By Nayyer Ali MD
Since its lightning takeover of northwestern Iraq last summer, ISIS has seen its military situation stall. It wants to be seen as a legitimate Islamic state, but it remains a band of Sunni fighters that have managed to take control of a large stretch of Syria and Iraq, but have not been able to establish a real state, and have no prospect of doing so. Instead, the entire Arab Middle East and the Europeans and Americans view ISIS as a grave threat that must be neutralized. How will that come about though?
ISIS currently controls a stretch of land running from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Mosul in northern Iraq and reaching south to the vicinity of Baghdad. It basically overlays the Sunni regions of both countries. But the dynamics are quite different. In Iraq, the Sunnis are 20% of the population, and have no chance of taking over the state, while in Syria they are 70% of the population and are fighting to overthrow the Alawite-based regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrian Sunnis are split into rival groups and factions, with ISIS made up of the most extreme religious fanatics who also happen to be rather effective on the battlefield taking the lead position for now.
So how will ISIS be beaten back? It is actually two connected problems: how to beat ISIS in Iraq, and how to defeat it in Syria. Of the two, Iraq is much easier. When ISIS seized northwestern Iraq in the summer, it did so by exposing the hollowness of the official Iraqi army, built at great expense by the US, but shown to be a sham force that was incapable of actual fighting and which rapidly melted away. Its generals were mainly engaged in corruption, and many of its soldiers had no interest other than getting a steady paycheck. In fact, over 50,000 soldiers were phantoms, collecting checks pocketed by their commanders but not actually existing in real life.
What saved the rest of Iraq was that the official army was not the only fighting force. In the north, the regional Kurdish government had its own troops, called Peshmerga, that stopped ISIS from advancing, and to the south, the Shia recreated militias that were willing to fight and defend Shia areas from ISIS. Since then, Obama has sent several thousand advisors back to Iraq to help fight ISIS and reorganize the army. In addition, Obama has unleashed the US Air Force and drone strikes on ISIS targets. This combination, of US air power, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Shia militia, and some regular Iraqi army, is too strong for ISIS to resist. It will be gradually worn down over the next few months, and once dislodged from Mosul, will collapse within Iraq. The key question will be what the Iraqi government makes of their victory. A vengeful, vindictive Shia government in Iraq will simply replicate the errors of the last Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in alienating the Iraqi Sunnis. They will see the defeat of ISIS not as liberation but as occupation by Kurds and Shia. This is a political problem that the Iraqis, particularly the Iraqi Shia leadership, needs to seriously address and solve. The Sunnis must be treated fairly for Iraq to move forward as a unified country.
In Syria, ISIS is a much tougher nut to crack. The US has three goals it wants to pursue in Syria: first to defeat ISIS, second to support the Sunni rebellion against Assad, and third to remove Assad from power. These goals are shared by the Saudis and Turks, but they both want the US to focus more on defeating Assad than ISIS. The other major players in Syria, Iran and Russia, who support Assad, also want ISIS defeated, but they do not want Assad to lose. So how to reconcile these conflicting agendas? So far, Obama has limited US air strikes in Syria to ISIS targets, but has avoided attacking Assad’s forces. Turkey and Saudi Arabia want the US to use airstrikes against Assad. Obama has committed to training and arming Syrian rebels that are opposed to both Assad and ISIS, but these are smaller groups with little battlefield presence currently. It is not clear if defeating ISIS in Syria will have the net effect of giving Assad victory in the Syrian civil war, an outcome the US does not want. One option would be to go over Assad’s head and negotiate directly with Russia and Iran. A new settlement in Syria that is agreeable to all parties must be fashioned. It would have to include the defeat of ISIS, a goal all agree on, a cease-fire and end to the Syrian Civil War, and an end to the rule of Bashar Assad. The regime as a whole can stay intact, but Assad personally would resign and be replaced by a figure more acceptable to all. The only problem with this is that any resolution that creates a democratic Syria will result in a Sunni takeover, as they are the majority, and if it does not create a path to democracy but just perpetuates the Assad regime without Assad personally, what chance is there of the Syrian Sunni community living with that in the long run? For now, the Turks and Saudis are pressuring Obama to directly strike Assad, but Obama remains cautious and careful in his approach. There are no good choices in Syria.