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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The stalled war against Islamic militants

THE war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is about to observe its first anniversary. There is no sign of an immediate end to the war, neither to the hold of the militants over a sizeable chunk of land in Syria and Iraq. Despite the efforts to dislodge them through air strikes by Western nations, including the US, the territory in ISIS control remains pretty much the same (the size of many Middle Eastern countries). 
The air strikes caused ISIS militants some setback, and halted further aggressive advance. In fact, experts said that without ground military intervention it would not be possible to drive the militants from the territory they had seized.  But no country was willing to stake ground support, including the US. It was left to the Iraqi government to strike back with the forces at their command, with military advice from the US. 
The core of the problem in that part of the Middle East is not just a weak government in Iraq and an imploding Syria. The success of ISIS can also be attributed to the sectarian division of the area between Shias and Sunnis. The kind of welcome they received from Sunni territories of Iraq such as Mosul and Tikrit, where the Iraqi forces were viewed as oppressors, is evidence of that. But their ability to hold on to the territory and the apparent slow progress in the war against ISIS have more to do with the ambivalence of the countries in the surrounding area toward a determined effort to eradicate the forces occupying the area than the military strength of the militants. ISIS successfully exploited that fear and it has been relentless in promoting its appeal to the Sunnis in the area through protecting them from purported Shiite repression under a Shia dominated Iraqi government.  (In fact, when the battle to retake Tikrit began, a US fear was of reprisal by the conquering Iraqi forces on local Sunnis for their support to ISIS.)
The progress of the ISIS militants in expanding their territory has not been halted by air strikes alone, but also by the role the non-formal Shia militias are playing in this war. And this is largely because of the role that Iran is playing in this war. Iran is now wielding a greater influence in the counter offensive against ISIS, which became apparent in the recent battle around Tikrit. Reportedly, Iranian-backed militants are taking a bigger role in the fight against the Islamic State than regular Iraqi forces. Iranian leaders have been openly helping to direct the battle, and American officials say Iran's Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part. Here comes the great conundrum that dominates the current war against the ISIS, their continued presence and slow response of the neighbouring Arab countries to remove them. 
Iran's increasing involvement in the war against ISIS has brought to the fore the fear of the Sunni countries of a vigorous Shia presence in the Middle East that may lead to Iran's overwhelming influence in a vast territory stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The Shias dominate in numbers in the region but, except Iran, they were in the political backwaters until the fall of Saddam in Iraq. The new Iraqi government installed Shias in powerful places and lifted them from political repression to political control. Unfortunately, this also led to a new political paradigm that reversed the role of the Sunnis from one of hegemony to impotence.  
The presence of ISIS in some ways is counterbalancing the strength of Shia influence and political control in the area. The ISIS is playing on the Sunni fear of Shia oppression and backlash once the Shia-led Iraqi government regains the territories, and Iran's role in the war will fuel that fear. The Shiite militias on the other hand are motivated by ISIS's belief that Shiites are apostates who deserve death. As a recent report from New York Times states, involvement of the militias carries a risk of further inflaming sectarian tensions that ISIS has exploited -- as has already happened in some places where Sunni residents have reported abuse or summary executions by the militias.
The war against the Islamic militants of ISIS has to be viewed against the continuing Shia-Sunni strife in the area. The Western powers who would like to see an end to the militant state and the radicals who control it are caught between their reluctance to see a powerful Iran presence containing the ISIS militants and the implicit support to these elements from the Sunni countries in the area. Restraining and eradicating the ISIS militants and regaining the territory they control would have been easier if the Arab countries in the area were united and lent ground support to Iraq forces in this battle, just as Saudi Arabia did last week to stop the Shia rebels in Yemen. 
The war against ISIS will become more complex if it continues to be viewed by the neighbouring countries through a Shia-Sunni prism and not as a threat to the existence of all countries in the region. For the ideology ISIS is propagating, that harks back to a stern Islamic government, is not what these countries want to be thrown into. This is not what the harbingers of the Arab Spring (albeit deflated now) dreamed of or talked about. ISIS stands against the hopes and dreams that people chanted for in the streets of many of these countries only a few years ago.  

The West and all democracy-minded countries can support only as much as the countries that are directly affected by the ISIS threat want. This can be moral and, in some cases, auxiliary military support. But the real help and effort to eradicate this threat will have to come from the countries themselves. Sectarian strife and mutual distrust based on sectarian difference will only strengthen ISIS and its expansion.  The threat posed by ISIS will remain as long as the neighbouring countries do not work together to fight this.

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