Originally Published 2014-06-17 07:32:46 Published on Jun 17, 2014
To arrest the spread of brutal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the US must go in with a limited military mission, thus aiding the process of bringing stability in Iraq and the region at large. However, it should not look at staying in Iraq for a long haul.
Dangers of the ISIS push in Iraq
"Iraq is fast descending into a huge crisis. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an off-shoot of Al Qaeda, has made quick progress in capturing most of the western and northern cities of Iraq. Even though Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS, was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, the movement appears to have gained a great deal recently after establishing control over much of eastern Syria and now moving at a frightening pace into Iraq. Latest reports talked about the ISIS advancing to the outskirts of Baghdad, barely 45 minutes away from the capital. The UN human rights head Navi Pillay characterized the ISIS’ "apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions" as near "war crimes."

ISIS is primarily a Sunni radical group that took its birth in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time of the invasion, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the ISIS, an Arab from Jordan, had landed on the outskirts of Baghdad with some weapons, bags full of money and a bold idea of uniting Sunni Muslims of the region through war.1 In a limited of time, he was able to build a support base among Iraqis and then started a spate of suicide bombings and brutal execution of anyone (predominantly Shiites and Americans) he saw as a hindrance in his pursuit of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. Driven by Zarqawi’s dream of an extremist Sunni commune across the region, the ISIS believes in establishing an Islamic Caliphate across Syria, Iraq and much of the region.

Though it managed to build some local support within Iraq, the level of ISIS brutality caused backlash within the Sunni community, which led to what was called the Anbar Awakening in 2006-2007. With Anbar Awakening in motion, the Sunni tribal leaders stopped their support for Zarqawi and instead gave full backing to the US forces in an effort to wipe out the Zarqawi operatives. ISIS puts al Qaeda to shame when it comes to their extreme way of interpreting Quran and propounding a far more brutal manner of implementing Islamic law. However, the sense of alienation that exists among the Sunnis today is driving the community into the hands of the ISIS yet again. Even the veterans who were part of the Awakening movement are now extending support to the ISIS with the hope that the regime in Baghdad that is "corrupt" and "repressive" is defeated.

A major chunk of ISIS funding appears to have come from wealthy private donors in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are supposedly US allies. It is reported that the ISIS has been able to take advantage of loopholes that exist in the anti-money laundering policies in these countries.2 In the recent years, Kuwait appears to have become the financing hub for many anti-Shiite groups. Despite the US Treasury Department being in the know-how of such developments, there has been very little that has been done to deal with this situation. The US has not been particularly successful in impressing upon the Gulf leaders on this point. Meanwhile, the US has lost its credibility to some extent with President Obama not able to carry through the red line that he had set on the issue of Syrian use of chemical weapons.

Many regional experts and officials claim that the ISIS has been able to take full advantage of the worsening Sunni-Shia relations, having been able to win the support of Sunni tribal leaders. The anger and bitterness among the Sunni population towards the Shiite government in Baghdad is something that has worked in favour of the ISIS. Whether and how long this tactical deal between the ISIS and the Sunni tribes will last is a question, though. The brutality and the future plans of the ISIS may not be palatable to the Sunni tribes in the long term.

There are doubts amongst American analysts about the US role in the current crisis. Daniel Pipes, a prominent US scholar and analyst, was categorical (back in 2006) in saying that the West, including the US "cannot be tasked with resolving Sunni-Shiite differences, an abiding Iraqi problem that only Iraqis themselves can address." While this makes sense as a general sentiment, the situation is significantly different today. However, Pipes’ advice against any intervention by the West may not hold today. He had argued that "This is basically a Middle Eastern problem, and outside powers should aim to protect their own interests, not solve the Middle East’s crises. Tehran, not we, should fight ISIS." While Iran may have a more direct interest in the affairs of Iraq, particularly in the current crisis, the West cannot shun the thousands of foreigners fighting alongside the ISIS. More than 2000 Europeans are reportedly fighting in Syria and at least some are returning to Europe to take up fight against the West. The instance of a Frenchman involved in the shooting at the Brussels Jewish museum in May 2014 is a case in point. The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, is believed to have been trained in Syria for over a year and had joined many jihadist terrorist groups there. There are also several Americans fighting alongside the ISIS. A Forbes report highlighting this aspect said, "At least 15 Somali-American men from Minnesota have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group not only fights in Syria, but also recently captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul (115 km from the border between Iraq and Syria) and Tikrit (323 km from the border). The group does not recognize international borders and has a presence ranging from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad."

The debate on whether the US should get engaged in the current conflict is wide open. There are arguments on both sides, bringing out the pros and cons. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement said that the President has every option including airstrikes on the table. It has also been reported that diplomats from both Iran and the US have had discussions regarding possible options in order to arrest the ISIS’ advance. Sections of the US Congress and the retired military officials have underlined the importance for the US to get involved in Iraq in order to bring about a semblance of stability in Iraq. General Paul Eaton, who was responsible for training Iraqi security forces, went to the extent of saying that Iran would be a "natural ally" in the campaign against the ISIS. Characterising the current crisis in Iraq as possibly the worst national security that the US has faced since the 9/11 attacks, Senator Lindsey Graham argued that the US must engage Iran in developing coordinated options in dealing with the situation. However, he made a distinction to say, "I don’t want Iran to dominate Iraq. And that’s where they’re headed. ... Don’t have the Iranians save Baghdad. Let us save Baghdad, so there will be a chance at a second government."

These are clearly no easy options for the US. However, the US should not look at staying in Iraq for a long haul. The US must go in with a limited military mission to arrest the spread of ISIS, thus aiding the process of bringing stability in Iraq and the region at large.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

1 For a detailed narrative on the origin and activities of the ISIS, see Joby Warrick, "ISIS, with Gains in Iraq, Closes In OnFounder Zarqawi’s Violent Vision," Washington Post, June 14, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/isiss-gains-in-iraq-fulfill-founders-violent-vision/2014/06/14/921ff6d2-f3b5-11e3-914c-1fbd0614e2d4_story.html.

2 For details on ISIS’ source of funding, see Josh Rogin, "America’s Allies are Funding ISIS," The Daily Beast, June 14, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/14/america-s-allies-are-funding-isis.html.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

Read More +