Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Nail in the Terrorist Coffin: the Importance of Achieving National Reconciliation in Iraq

Shica and Sunna
 pray in Musa al-Kadhim Mosque
As social, political and economic conditions continue to deteriorate throughout the Middle East, the need for national reconciliation is ever more apparent.  While much attention has been paid to the civil strife engulfing the MENA region, and the military requirements to defeat terrorist groups, especially the so-called Islamic State (Da’ish), much less has been given to solving the problems underlying this violence.

Perhaps in no other country of the Middle East has the issue of national reconciliation (Arabic: al-musaliha al-wataniya; Kurdish: asht boonaway nishtimani) been so central to the national political discourse as in Iraq.  A true policy of national reconciliation would constitute an important nail in the terrorist coffin. Offering all Iraq's religious sects and ethniocities a place in the political system  would be a sure bet to promote stability and undercut the allure of terrorist groups.

Why, then, has national reconciliation been so elusive in Iraq when virtually all analysts - Arab, Kurdish and Western – realize that it constitutes the key to ending sectarian-based violence and bringing political stability to the country?
Bomb blast kills 66 in Baghdad - the cost of lack of national reconciliation
Part 1 of this post analyzes the factors which have prevented national reconciliation from playing a key role in Iraq’s national politics.  It also examines why national reconciliation may become a more salient issue given the current financial crisis and military campaign currently engulfing the Iraqi state as it struggles to reclaim land from the so-called Islamic State. 

Part 2 (to follow) will analyze the elements which are needed to jump start the process of developing a national reconciliation strategy in Iraq.  This post will not only examine possible changes in the future dynamics of Iraqi politics but suggest elements of a national reconciliation policy which might actually lead to meaningful political change.

To begin, why has there been no serious effort at national reconciliation?  The answer which is often given is the lack of trust among the politicians who comprise Iraq’s admittedly dysfunctional political elite.  That lack of trust, it is argued, is ingrained in Iraqi political culture as a result of 35 years of Bacth Party rule (1968-2003).
The logic of this argument implies that considerable time must past before the different sects and ethnic groups, which comprise the factions of Iraq’s political class, can come together and settle their differences.  What this argument accomplishes is to take politicians “off the hook,” namely it provides an excuse as to why they don’t need to address this critical issue.  National reconciliation is not on the agenda because everyone must wait many years, if not generations, until the trust required to implement it is established.

Barzani meets Saddam in Baghdad
This argument belies the cynicism and instrumental mentality which characterize Iraq’s political elite, both Arab and Kurdish.  The “trust” argument is highly specious as a few recent historical examples make clear.  During the Kurdish civil war of 1994-1997, there was no lack of trust between Arabs and Kurds when Masoud Barzani , the current president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), asked Saddam Husayn to send his tanks to Arbil in  August,1996.

Fearing that his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and its Pesh Merga militia would be defeated by the Pesh forces of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the Kurdish Civil War, Barzani had no compunction in calling Saddam to come his rescue.  A result of Saddam's sending Republican Guard units to defend the KDP was the capture and execution of 700 PUK pesh merga and over 200 members of the opposition to the Bacthist regime and the arrest of 2500 more.

Barzani meeting Saddam's intelligence chief in Arbil, Aug 1996
The rescue of the KDP in 1996 was by the same Saddam Husayn who had used the so-called 1986-1989 Anfal campaign to eradicate 4500 Kurdish and 31 Assyrian villages in northern Iraq, killing thousands of Kurdish males between the ages of 15 and 55, and who bombed the Kurdish city of Hallabja in 1988 with chemical weapons, killing an estimated 5 000 of the city’s inhabitants.
Saddam 's Republican Guards in front of Kurdish parliament, 1996
Nor did Saddam and Masoud demonstrate any lack of trust during the period of the severe UN sanctions regime which was imposed after the 1991 Gulf War as both worked together to smuggle oil out of Iraq in contravention of the sanctions.  In these two instances, power and financial incentives clearly trumped ethnic distrust.
Victims of Halabja, Mar 1988

In explaining why there has been no national reconciliation in Iraq – more than 13 years after the toppling of Saddam – a much more cogent argument is not that politicians don’t trust one another.  Rather the key driver or independent variable is the desire of political elites to accumulate power and wealth.

The lack of trust is not what prevents the Iraqi political class from coming to terms with national reconciliation.  While Nuri al-Maliki was prime minister, from 2006 t0 2014, he was often asked about national reconciliation and why it wasn’t a policy priority.  He consistently replied that what Iraq needed was the “rule of law” (siyadat al-qanun), not national reconciliation.  In other words, in his view national reconciliation was unimportant.  What Iraqis really needed was security. Of course, while Maliki was prime minister, Iraq neither achieved the rule of law nor national reconciliation.

Almost the entire Iraqi political elite is focused on narrow political goals related their own self-interest.  Of course, self-interest is a core motivation of all politicians. However, we can cite the exceptions of morally motivated actors such as Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandala and the Dali Lama, just to offer a few prominent examples. 

But all politicians, if they are not to bring devastation and destruction to their respective nation-states, and are to maintain at least a modicum of legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents, must incorporate some civic virtue into their political behavior.  In other words, they must at least give lip service to civic virtue and engage in a limited number of acts which they can point to as indicating a larger commitment to their community.

In Iraq, there is a core contradiction between two centrifugal forces, which have produced both a cooperative sum and zero sum game simultaneously.  On the one hand, the political class wants to control Iraq’s core asset, namely its oil wealth.  This interest encourages the main Shici Arab and Kurdish political elites to strive to maintain cooperative relations in an effort to work out a mutually advantageous agreement on the production and distribution of oil and the wealth from its sale in the world market.

On the other hand, the two elites which have dominated post-2003 Iraqi politics, the main Arab Shica parties – the Dacwa Party, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Sadrists - and the two dominant Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - are most concerned to control their own respective spheres of influence which are territorially based.  

For the Shici political elite, this area encompasses Baghdad, south central and southern Iraq, while for the Kurdish political elite, it includes the 3 Kurdish majority provinces which comprise the KRG.
The tension between an instrumental support for federalism and a desire to retreat into a “political comfort zone” produces an emphasis on vertical sociopolitical identities and an extreme aversion to horizontal identities.  This explains why political elites are so hostile to civil society organizations, youth groups, women’s organizations, professional associations and labor unions, all of which seek to transcend ethno-sectarian boundaries. 
It also explains why the Iraqi political elite's desire to maximize power and wealth through the exploitation of sectarian identities produces an inherently authoritarian politics.  Sectarian entrepreneurship is incompatible with values of tolerance, political pluralism, and cultural diversity, let alone expansive political participation

As the struggle of power between Arab and Kurdish elites has intensified, each wing of Iraq’s political elite has decided to up the political ante.  Here the cooperative sum game, based primarily on mutually benefiting from oil wealth, competes with a zero-sum game where for one faction to win, the other must lose. This move was primarily motivated by the inability of each elite to cover the massive corruption required to keep their “political machines” functional. 

The seizure of Mosul in 2014 raised the costs of military intervention against Da’ish for both elites, but especially the Kurds who faced a frontal attack on Arbil in July 2014,  The fierce attack was only thwarted through intensive US air strikes.  The drop in oil prices has further undermined the ability of either political elite to sustain the massive corruption upon which it depends to retain the allegiance of countless minions and to purchase the loyalty of its supporters. Indeed, when I was last in Iraq, I was told that as much as 80% of the national budget goes to the support corruption.

In Arab Iraq, but especially in the KRG, the displacement of large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis has created additional logistical and economic problems.  The KRG’s population has risen by 30% since the Da’ish seized Mosul while its ability to physically accommodate this increased population, and economically support it, has decreased dramatically with the steep drop in the price of oil.

Iraq Army 42nd Infantry Division
Another destabilizing factor in the effort to promote a national reconciliation agenda in Iraq is, ironically, the contraction of the so-called Islamic State which has lost 30% of the territory which it controls in Iraq during the last 9 months.  The recapture of Tikrit and, more recently Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province, by Federal Army and Shici militia forces, and the seizure of Sinjar and areas north of Mosul by KRG pesh merga, not only entails costs for caring for the local inhabitants now liberated from the Da’ish, but involves the enormous task reintegrating areas inhabited by large numbers of Sunni Muslims into the Iraqi political system and rebuilding their destroyed communities.

In the short term, the key question raised by the liberation of areas formerly held by the Da'ish in northwestern Iraq is rebuilding and caring for displaced persons.  In the long term, the critical question which must be answered is who will rule the liberated areas.  Will it be Sunni Arab residents, and residents of other ethnic groups, through their locally elected representatives, or will forces from outside these regions, seek to remain in control.

In summary, the effort to avoid implementing national reconciliation policies represents a threat to both wings of the Iraqi political elite, (Shici) Arab and Kurdish.  Their interest is not in promoting  national reconciliation but in maintaining asnd institutionalizing an “ethno-sectarian equilibrium.” However, the conquest of Sunni Arab areas creates tensions because Kurdish forces have attempted to claim parts of these areas to be integrated into the KRG (the so-called “disputed areas”).

At the same time, the collapse of oil prices, and the consequent reduced access to large sums of money to “grease the wheels” of the massive patronage systems in Baghdad and Arbil, has presented who Sarah Chayes calls the “thieves of state” with a huge problem.  The promotion of sectarian identities b y the Iraqi political elite in an effort to solidify vertical political identities increasingly faces serious challenges.

Iraqi workers and CSOs demonstrate for better wages and state services
One of these challenges is the exposure of the Arab and Kurdish political elites diverting large sums of money to their respective political machines by ongoing demonstrations in the streets.  These demonstrations,  which began with the lack of electricity during Iraq’s exceptionally hot 2015 summer of 2015, began largely with youth but have broadened to include different civic, professional and women's youth groups and labor unions in both Arab Iraq and in the KRG.  The most prominent demonstrations are held each week in Baghdad's Liberation Square (Sahat al-Tahrir) after the Friday prayer.

Ironically, the seizure of Mosul was not greeted with as much concern as would have been expected by sectarian Shici parties in Baghdad.  For Nuri al-Maliki and his cronies, the absence of Mosul and much of al-Anbar and Ninawa provinces from Iraqi politics meant that Iraq’s Arab Sunni elite was now without a social base and thus had lost much of its power. 

Had the Da’ish not attempted to press its luck with an attack on Arbil, in which KDP Pesh Merga forces performed very poorly and were only rescued by US air attacks, an equilibrium might have become institutionalized, with the Da’ish being allowed to exist by both wings of the Iraqi political elite as long as it kept the threat level low and did not seek to move to the south towards Baghdad or to the northeast towards Arbil and the KRG.

However, the near bankruptcy of the KRG and the refusal of Masoud Barzani to relinquish the presidency of the KRG, despite having exceeded his constitutionally defined term limit, has led for calls for Arab politicians to act as intermediaries among the competing political factions in the KRG, namely the KDP, PUK, the reformist Gorran (Change) Party and the Islamists.  Once again, the issue of trust falls by the wayside, and does not preclude inter-elite cooperation, when serious power or economic interests are at stake.

There are at present a number of incentives to modify, if not eliminate, the “political economy of corruption” in Iraq.  First, a meaningful national reconciliation program would incentivize Iraq’s Sunni Arab community to rejoin the political game and de-incentivize them to turn to the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups to meet their social and economic needs.

Greater cooperation between Iraq’s Shica and Sunni Arab communities would diminish the number of bombings and terrorist attacks in Baghdad and Diyala Province which increased after the Da’ish was defeated and lost the city of Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province.  Further, the costs of supplying Iraq’s armed forces would decline as would the power of the Shica militias – the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashid al-Shacbi) - which present a threat to the power of the Baghdad Shica elite.
Kurdish women who suffered from Anfal campaign visit Basra
National reconciliation, to the extent that it created greater trust between Baghdad and the Sunni Arab populations of al-Anbar, Salahidin, Ninawa and Diyala provinces, would lower the economic costs, and associated political transaction costs more broadly, not only of armed conflict but of displaced persons because this number would decline as the military balance of power shifted in favor of the central government.

National reconciliation would thus meet the economic needs of both the Arab and Kurdish wings of Iraq’s political elite by reducing the costs to each in an economy which is experiencing serious downturns which, in turn, threatens new forms of unrest, namely unrest based in economic discontent.
Former PM Nuri al-Maliki
However rational the Iraqi political elite views its behavior in promoting vertical sociopolitical identities, how long can they juggle an economic downturn with such behavior?  Once these identities begin to rupture, and groups with horizontally based interests begin to acquire more power – a natural by-product of the national reconciliation process, the political elite - both Arab and Kurdish - will find its ability to maintain its iron grip of politics ever more difficult.

The ability of the Iraqi political elite to initiate a comprehensive national reconciliation process would sound the death knell for terrorism in Iraq.  Terrorist organizations like Abu Muscab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qacida in the Land of the Two Rivers, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called Islamic State would find little support in Iraq if all political factions, sects and ethnic groups felt that had a seat at the national political table.

How the US and exogenous forces might help promote national reconciliation in Iraq is the topic of my next post

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Could the Islamic State threat facilitate an India-Pakistan rapprochement?

PMs Sharif and Modi meet in Ufa Russia
Farah Jan, guest contributor, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, contributed this post on the possibility of a warming of relations between India and Pakistan

The rising influence of Islamic State (Da’ish) in Afghanistan and Bangladesh is threatening India and Pakistan.  Could the threat of Islamic State (IS) unite the traditional rivals? Recent developments and statements from both India and Pakistan appear to be demonstrate serious concern about the threat posed by the IS and the need to fight the same enemy.

Indian Prime Minister Nadrindra Modi’s surprise stopover in Lahore (to wish his counterpart well on his birthday) came at the tail end of his trip to Russia and Afghanistan. The key points of discussion were cooperation on both economic and security fronts and serious concerns about the spread of the IS. India had not publicly backed Vladimir Putin’s militantly intervention in Syria until the recent statements issued by Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

These statements marked Indian support for Russian intervention in Syria. In Afghanistan, Prime Minister Modi focused on cooperation not just with Kabul, but also Pakistan, and emphasized on the importance of Pakistan’s cooperation as a must for Afghanistan’s success. He hoped, Pakistan would become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan.
 Birthday Diplomacy:
PMs Modi and Sharif embrace during Modi's visit to Lahore
Prime Minister Modi’s twitter announcement to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on his way back to Delhi was an unprecedented step. In the history of the two states, neither an Indian nor a Pakistani head of state has ever stopped by to wish the other a happy birthday.

Not to sound pessimistic, these two states are nuclear rivals and any movement on either side makes the entire international community uncomfortable. Modi’s visit to Lahore is a 360-degree departure from his hardline position on dealing with Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi’s visit reminds one of the last time an Indian prime minister visited Lahore and the events that ensued.

That visit occurred in 1999 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan, and it was followed by the Kargil War between the two nuclear armed states.  It was the only time in history, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came to the brink of a nuclear war. Modi’s Lahore visit was followed by the Pathankot attacks on the Indian military base.  If it turns out that it was planned in Pakistan that would illustrate once again that the Pakistan army had not given its blessings to improving relations with India – and most South Asian analysts know which Sharif (Prime Minister or General) is in the driver seat.
Pakistan Chief-of-Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif

The question is, what brought the shift in Indian diplomacy towards Pakistan, for Modi to visit Pakistan? The BJP government obviously could not have changed its minds about Pakistan over night! More importantly what has allowed this re-engagement of dialogue between the two nuclear rivals?

The primary factor responsible for India’s new Pakistan policy is that the interests of both states on terrorism have (to some degree) merged. It is too early to compare Modi’s visit to the historic opening to China and Kissinger-Zhou’s secret meeting followed by Nixon’s visit in 1972, but it certainly has the telltale signs of it.  During the 1970s, U.S. and Chinese interests (to some degree) had come into alignment regarding their mutual adversary – USSR.

Nixon and Kissinger were interested in taking advantage of the changing relations between China and the Soviet Union. Similarly, today India and Pakistan are facing a mutual enemy in the face of ISIS. That said, Pakistan has supported militant groups in the past which has threatened both India and the Indian interests in Afghanistan.  However, the current menace of the IS is beyond the reach and control of the Pakistani government or its intelligence agency, the ISI.  The recent support which the IS has garnered in Bangladesh, and the attacks that followed, further confirm the spread of the influence of extremist groups to South Asia.

Common Interest, Changed Horizons:
 The opening line of the joint statement issued by the Russian Federation and the Republic of India was, “Shared Interests, New Horizons.” Indian-Russian relations are based on mutual trust and a time-tested friendship.  Both states have emphasized the convergence of  their foreign policy priorities and their strategic partnership. In the case of India-Pakistan, however, the relationship is built on mutual distrust and conflict of interest.

While Prime Minister Modi’s rendezvous represents a return to the peacemaking initiative, the road to Lahore was paved in the Russian city of Ufa. Last July, the two leaders met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Russian city of Ufa. The official statement following the meeting called it “a positive development,” which had a “positive impact on bilateral relations at regional and international levels.”

The following day the Indian Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, and his Pakistani counterpart, issued a joint statement in Ufa elaborating on the meeting. The key points issued in the official statement emphasized the need for India and Pakistan to take collective responsibility for ensuring peace and promoting development. They agreed that to do achieve these ends, both states were prepared to discuss all outstanding issues.

The most important feature of the Ufa communiqué was that both leaders condemned terrorism in all its forms, and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate it from South Asia. Prime ministers Modi and Sharif both agreed on steps for the two national security advisors to meet and discuss the issue of terrorism. Furthermore, both sides agreed to address ways and means to expedite the Mumbai terror attack trial, including additional information, such as providing voice samples.
India Youth Congress activist burns photo of Modi after Pakistan visit
It is worth noting that Kashmir was not mentioned in this joint statement and that the emphasis was rather on fighting terrorism. This meeting also created room for a discussion on dealing with the Mumbai trial. Prior to Ufa, Pakistan was not ready to acknowledge the problem of terrorism with India and neither was it willing to discuss ways of facilitating the Mumbai trial.

This minor shift in the official statements issued in Ufa was the result of the two states’ interests merging with regards to terrorism. In international relations, states have both general interests and particular interests. General interests, as defined by Glenn Snyder, concern the general configuration of power in the system, while particular interests represent a state’s interests in a particular conflict.

Fighting terrorism is of particular interest to both Pakistan and India. Pakistan has suffered 60,000 civilian casualties and an estimated $100 billion in economic losses in its fight against terrorism. The casualty figures in India are not the same as Pakistan, but the 2001-02 Twin Peaks crises and the Mumbai terrorist attacks are tragic, and they point to the threat of terrorism which emanates from Pakistani soil.

What is different at this point in time is the global spread of terrorism in the shape of the IS. Prior to the spread of the IS in Afghanistan and South Asia,  Pakistan had to cope with non-state proxies such as Lashkar-e-Taib, which was responsible for the Mumbai bombing, Jaish-e-Mohammed which attacked the Indian parliament in 2001, and of course the good and the bad Talibans.

With the IS pushing for greater influence in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it further threatens both Pakistan and India. Although the IS is yet to become a serious rival to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the threat still looms large.  With Taliban fighters switching sides, it certainly suggests that the threat may materialize further. The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan constitutes a critical juncture which has produced a convergence of interests of the two long-time rivals. Fighting the menace of terrorism has mostly plagued Pakistan, but now threatens India as well.

Moving forward, Ufa was followed by a meeting of the India and Pakistan National Security Advisors in Bangkok this past December 6. Once again the location and the language of the joint statement are key indicators of the direction in which India-Pakistani relations are heading.  It signaled a step forward towards bilateral cooperation on the issue of terrorism, (this time Kashmir was mentioned) and insuring stability along the traditional Line of Conflict between the two states.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was criticized by the local media, as well as the opposition parties, over the absence of a more comprehensive statement on Kashmir in the joint communique.  In this regard, two considerations  should be taken into account  about the Bangkok NSA meeting. First, because it was held on the soil of a third party, the question of bringing the Kashmiri groups to the table was not on the agenda.  Second, the Pakistani national security advisor was retired Lt. Gen Naseer Khan Janjua, thus keeping the military leadership involved and engaged in the process.

The NSA meeting was followed by the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan, where once again the emphasis was on terrorism. After her meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, she issued the following statement, “We said we can talk so that terrorism comes to an end. So talks [between the two NSAs] took place in Bangkok where we discussed terrorism. But one meeting will not bring a solution to all the problems. So we will continue the dialogue.”

On her return to India, Ms. Swaraj was asked about India’s unilateral option against Pakistani based terror groups – similar to the one carried out by the United States to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. Her response was a shift from the saber-rattling BJP Party stance and instead indicating that, “her government was talking to Pakistan on the terror camps and war is not an option with Pakistan… we have decided that through talks we will resolve the issue of terrorism as talks is the way forward so that the shadow of terror is removed.”

Looking Ahead Under The Shadow of Terror:
 Could Pakistan and India really be moving towards improved relations?  The Stimson Center’s Sameer Lalwani has analyzed the strategic shift in Pakistan’s national security policies based on the following assessment: a reduction in Pakistan’s belligerent behavior towards India; a strategic reorientation which involves a focus on domestic threats rather than its competition with India; and an evolution in Pakistani strategic culture – a significant self-examination.  I would argue that time would be the best judge of the last characterization of this change. However, I do agree with Lalwani that Pakistan’s behavior is changing but I still feel it is too early to be assured that it a significant shift.  

In conclusion, we should not expect a breakthrough in India-Pakistani relations following Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Pakistan.  However, the visit did chip away the ice that has frozen the relations between the two states for the last decade. The Modi-Sharif Lahore meeting is mere symbolism, but symbolism which is essential for concrete steps towards change in the two states’ relations in the future.

The shift in India-Pakistani relations is taking place under the shadow of terror, not the terror of nuclear war, but the terror of radical extremism.  A shadowy enemy that is difficult to contain is thus bringing two traditional foes to increase cooperative policies based on enhancing their respective national security. One of the most remarkable and least expected outcomes of the spread of terrorism has been the ability of former rivals – India and Pakistan - to put aside their differences and cooperate on a serious threat to their economies, cultures and, most importantly, stability.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Political Obstacles to the Military Defeat of the (so-called) Islamic State

Soldier holding Iraq flag at Ramadi city hall
Why has it been so difficult to defeat the Islamic State? And does the recent defeat of the IS in Ramadi suggest a turn in the group’s military fortunes?  Will the IS be defeated anytime soon?

The answer to the first question is straightforward.  It is not the IS’ military strength which has enabled it to seize significant amounts of territory and establish a neo-Islamist “caliphate,” but the disorganization and competing political agendas of the countries ostensibly aligned against it.  Put differently, were the US-led anti-IS coalition to come together and develop a unified strategy, it could militarily defeat the terrorist group in a short period of time.

Turning to Ramadi, the defeat of the IS was critical.  Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s largest province, al-Anbar - the size of Texas – and the nerve center of anti-government insurgencies.  That local (Sunni Arab) tribal forces and police joined the Iraqi Army, while the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi kept Shiite militias and Kurdish forces on the sidelines and out of the battle, prevented the victory from being framed in sectarian terms. 
Shiite and ancient Assyrian cultural heritage being destroyed by the IS
Nevertheless, the victory in Ramadi, however important militarily and psychologically, has not changed the “political facts on the ground.”  Unless these change, the complete destruction of the IS will be very difficult indeed.

When discussing the anti-IS coalition which the United States has built, the appropriate term to use is “supposed allies,” because many of the countries are members in name only.  These include, most prominently, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the Arab Gulf states.  While France has become more engaged since the recent IS planned Paris attacks, the EU has only half-heartedly supported the military effort. After the recent Liberal Party victory, the Canadian government has actually withdrawn its fighter aircraft from the Syrian theater.

Aside from the US, which coalition members can best defeat the IS?

Let’s begin with Turkey, arguably the most important player in the war on the IS.   After Israel, it boasts the most powerful army and air force in the Middle East.  Were Turkey to have made a major commitment of troops and fighter bombers to defeating the IS after it seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, there would be no serious IS military presence in Syria and Iraq today.

Unfortunately for the Us-led coalition, the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  considers the IS a minor annoyance.  The status of Turkey’s large and rapidly growing Kurdish population, which is demanding greater political and cultural rights, is a much more pressing concern.  To the extent that the IS opposes the Kurds, it is, to a certain degree, even an ally of the Erdoğan regime. 

Erdoğan was dismayed when the Syrian army withdrew its forces in 2011 from the predominantly Kurdish inhabited region of northeastern Syria.  Matters worsened when the Kurds declared this territory to be an “autonomous region,” under the control of the Rojava (Western) Kurds led by the secular leftist Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or PYD).   

The stable, tolerant and democratic rule developed by the PYD, which Arab, Christian, Yazidi and other minorities  welcomed, has come to offer a powerful example to Turkish Kurds across the border as to what their society could look like if given greater self-control.  

Equally disturbing to Erdoğan are the ties maintained by the main Kurdish opposition movement, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) - which has been engaged in armed struggle with the central government for over 30 years - with the PYD. When, after strong pressure from the US to allow its fighter bombers to use the Incirlik Airbase near the Syrian border, and for Turkey to become more actively involved in fighting the IS, Turkish jets, rather than attacking IS targets, began an intensive bombing campaign against PKK bases across the border in northwestern Iraq.  

When the IS attacked the Kurdish majority city of Kobanî (Ayn al-cArab) in 2014, within sight of the Turkish border, Turkish tanks and troops did nothing to defend the Kurds from the continuous onslaught of IS human wave attacks.  Only an intensive US bombing and resupply campaign prevented the IS from occupying Kobanî and massacring its inhabitants.

Despite Turkey’s NATO membership, and the organization’s call for a robust military effort against the IS, Turkey has done virtually nothing to cut off supply routes of new fighters seeking to join the IS.  Estimates place the number of youth who cross the Turkish border to join the IS at over 1000 per month.  Nor has Turkey acted to shut down the smuggling operations whereby illicit oil, which the IS produces from wells and refineries captured from Syria and Iraq, is sent across the border through buried PVC pipes. 
There are reports that Erdoğan's son Bilal is involved in the sale of IS oil smuggled into Turkey from Syria thorough a shipping company which he heads. Injured IS fighters have been treated in Turkish hospitals near the Syrian border, one said to be run  by Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye.

For Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominated government, the IS constitutes a powerful adversary to the regime of Bashar al-Asad.  Erdoğan loathes Asad and has vowed to bring down the Syrian president as a result of what he considers Asad’s repression of Syria’s majority Sunni population.   

With Russia having joined the civil war in Syria to prop up the Asad regime, and having had one of its jets shot down by Turkey after a 17 second intrusion into its airspace, Erdoğan is even less committed to  the fight against the IS as he doubles down on removing Asad from power.

What has been Saudi Arabia’s role in combating the IS?

If Turkey falls into the category “with friends like this you don’t need enemies,” the US has likewise received little support from another ostensible coalition partner, and supposed regional ally, Saudi Arabia.  The spread of Wahhabism (al-Wahhabiya) - a vicious sectarian ideology which parades under the guise of Islam and denigrates Shi’a, Jews, Christians and moderate Sunnis - has only been possible through the financial and political support of the Saudi monarchy.   

The Saudi monarchy’s support of so-called “schools” (madrasas) – in reality military training camps - in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Muslim majority countries has stoked the flames of sectarianism and violence throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Chechen IS commander Umar al-Shishani
It is no exaggeration to say that Wahhabism is the spiritual source of the IS’ brutal ideology.   Originally articulated by Muhammad ibn cAbd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) in the northwestern Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, the Wahhabi movement soon developed a symbiotic relationship with the local Sacud tribe, which eventually established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The rigid boundaries and Manichean thinking which characterizes the Wahhabi movement has played a key role in legitimizing the Saudi monarchy and offsetting criticism of its close ties to the West through its oil sales to and investments in the US and Europe as well as its purchase of large amounts of American weaponry.   

Woman flogged in Mosul for"improper" dress
In neighboring Yemen, the Houthi tribe which, due to its nominal Shiism, the Saudis consider loyal to Shiite Iran, seized power in 2014.  Already shaken by the US brokered P5+1 Nuclear Agreement with Iran, which it fears will further spread Iranian influence throughout the Arab Gulf, Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia has turned all of the kingdom’s military might to fight the Houthis leaving the US with yet another coalition ally in name only.

What role has Iraq played in the anti-IS struggle?

In theory, Iraq should be the strongest partner in the anti-IS coalition. Ironically, this is not the case.  Many Sunni and Shiite sectarian politicians would be perfectly happy to see the IS retain control over the northwestern region of Iraq.  In effect, continued IS control would constitute a de facto partition of Iraq into Shiite and Sunni Arab dominated regions, thus avoiding the problem of competing two political elites being forced to reconcile their local interests with national imperatives.

In June 2014, the IS seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with two million inhabitants, after a lightning attack in which 800-1000 lightly armed IS fighters defeated 2 divisions of Iraqi Army troops.   Numbering on paper 30,000 men, and armed with some of the most technologically sophisticated (US supplied) arms, the IS military victory shocked the US, the Arab world and Europe (Iraq army capitulates to Isis militants in four cities).

Shock was an inappropriate response.  It showed the naiveté of those, such as members of the Obama administration, who should have known what was transpiring in Iraq.  The efforts of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to replace competent officers with inexperienced cronies to “coup proof” the Iraqi Army was clear for all to see.  These officers, many of whom had virtually no military experience, such as his cousin, stole the salaries of ordinary conscripts who in turn were allowed to fleece the population of Mosul.  

Of course, such behavior created great resentment against the Iraqi Army.  Because many of the Iraqi troops occupying Mosul were Shiite, sectarian tensions were stoked, facilitating IS infiltration before the attack to bribe local officials to help it capture the city.

Once IS fighters began to move south from Mosul, capturing much of the Sunni Arab inhabited area of northwestern Iraq, and approached Baghdad, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issue a call for all Iraqis to take up arms and fight the IS.  While al-Sistani did not intend his decree to apply only to Iraq’s Shica population, many Shiites interpreted it that way and formed militias which became known as the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi or PMUs).

The PMUs were critical to bringing the IS advance towards Baghdad to a halt.  But the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guards units, led by al-Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, disturbed many Iraqis, who saw the hand of the Iranian authoritarianism further encroaching on Iraq’s sovereignty.  Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Arab Gulf were dismayed by what they saw as spreading Iranian military influence in Iraq which they interpreted as part of Iran’s plot to become the region’s superpower.

From a military standpoint, the US now found itself in the awkward position of fighting together with Iranian backed PMUs and Iranian al-Quds Force advisers now on Iraqi soil to help direct the military campaign against the IS.  To make matters worse, the PMUs most closely associated with Iran, such as those affiliated with militia leaders, Hadi al-Amiri an Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were the most effective in fighting the IS.

Complicating matters for the US still further was its relationship to Iraq’s Kurds, who live in the semi-independent, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) comprised of Iraq’s 3 contiguous Kurdish majority provinces in the country’s northeast.   Although the Kurdish Pesh Merga (“those who face death”) were unable to stop an IS advance from Mosul on Arbil, the KRG capital, until US warplanes intervened to destroy IS forces just 30 miles from the city, the Kurds regrouped and have since become central to taking back much of the Iraqi territory seized by the IS in 2014. 

Nevertheless, the US-KRG relationship has hampered the anti-IS struggle from a political perspective.  Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Husayn, Arab Iraqis have resented what they see as special treatment of the KRG by the US government. Not wanting to alienate the federal government in Baghdad, and fearing that it would encourage the Kurds to declare an independent country, the US has declined to provide the KRG with the heavy weapons it says it needs to both recapture land seized by the IS and to defend itself from future attacks.  

In the process, the US has found itself caught between Baghdad and Arbil.  The compromise has been to keep the KRG’s Pesh Merga forces on a short military leash so as not to undermine the sovereignty of the federal government while actively supporting Kurdish military actions with air power and military training and advice.  However, without advanced weaponry, Kurdish forces have not been able to strike any decisive blows against the IS.
Who are the minor players and what is their role in the anti-IS struggle?

Remaining on the margins, Jordan and the Arab Gulf states have never played a major role in the anti-IS coalition.  However, the bombing of IS targets by Jordanian and Emirati planes in 2014 lent legitimacy to the US claim that the military campaign against the Islamic State did not constitute a latter day Western “Crusade.” Following the downing of a Jordanian fighter and the capture of its pilot in December 2014, who was later burned alive by the IS, both Jordan and the UAE downgraded their participation in bombing IS targets.

With the largest army in the Arab world, and the second largest recipient of US foreign aid, Egypt would seems an obvious candidate to assist the US led coalition. However, the Egyptian army is having difficulty containing a local IS affiliate, Sinai Province (wilayat Sina’), which recently claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian aircraft on its way from the Sinai Peninsula to Russia with a bomb.

Where does the anti-IS struggle go from here?

In sum, the anti-IS coalition is really an effort limited to the United States.  Because there is still strong opposition among the American populace to becoming involved in yet another war in the Middle East – a particularly sensitive topic in what will soon be a US presidential election year – the Obama administration is reluctant to commit American ground forces in the struggle against the IS.  For many military analysts, such as Anthony Cordesman, this strategy is like fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back (More Special Forces For Iraq and Syria: Tactical Asset or Strategic Tokenism?)

The liberation of Ramadi
Army rescuing citizens used as human shields
In the midst of myriad recriminations in Iraq, the US and Europe that not enough has been done to defeat the IS, the Iraqi Army – largely a sideshow since the IS seizure of Mosul – was able December 28, 2015 to dislodge IS forces from Ramadi, the capital of the Sunni dominated al-Anbar Province, which had been under terrorist control for the past 8 months.

What was particularly significant about the victory over the IS was not just the psychological value of recapturing the capital city of Iraq’s largest province, but the fact that the military forces which won the battle were comprised of Iraqi Army units, Anbar Province police forces, and fighters from local Sunni tribes, many of whom had been trained by US special forces.

Further, the support the multi-unit Iraqi force received from US air power and advice of US advisers during the week long battle suggests that perhaps a new military model is in the offing.  Despite Congressional criticism that the few thousand US trainers, advisers and special operations forces currently in Iraq constitute too small a force to make any difference in defeating the IS, particularly regaining control of Mosul, militarily, this may not be the case.

The political situation has not changed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  The Erdoğan government has become even more obsessed with PKK rebels and has been tarring all Kurdish democratic opposition groups as “terrorists.”  Saudi Arabia’s concerns are directed towards Iran and Yemen and, with a looming $98 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, cannot be relied on to contribute air power of funds to the anti-IS struggle.
Iraqi Army tank entering city of Ramadi
In Iraq, the federal government looks with suspicion on the KRG which already used the withdrawal of the Iraqi Army from the north in 2014 to seize contested areas, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki engages in activities designed to prevent reformist Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi from implementing any meaningful reforms which cut down on state corruption and improve government services.  Many Shiite politicians who support Maliki’s wing of the Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Dacwa al-Islamiya) fear reintegrating Sunni Arab forces into the national army and police, believing their loyalty is to the ousted Bacthist regime of Saddam Husayn.  With Iraq also suffering a major budget deficit due to the drop in oil prices in the world market, sectarian and ideological tensions have only been intensified.
As Carl von Clausewitz noted, “…in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.  To deflate the IS, the United States is going to have to spend as much time reconciling the political disputes within the unruly and undependable coalition which it leads.
That effort will be extremely difficult. However, to defeat the IS, and the spin-off terrorist groups which it inspires, US policy-makers need to think more about a collation that is political as much as it is military.  It needs to consider the whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts, if victory is to be achieved.
In a subsequent post, I will analyze the impact of non-coalition actors on the anti-IS struggle, particularly the impact of the collusion between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and the IS, the destructive role played by Russia’s entry into the conflict, and the role of Kurdish forces in Syria and Turkey which have been central in fighting the IS.