The ISIL factor: Winners and losers
By: Osama Al Sharif
If there is anything to be learned from the events of the past few weeks in Iraq and Syria is that politics makes strange bedfellows! The enemies of yesterday could easily become the allies of today, albeit until the winds change direction again. The United States, Iran an even the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are scurrying to help the troubled government of controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin is stepping in by supplying used SU-25 fighter planes and experts to the distressed Iraqi Army, if only to spite the American administration, which is yet to decide if it will sell F-16 jets to Iraq.
The June 10 surprise fall of Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, to Sunni insurgents, infiltrated by fighters of the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has upset regional and international priorities. ISIL and its Sunni tribe allies had stormed at least three Iraqi governorates and vowed to march on Baghdad to topple the Al-Maliki government. The autonomous region of Kurdistan did not hesitate to dispatch troops to take over the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk. And Shiite religious references have called on Iraqis to protect holy sites in the south from invading Sunni radicals. Meanwhile, Iraqi leaders are squabbling over a political formula to dislodge Al-Maliki’s eight-year grip on power. The latter has resisted local and international pressures to step down or form a national salvation government.
But the regional agenda has changed. Suddenly foes and allies are coming together to confront the perceived threat of ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. This has set a new dynamics with the list of winners and losers being rewritten almost every day.
For the time being here is a look at who appears to have gained, and who may have lost, as a result of latest events.
Assad emerges as a likely winner as regional and international attention shifts from war-torn Syria to distressed Iraq. The international community has failed to come up with a political solution to Syria’s civil war and the Syrian president has secured a third term in spite of worldwide condemnation. His forces have made important gains lately and the rise of ISIL has only cemented his claim that he is fighting radical militants on behalf of the West. As regional and international powers focus on Iraq, pressure on the Syrian regime will decrease noticeably.
Iran too is making gains, for now, as it proves once more that it is an important regional power broker. There are reports that it had dispatched advisers from the elite Republican Guards and the Jerusalem Force to Iraq under the command of Maj-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who has been active in Syria as well. It is ironic that the US, which has sent 300 Pentagon advisers to Baghdad, and Iran are both working for what appears to be the same objectives in Iraq.
Perhaps the biggest winners are Iraq’s Kurds who are getting closer to achieving their historic dream of declaring an independent Kurdistan. President Masoud Barzani has said that Iraq has changed since the Sunni insurgency broke out and that Kurdish forces will never leave Kirkuk, adding that the file of disputed territories between Kurdistan and Baghdad has been closed. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his country backs Kurdish independence. The breakdown of Iraq and Syria and the creation of ethnic and sectarian states and enclaves will only bolster Israel’s insistence that it be recognized as a Jewish state.
ISIL, this mysterious organization that shot up in the last three years, is likely to make political and territorial gains in the short term. Symbolically it announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate in areas under its control and has renamed itself “Islamic State” and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as caliph. This development will send waves across the region, especially in the jittery Gulf countries. It will surely bring together foes and allies to confront this new menace. The Sunnis of Iraq, who say they are fighting to regain their rights, will soon challenge the new ISIL state leading possibly to internecine wars. The birth of a Sunni enclave between Iraq and Syria may be considered as a victory, but it will have deep geopolitical repercussions on its neighbors.
Al-Maliki is a likely loser. He has lost the support of most Shiite coalitions, not to mention the Kurds and Sunnis, in addition to the important backing of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Iraqi leaders are trying to find an acceptable alternative; one who, according to Muqtada Al-Sadr, will address the legitimate grievances of all, including the Sunnis. Al-Maliki’s political fate will also be decided in Tehran, which so far supports him, but his intransigence will almost certainly suck Iraq into the vortex of sectarian war. Iraq as a country may still disintegrate.
Another loser is the Syrian opposition, which is now being asked by Washington to join the fight against ISIL in Iraq. President Obama has said that no moderate Syrian opposition was able to unseat Assad. But he has asked Congress for half a billion dollars to arm and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which has been engaged in bitter fighting against ISIL in eastern Syria. The US is attempting to repeat the experiment of Iraq’s Awakening forces in Al-Anbar by shifting the focus of the FSA from the Syrian regime to ISIL.
One more loser in all of this is Al-Qaeda, which had disowned ISIL only to see its influence increase in the past few months. Already some members of Jabhat Al Nusra, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, have joined ISIL in Bou Kamal in Syria. The more radical ISIL is today the biggest regional challenge.
One potential loser, in the long run, is the United States, which under President Obama has seen its regional influence recede even among its own Gulf allies. For now alliances are shifting and new ones are emerging and the ISIL factor has made this happen. The outcome of this political and military reshuffle will dramatically reshape the region.