With ISIS sweeping across Iraq, capturing major cities and even taking control of an Iraq-Syria border crossing, there is huge concern of an escalating sectarian war exploding in the region. Here is a selection of some commentary and analysis about the growing crisis:
Caroline Glick: the danger is blowback:
The Obama administration, along with Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, views Iran’s deployment of forces in Iraq as an opportunity for the US. The US, they argue should work with Iran to defeat ISIS.
The idea is that since the US and Iran both oppose al-Qaida, Iranian gains against it will redound to the US’s benefit.
There are two basic, fundamental problems with this idea.
First, there is a mountain of evidence that Iran has no beef with al-Qaida and is happy to work with it.
The second problem with the idea of subcontracting America’s fight against al-Qaida to Iran is that it assumes that Iranian success in such a war would benefit America. But again, experience tells a different tale.
This brings us to the real threat that the rise of ISIS – and Iran – in Iraq poses to the US. That threat is blowback.
Both Iran and al-Qaida are sworn enemies of the United States, and both have been empowered by events of the past week.
Because they view the US as their mortal foe, their empowerment poses a danger to the US.
…The blowback from Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power is certain to dwarf what the world has seen from North Korea so far.
Yet rather than act in a manner that would reduce the threat of blowback from Iraq’s disintegration and takeover by America’s worst enemies, the Obama administration gives every indication that it is doubling down on the disastrous policies that led the US to this precarious juncture.
The only strategy that the US can safely adopt today is one of double containment. The aim of double containment is to minimize the capacity of Iran and al-Qaida to harm the US and its interests.
But to contain your enemies, you need to understand them. You need to understand their nature, their aims, their support networks and their capabilities.
Unfortunately, in keeping with what has been the general practice of the US government since the September 11 attacks, the US today continues to ignore or misunderstand all of these critical considerations.
As for Iran, according to The New York Times, Iran is signaling that the price of cooperation with the Americans in Iraq is American acquiescence to Iran’s conditions for signing a nuclear deal. In other words, the Iranians will fight al-Qaida in Iraq in exchange for American facilitation of its nuclear weapons program.
The first step the US must take to minimize the Iranian threat is to walk away from the table and renounce the talks. The next step is to take active measures to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears prepared to do none of these things. To the contrary, its pursuit of an alliance with Iran in Iraq indicates that it is doubling down on the most dangerous aspects of its policy of empowering America’s worst enemies.
Shoshana Bryen at the Gatestone Institute similarly talks about Guarding American interests in Sunni-Shiite war:
The game-changer in the long religious war now wracking the region is the possible introduction of nuclear weapons by Iran. Conventional wisdom is that Iran wants nuclear weapons either to destroy Israel or to enhance its position as hegemon of the Persian Gulf to discomfit and oust the Americans. If conventional wisdom is right, Iran cannot be permitted to be a nuclear power. If conventional wisdom is wrong and Iran plans to use nuclear weapons, or threatens to, “only” to balance the “religious scales” (Shiites comprise only 11-12% of the world’s Muslim population), Iran still cannot be permitted to be a nuclear power.Either way, irreducible bottom line, no nuclear Iran. The U.S. retains a still-vast ability to meet its national defense priorities. The open questions are: the political skill to define them, and the political will to ensure that the greatest threat to regional and world stability — Iranian nuclear capability — is stopped for good.
In last week’s post I mentioned the danger of ISIS to Jordan . Stratfor sounds a more optimistic note (too optimistic?) when they predict that although Jordan could be the next target of ISIS, it will probably escape:
For starters, the Jordanian regime is far more stable than Syria or Iraq, and its security forces have proved to be quite effective. Furthermore, Jordan has strong backing from the United States and Saudi Arabia, especially since the kingdom became a critical staging ground for support to Syrian rebels.
Dr. Ephraim Kam in Yisrael Hayom warns that in Iraq there is danger in all directions, including for Israel:
The upheaval in Iraq carries with it mixed tidings for Iran. On one hand, the jihadist groups are seen by Iran as a threat, whether in Iraq or in Syria, because they threaten the regimes there susceptible to Iranian influence. The severe instability on the other side of its border is disconcerting for Iran, which is also a country of minorities, and the turmoil could spill into its territory. On the other hand, Iran has become the most influential external player in Iraq, primarily among the Shiite population there, and the present threat on that population could increase its need for and dependence on Iranian aid. Iran has already declared that if it is asked it will help the Iraqi government, and there are reports that this has already begun.
The developments in Iraq are also a significant threat to the United States. The American administration has a moral and practical obligation to help the Iraqi government, following its military intervention there which led to the deterioration. Moreover, this deterioration could infect its allies in the region and export terror toward them and American targets. As of now, the U.S. is unprepared for another intervention of ground forces and will consider air strikes and military aid, while cooperating with countries in the area, such as Turkey. The need for regional support could lead to American-Iranian cooperation, which could, in turn, lead to American concessions in nuclear talks with Iran.
The deterioration in Iraq also entails considerable future risks for Israel — even if these do not materialize in the immediate time frame. The jihadist strongholds in Iraq and Syria could export terror against Israel as well, undermine the Jordanian regime and strengthen the extremist elements among the Palestinians and in the Sinai Peninsula. The increase in Iranian influence in Iraq and American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq, if it develops, has negative consequences for Israel. And if the U.S. again shows weakness in dealing with these jihadist strongholds — it will also be detrimental to Israel’s interests.
From Al-Monitor we learn that the war in Iraq also involves Turkey, whose hostages are held by ISIS:
The Turkish government faces a major dilemma in Iraq after the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) raided its Mosul consulate and took 49 of its personnel hostage, including its consul general, in addition to 31 others. The hostages are just one element of the crisis facing Turkey: The sweep by ISIS that netted it Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.8 million, as well as Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, Tikrit, threaten to plunge Iraq into a civil war from which the ramifications will be felt in Turkey for years to come. Already, the Syrian civil war has led some 1 million to seek refuge in Turkey.
The crisis may force the Turks to rethink some of their policies in Syria. To date, Ankara’s friendship with the Kurds stopped in Iraq; Erdogan and his government have taken an uncompromising position against Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish insurgent group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD has emerged as the strongest Kurdish group in Syria and has put together an impressive fighting force to defend its territory from both ISIS and the regime. The idea of another autonomous Kurdish region on its borders after the KRG has been anathema to Ankara. Paradoxically, the PYD’s armed elements are some of the only ones that have scored blows against the jihadists. In the face of the ISIS sweep, the PYD and the KRG, which have also had antagonistic relations, appear to be cooperating on defensive measures against ISIS. Turkey may have to reconsider its boycott of the Syrian Kurds to enlarge the anti-ISIS coalition.
The gains and losses for Turkey, Iraq and the Kurds are complex if not confusing.
That’s probably the understatement of the year.
Jonathan Spyer brings us another excellent analysis of a Second Front opening in the Sunni-Shia war:
So what will happen now? The pattern of developing events is already clear, and much may be learned from the experience of Syria.
Bashar Assad, when rebellion broke out against him in March 2011, sought to use his huge conscript army to crush it. But the Syrian dictator rapidly found out that his supposedly 295,000-strong army was largely a fiction. Sunni conscripts refused to engage against the rebels, and Bashar was able to make use only of certain units composed largely of members of his own Alawi sect — units such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division.
How did Assad address this problem? The answer is that he didn’t — Iran did.
Realizing that their Syrian ally was facing defeat because of an absence of reliable manpower, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps stepped in to effectively create a new, sectarian military for the Assads. In addition, Iran introduced its various regional paramilitary proxies into the Syrian battlefield.
By mid-2013, the new, sectarian infantry force trained by the Quds Force and Hizballah – named the National Defense Force – was beginning to be deployed against the Syrian rebellion. In addition, Hizballah, and Iraqi Shia volunteers of Sadrist and other loyalties began to fill the gaps in manpower for Assad.
These units turned the tide of the Syrian war. But they have brought Assad survival, not victory. The dictator rules over only about 40% of the territory of what was once Syria. The rest is under the control of ISIL, the Kurds, and the Sunni Arab rebels.
It is likely that a similar pattern will now emerge in Iraq. Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has been in Baghdad since Friday. He is in the process of organizing Iraqi Shia volunteers, who in the months to come are likely to be transformed into a sectarian military force resembling the Syrian National Defense Force.
These hastily assembled forces, along with the reliable elements of Maliki’s military, are likely to prove sufficient to defend the capital and perhaps to prevent further gains by ISIL, which may have over-reached itself. But the new, openly sectarian Shia forces behind Maliki are unlikely to succeed in re-taking the entirety of ISIL’s territorial gains in Anbar and Ninewah provinces.
Iran is a leading world expert in the creation of proxy sectarian military forces. But given the demographic balance in present day Iraq, and in Syria, Iran’s assistance is likely to ensure the survival of the non-Sunni population only in a part of the country in question. That is – ISIL and Iran’s intervention into Iraq may well portend the de facto partition of that country, and its plunging into a prolonged conflict, along the lines of what is currently taking place in Syria.
The Kurds, possessors of a strong, largely secular nationalist tradition and identity, may emerge as major winners from this process of fragmentation, in the context both of Syria and Iraq (as witnessed by the rapid gains made by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces in recent days).
As for the warring Arab Islamic sects, they are set to continue to battle one another, with ready foreign help, over the ruins of the countries once known as Iraq and Syria. This war is just beginning. Any attempts to portray either of the warring sides as “anti-terrorist” or “pro-western” should be stubbornly resisted. Acceptance of such definitions is the entry hall to new policy failures and wasted lives. ISIL and the Quds Force differ in organizational structure, but are similarly anti-western — and similarly vile. They should be left to bleed one another white.
That’s probably the best advice anyone could hear on this subject. For the attention of Washington DC…
Expanding on the issue of the Kurds, who are probably the only people who stand to benefit from the chaos in Iraq,Sirwan Kajjo, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst at the Sada website, explains that the rise of ISIS is a golden opportunity for the Kurds:
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been more successful in its defense against ISIS than the central government. Kurdish forces, numbering well over 100,000, appear better equipped and trained than the militant groups attempting to confront them. Responding to ISIS’s rapid advances, the Kurdish forces, or Peshmerga, deployed large numbers on June 10, to areas that have been long been contested by the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad, particularly Kirkuk. The status of Kirkuk has put a perpetual strain on the relationship between Baghdad and the KRG. The status quo under which Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen have governed the city—an agreement enforced by the American forces in Iraq since 2003—has remained in place for over a decade.
For the Kurds, seizing Kirkuk from ISIS was a golden opportunity to regain access to significant oil resources, and put an end to years of dispute with the central government over the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that seeks normalization for Kirkuk’s multi-ethnic population. Securing the annexation of this oil-rich region for the already rich Kurdistan would put the KRG in a more powerful position when declaring independence.
ISIS’s surge in Iraq, speaks to a bigger aspiration to see no border between Syria and Iraq, which is the primary means of the group to achieve an Islamic state. But that would not be viable without sustainable economic resources. Having secured large swaths of oil-rich territories in eastern Syria, ISIS has been inspired to continue the same effort in Iraq—particularly in the north, where oilfields are abundant. Kurds are likely the only group that can preserve the oilfields in Northern Iraq. The international community, Turkey included, recognizes this very well.Nestled between Maliki’s embattled government and ISIS militants, Kurds are best-positioned to keep these areas safe for now, and maybe for the long run, with the Peshmerga as a de facto military force. If the situation drags out longer, the weak Iraqi government might have to accept a permanent presence of Kurdish forces in these areas. However, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership would need to consider the cost of deploying more forces to these areas: it should not come at the expense of securing its porous borders with Syria. With a brutal civil war raging on in the neighboring country and a growing uncontrollable militancy, Iraqi Kurdistan faces a serious spill-over threat.
The silver lining for Kurds is that, suddenly, the establishment of a Kurdish state seems more feasible–especially with Turkey seemingly no longer objecting to the notion.
For the first time since the U.S. invasion the dynamics have shifted in favor of Kurdish independence. Iraqi Kurds are more powerful than ever, and Turkey is more willing to accept the existence of an independent Kurdish nation at its border. Unless Iraqis immediately reach a comprehensive national reconciliation that satisfies the long marginalized Sunnis and the Kurds themselves, which is very unlikely given the unraveling situation, the Kurds will continue pushing forward for their independence. The map of the Middle East is on the verge of changing much to the benefit of the Kurds.
A beneficiary of the Kurds burgeoning independence is Israel – who received their first shipment ever of Kurdish oil this week:
The oil delivery is from the KRG’s new independent pipeline which bypasses the central Iraqi government by running directly to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, much to the chagrin of Baghdad’s embattled government. The delivery to Israel comes at a crucial time for the KRG, which is looking to protect itself from the deteriorating situation in Iraq by being more independent economically.
The independent export of oil to Israel comes shortly after Kurdish Peshmerga forces – the KRG’s independent army – seized the oil-rich town of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, along with swathes of territory near the Turkish border, as Iraqi troops abandoned their posts in response to the advance of Sunni Muslim rebels including the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). KRG officials have already openly entertained the option of redirecting the flow of oil from Kirkuk through the Ceyhan pipeline, particularly after the regular Kirkuk pipeline was sabotaged after Kurdish forces took control of the city.
The United States opposes the KRG’s oil pipeline, but Israeli officials told Reuters Jerusalem is keen to build relations with the Kurds, both in order to counter the growing influence of Iran and to generally broaden its options for energy supplies.
Unlike the US and many European countries, Israel does not buy oil from Iraq, and is therefore unruffled by the Iraqi government’s staunch opposition to the Ceyhan pipeline.
As to the US’s objections to the Kurdish sale, the JPost explains:
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, does not support independent oil sales by the Kurdish region and has warned possible buyers against accepting the cargoes.
Israeli leaders have been alarmed in recent months, however, by signs of a possible rapprochement between Washington and Iran.
Officials said Israel was keen to build good ties with the Kurds, hoping to expand its limited diplomatic network in the Middle East and broaden options for energy supplies.
It’s all circles within circles, smoke and mirrors. If you want to educate yourselves further, or maybe confuse yourselves further, read Stratfor’s The Intrigue lying behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising. It is yet another thorough analysis of this new front opening up in the Middle East, with background and exposes of each sphere of influence. It includes paragraphs on Turkey searching for a strategy, Iran on the defensive, Saudi stirring the pot and more.
If it wasn’t so terrifyingly dangerous and volatile, it would make great spy thriller fiction.