria and carve out a new state—the Caliphate—in the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. In order to achieve this aim, they employ extremely brutal tactics in the bloody battles they are fighting to initially dominate the Middle East for power and profit and thereafter to attack nations—such as the US, UK, Europe, China, Russia, and a host of others—that they perceive as having impinged on the practice of Islam as they see it.

The IS started as the most prominent Sunni radical group and gradually subsumed a number of the other Sunni insurgent groups that had been operating in Iraq and Syria for some time. It today forms the core of the Sunni insurgency. In the initial stages of the IS coming to the fore, it derived support from Iraqi Sunnis concentrated around the Anbar province and now controls the same areas that had rebelled against Baghdad in 2006-07. In 2007, the Shia-Sunni sectarian violence was contained after a great deal of negotiations and through the unorthodox method of providing substantial financial assistance to the dissatisfied and disenfranchised Sunni tribes. In Syria, some members of the Free Syrian Army who were initially supported by the US is now siding with the IS. The IS currently is estimated to have around 30,000 fighters and is a highbrid group—part insurgent using terrorist tactics and part state-building machinery operating in the territories that have been overrun. These actions have created violent turmoil in the Trans Tigris-Euphrates heartland of Islam.

The IS subscribes to a particularly puritanical belief regarding the practice of Islam, considering all other groups not followers of the true faith. Further, as part of its ideology the IS also provides an alternative to the current world order, which it views as a Western imperialistic hegemony. This is one of the most attractive propositions that the IS puts forward for would-be recruits to the cause. This being the case, the final solution to the IS has to come from within the Islamic religion and its adherents. External interference in this struggle for legitimacy and control of the Middle-East will be disliked by all concerned, not only the IS. The factor of external, especially Western-led, interference in what is perceived as issues within the religion was one of the major reasons for the IS to have risen from the ashes in the wake of the withdrawal of Western forces from Iraq in 2011—the second major mistake in the Second Iraq War. The first major mistake was the 2003 invasion of the country itself, which destabilised the entire region because it removed a stable government that was effective in suppressing zealous extremism without creating an equally efficient alternative government.

There is a basic conundrum in understanding the IS and what it stands for in terms of the Middle-East. The IS is not an aberration as some analysts have been propounding, it is an inherent part of the emerging political scene of the Middle-East. In both Iraq and Syria, IS is a Sunni-led insurgency using terrorist tactics for the time being in the pursuit of clear political objectives. Treating the group as a terrorist organisation and trying to contain them with anti-terror strategies will be the biggest mistake that the Western coalition could make. The basic distinction between terrorists and insurgents is in the fact that terrorists normally do not have open popular support and the minimum support that they garner is almost always coerced. In the case of the IS, they are seen as fighting oppressive and unpopular regimes in both Iraq and Syria and has managed to get a great deal of popular political support from the disgruntled Sunni population in both the countries. In Iraq the Sunnis are a minority who had been ruling a Shia majority population, whereas in Syria the Alawites, an offshoot Shia group has been dominating a predominantly Sunni population. Both situations are ripe for the picking and the IS has been the catalyst for the uprising.

In Iraq, the Sunnis who discontinued the rebellion that erupted in 2006, have not forgotten that the promises that were made to quell the uprising have not been delivered even now. This makes the US intentions in the current conflict suspect in their eyes and they are sceptical about the veracity of US commitment to a lasting solution. The current situation is an automatic follow-on of the unfinished business of 2006. The only difference is that the Sunnis now have a ruthless champion of their cause in the IS. That the extreme kind of Islamic faith the IS subscribes to will not be welcome in most moderate Sunni families is beside the point, as is the fact that the very same IS will in turn devour the more private Sunni Islam followers. For now the hatred for the Shia rulers trumps all other considerations.

The Other Major Participants

Other than the US and its Western allies, and the IS and other radical Sunni Islamist groups, there are four other factions that are involved in the on-going conflict—the Shiite alliance; traditional Sunni nations; the Kurds; and Israel. Each of these factions have their own agenda and have a different end-state to the conflict in mind, and none of them are the same as those of the US and its Western allies.

The Shiite Alliance

The fundamental underpinning of this group, not an alliance as yet, is that they are opposed to the Sunni Islamists, led by the IS. The three major players in this group are Bashar al-Assad led Syria, the Shiite regime in Iraq and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The three are critically linked through Iran, who is the ultimate patron of all of them. At the moment, this group is on the back foot, forced to be on the defensive even with the Western coalition fighting the IS and thereby indirectly supporting the Shia base. Iran’s priority is to preserve the existing Shia regimes so that its influence in the Middle-Eastern political scenario is not diminished. The ethnic division between the Shiite Persians and the predominantly Sunni Arabs lies at the root of this divide and it is highly unlikely that this division will be overcome or even temporarily papered over. Irrespective of the outcome of the current struggle, the Shia-Sunni Persian-Arab conflagrations will continue in the Middle-East. In these conditions, peace is just another word to be bandied about at the will and fancy of political leaders.

In addition to the three major players, a Shiite militia has also emerged in Iraq. When the Iraqi army dissolved at the initial onslaught of the IS, it was the Shiite militia that stepped up to shoulder the brunt of the fighting. For the immediate future the Iraqi Government needs them to hold back the IS, since rebuilding a credible army is bound to be a long drawn process. The militia now number in the tens of thousands and have been lately credited with some battlefield victories. They have made a vital contribution to saving the entire nation from being overrun and have become a strong and voluble element within the Shiite coalition. There have been reports that the Shiite militia has become as brutal in their reprisals against the IS fighters. Although these accusations have been brushed aside by the Iraqi government as aberrations that happen in war, in reality it is an indication of the way things will turn when the fighting intensifies further. The local population view the Militia with admiration tinged with some amount of fear regarding their no-holds-barred fighting ability. It will be interesting to watch the evolution of this cadre within Iraq as and when the official military force comes back into the fray. It could be that by then the Shiite militia would have become much stronger than the military forces could ever hope to be and may have transformed into a state within a state. Further destabilisation of Iraq will be the natural follow-on.

Traditional Sunni Nations

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf nations can be clubbed under the head of ‘traditional’ Sunni nations, especially since they seem to have at least one common aim, amongst other disparate ones—to curb the rise of Iranian power and influence. Along with the passionate hatred for Iran, the three major nations are also jockeying for power and influence to assume the regional leadership. The power struggle is intense. An underlying current of mistrust is noticeable in the dealings between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Egypt claims the traditional Arab leadership role although in the past decade or so when the nation has been in political turmoil, Saudi Arabia has tried to usurp the role through different means. Saudi ambition to become the overarching political power in the Arab world is nakedly visible. Towards this send, they supported the overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and provides sufficient backing to the al-Sisi regime for it to stay in power. Essentially the turmoil in Egypt has to a large extent been perpetuated by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. At the moment there is a tacit and informal, if reluctant, acceptance of the Saudi leadership role, especially after the IS came into the fray in such a forceful manner. Whether these nations accept it or not, there is no gainsaying the fact that the core of the IS was formed by their miscalculations and their blind support for anti-Shia forces in Iraq and Syria. They created uncontrollable, and unbelievably, evil forces that now threaten their own existence, once again a fact that seems to have slipped the notice of the Arab leadership. Duplicity in their dealings with the IS is open for all to see.

For Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, the primary aim is still the degradation of Iranian influence and power. Their joining the coalition against the IS is therefore a blatant opportunistic and self-serving move, not motivated by any altruistic motives or in acknowledgment of their role in creating the monster. They are at best unreliable partners in the fight against the IS and the Western coalition will do well to accept this reality for what it is—the essence of realpolitik, even if it is an extremely short-sighted policy on the part of the Arabs. Turkey’s attitude to the conflict is a case in point.

Turkey has two fundamental objectives—it wants to establish a client State in Syria, which will then be act as a buffer between itself and the Arab States; and it wants to keep Arab politics at arm’s length from its own. However, recent events do not point towards either of these objectives eventuating. Even when the Assad regime is removed, which itself may not take place in the near future, it is highly unlikely that Syria will settle down into a state of tranquillity. Further, irrespective of the hue of the next ruling system in Syria, it will not play second fiddle to Turkey, considering the manner in which Turkey has so far behaved. On the other hand, Turkey’s reluctance to participate actively in the coalition will perhaps only be overcome if direct action to remove the Assad regime is initiated by the coalition. The coalition will not initiate any such action.

Other than for permitting a group of Iraqi Kurdish Pershmerga forces to transit through their country to join the fight for Kobane, the Turks have so far only complained about what is not being done while not contributing anything themselves. They have not initiated any action to bring their considerable resources, both military and financial, to bear in a positive manner to contain the march of the IS. There are two fundamental points that come out of the Turkish reluctance to act. The first is that it raises the question of the relevance of NATO. Turkey is a member of NATO of long standing. It seems that although it is reluctant to deploy its military forces in support of the current actions, there is an unsaid expectation that NATO will come to its aid if it is directly targeted by the IS. A lopsided stand if there ever was one. Second is that Turkey has a completely different perception of the threat posed by the IS as compared to the US and its Western Allies. Its threat perception is more aligned with those of the other Sunni nations, indicating that Turkey is not a secular state anymore—it has definitely turned itself into another Sunni Islamic state. This is a retrograde step, both for the country and for the international community.

The current Turkish leadership are all ‘small men’, and for small men it is very difficult, if not impossible, to match words with worthwhile deeds. Turkey’s international standing has taken a beating and now it stands bereft of friends.

The Kurds

The Kurds, geographically spread over Iraq, Syria and Turkey, benefitted from the internal turmoil in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurds had managed to carve out a self-governing autonomous region. This was a State all but in name, having established their own flag, administration, economy and even currency. The civil war that broke out in Syria provided the opportunity for the Syrian Kurds to follow suit and establish greater freedoms and to gradually push towards achieving a similar status as the Iraqi Kurds. Therefore, the arrival of the IS is both a blessing and a curse in equal measures.

First, the blessing. The Kurds are pro-Western secular people and oppose the IS as a threat to all their values. This stance has brought them support from the Western allies in terms of much needed arms and ammunition and other supplies, which had so far been denied them because of the Arab and Turkish opposition to it. Perhaps more importantly there is a tacit understanding of Kurdish aspirations in the West, even if nothing much comes out of it after the current imbroglio is put to rest. This will be history repeating itself, similar to the Western apathy to the plight of the Kurds after they rebelled against Saddam Hussein in 1991. The Kurds have no love lost for the governments of either Iraq or Syria in their current iterations, and their primary aim is the creation of a Greater Kurdistan, independent of the three countries where their people are spread. This is at variance with the objectives of the Western coalition.

Second, the curse. Before the emergence of the IS, the Kurds had the greatest chance that they ever had in centuries of creating an independent Kurdistan, their long-cherished dream. The IS now aims to destroy that dream and the Iraqi Kurdistan, which at least now forms the core of the Kurdish dream, is under direct threat. Earlier in the fray, the Kurdish capital Erbil was almost completely overrun and was saved in the brink of time only by US military intervention. In Syria the IS has overrun a number of Kurdish villages and completely destroyed them. From being on the verge of creating their own nation, the Kurds are now fighting for their very survival—the pendulum has swung fully in the other direction rather rapidly.


Israel has not taken any direct action in this conflict and it is certain that they will not become part of the coalition against the IS. Fundamentally, like in both the preceding Iraq Wars, the Arab coalition members will not permit Israel to be part of it and the US needs all the assistance that it can get from the Arab States, at least for the moment. It is a paradox of political reality that while Israel has a large stake in the outcome of this conflict, it is destined to be onlookers from the sidelines. Israel’s ultimate aim is to dismantle the Iran-Syria nexus that it views as a direct threat to the nation’s security. Further, Israel’s long term strategy is to ensure the decline of Iranian influence in the Middle-East and to break the geographic continuity of the Shiite crescent that has been formed through the patronage afforded by Iran. If previous history is anything to go by, it is seen that Israel very seldom alters its long term security objectives and therefore these objectives will continue to influence Israeli strategy and attitude towards the current conflict.

If the IS manages to establish even the beginnings of a rudimentary ‘state’, they will initiate action against Israel in whatever manner they can. This will create a further security problem for Israel. The second element that will influence Israel’s future actions is the status with which Iran emerges from the conflict. If Iran happens come out stronger at the end of this struggle, whenever that may be, there is a high probability of it becoming a nuclear power. This situation is anathema to Israel and their reaction to such a development cannot be predicted. An Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out, although the likelihood is low. Israel is the wild card in this fight.

The Middle East currently faces progressive erosion of its stability and the ultimate collapse as a coherent entity. This challenge is, at least for the time being, not being addressed by the only nations that could stem the tide—the regional Arab countries that still function as States. Unfortunately these Islamic States are all under autocratic dynastic rule. If they have to be effective in defeating the IS and want to stand up and be counted, they will have to institute the necessary reforms in their respective countries in order to move forward towards more representative rules. If such actions are not initiated, the military defeat of the IS as known today will only spawn another equally virulent group that will carry on the conflict.

[Continued in Part II: The US-led Coalition] 

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2014]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “DECIPHERING THE FIGHT AGAINST THE ISLAMIC STATE Part I: The Major Participants”

  1. Thnk you for this comprehensive article, I’ve been trying (in vain) to piece things together for a while. We must get this circulating so the level of conversation can improve.

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