Beyond IRAQ: Causes And Consequences of ISIS Advance – OPED

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Territory controlled by the ISIL as of June 2014 in Syria and Iraq.

Territory controlled by the ISIL as of June 2014 in Syria and Iraq.

By : Daniele Grassi

It is quite astonishing how rapidly the fragile state building in Iraq is imploding, leaving rubble on which the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) advance almost in disbelief.

The intervention of the United States and its allies had strongly destabilized the political and social framework of the country. The government of Nuri al-Maliki has completed the work, emphasizing sectarian divisions, through a progressive and a more and more apparent marginalization of the Sunni component. The surrender of Iraqi troops is the result of this foolish and short-sighted policy. Huge investment (about $25 billion) in their training by the international community were not enough to set up armed forces able to fulfill their basic tasks.

The breakup of Iraq exacerbates the security framework in the Middle East, with possible repercussions at the international level. ISIS would count on about 10,000 actual but the basin of sympathizers and supporters from where it can draw resources is much broader. Events in Syria should have had represented a wake-up call to policy makers both local and international. The rapid conquest of Raqqa and other territories in northern Syria had already highlighted the great military capabilities of the group and its high degree of organization. In a few months, ISIS emerged as the main opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad, at least potentially. Indeed, the latter has so far been careful from opening a direct confrontation with the terrorist group, preferring to play the card of the jihadist bogeyman to hinder the flow of money and weapons from countries that want his fall (including United States).

However, this was not enough to break the inertia and the White House strategic confusion, again taken by surprise by the events. The threat posed by al-Qaeda or, at least, from its historic core is now marginal.

In recent years, the organization led by Ayman al-Zawahiri has shown its growing inability to exercise some kind of appreciable control over number of active terrorist groups operating in the Middle East and North Africa. The insubordination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the charismatic leader of ISIS, inflicted a serious blow to al-Qaeda, revealing to the world how this group now represents little more than a brand. The success of ISIS could now permanently altering the balance of power in the galaxy jihadist, providing the al-Baghdadi group with new resources to rely on to realize his plans, namely the consolidation of a caliphate that stretch almost to the border with Iran.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Iran is precisely one of the main protagonists of the events of recent years. By exacerbating the confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, Teheran (the main sponsor of the government of al-Maliki) and Riyadh have destabilized the entire region, with consequences that only now begin to show their real severity. The struggle for leadership in the region is underway in other theatres: Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, just to mention some of them. Countries that experience deep divisions and have so far been unable to express a political class
capable of addressing national interests.

In the short term, events going on in Iraq seem likely to push the U.S. to seek an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program with even more urgency and, ultimately, a compromise on the Syrian issue.

Stopping the advance of jihadists in the region represents now a top priority, but this task can hardly be accomplished without the cooperation of Bashar al-Assad. “Moderate” rebel groups appear too weak and divided among themselves to be entrusted with such a delicate mission. Even if Washington intensify its support for the Syrian Liberation Army over the coming months, such a policy would possibly aim at reducing the bargaining power of the Syrian government and its allies than to effectively reconfigure the balance of power in the country.

The disintegration of Iraq and the advanced ISIS are supposedly fuelling a lot of anxiety even in Kabul. The U.S. administration has recently announced that the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will be finalized by 2016. Two years does not represent a sufficient time span for the country to complete a process of effective consolidation of national institutions, managing to limit the influence of many internal and regional stakeholders that oppose these dynamics. On the contrary, these stakeholders could draw an important lesson from the events going on in Iraq, reinforcing their belief that pursuing their own partisan interests represent the
best option on the table. The U.S. disengagement from the region constitutes, for example, a strong disincentive for Pakistan to end its policy of supporting terrorist groups active in the country, still regarded as an essential tool of influence, a real foreign policy asset.

Therefore, in the coming years, Afghanistan could slip back into a state of absolute chaos, a harbinger of new conflicts and further threats to international security.

In the future, historians will probably read in the advance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his men another sign of the declining power of the United States, a country more and more eager to focus on domestic priorities, encouraged by the impending energy independence. A withdrawal that leaves behind toxic aftermath, divided countries and almost a dream come true: an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

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