By Paul Sullivan
ISIS is made up of the extreme of the extreme. They were tossed out of Al Qaeda, of all places. That is like being tossed out of solitary confinement in a maximum security prison containing the worst of the worst because of bad behavior. It is hard to top that one, but I suppose if we wait long enough we could see even worse groups.
ISIS is the spawn of the charnel house of Syria. The ultra-violence, destruction, horrors, nightmares and more happening in this devastated country surely have caused a great deal of psychological calamity, as well as physical and social calamity. If Syria continues as has been we could see more ultra-extremism coming out of it. We may see this anyway. The problems have been allowed to fester too long by the world.
I say “the world” because it should not be up to the U.S. to “solve” Syria, “contain” ISIS, “control and stabilize” Iraq, or help even to keep Iraq together. These problems and challenges are things that can only be managed by multinational diplomatic and other coalitions and other global efforts, which have been mostly missing in action.
Will ISIS take over a large part of the region? I doubt it. Even if they can temporarily take over places like Mosul, Tikrit, Anbar, etc. their violence and extremism will eventually turn the people away from them. They have also been playing a home game in Sunni territory in Iraq. Once they start to move into predominantly Shia areas, the push back will be severe.
The Sadr Army is recruiting by the thousands, and they were a formidable opponent for ISIS even before this. The Ayatollah Sistani made a call to arms to fight ISIS. Huge numbers of Shia are heading the call. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are no friends of ISIS, even though the Kurds could likely play this situation to their advantage to carve out an independent state. The Kurds will fight like a whirlwind for keep their lands and their dignity. The Al Quds Force from Iran is already there planning, advising and likely getting equipment for the Shia militias and others. The Russians are sending aircraft and other material to the central government of Iraq. The Jordanians, who have a small, but formidable military, will not standby if ISIS tries for their country. Saudi Arabia will fight. The Turks will not allow ISIS to encroach on their lands. The Turks seem to be changing their opinions on an independent Kurdistan. They see this as a possible buffer against any extremist movements north. They also are quite concerned about what is happening in Syria. They have the most powerful military in the region. They are also a NATO member. Article 5 looms on this
Malaki is on the fence as usual to see where he might win from this. He is a big part of this problem. His major goal is his own and his regime’s survival. He cannot be trusted. His days are numbered. Ibrahim Al-Douri and his band of “Sufi” fighters, which is a contradiction in terms in any event, is ready to fight ISIS and the U.S. Then there are various smaller terror and fighting groups from many backgrounds running about with hair triggers.
Going into this situation with any real U.S. footprint would be like someone from Westchester landing in a multiple gang fight in the Bronx and saying “Hey, can we talk about this? Can we just all get along? Is there some way to resolve our differences?”
ISIS is the worst of the worst. They will not listen. The Ayatollah Khamenei does not want us there. The Sunnis in the main see us as part of the problem. The Shia militias are no friends of the U.S. The war in Iraq was mostly won by the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia. They will be unwilling to give up their victories, maybe even to the point of splitting up the country. They lived for many years in the shadows and brutalities of Saddam and others. They hold deep grievances with many.
I suggest we take a very careful approach to this and see how those who will fight ISIS and their hangers on will do with them. It could be that they could handle this without the outsiders messing about.
Also, many of the people ISIS has recruited are miscreants, criminals, rogue terrorists that many other groups would toss out, or they are disloyal and deserting soldiers from the Iraqi army and other armed forces. These are not people that are easily managed. Infighting has already started. If some smart folks in the region could find a way to increase that infighting, all of the proper parties could win from this. Psychological operations at a global level could do a lot more than some bombing runs. This is not just a shooting conflict. It is a conflict of the mind. So far little has been done to counter the mad, violent ideological propaganda from ISIS and their hangers on. Much could be done by having many of the top, progressive and thought-leading Muslims and Muslim scholars come out against them, especially since Ramadan begins very soon.
For now, we need to see how this plays out. For now, we need to see what they really have, and what their opposition has. We cannot jump the gun on this. We need to be careful and nuanced in our approaches. This is not the time to be John Wayne. It is time to be the international Jimmy Stuart in his most mature and thoughtful roles. We need to get our homework done on this situation. We need to stop listening to the drumbeats of war from those who will have no physical or emotional connection to a war.
We need to think of the men and women who may be thrown into this situation, and have been ordered to war time and time again. They are patriots and courageous people all. We need to make the proper strategic decisions for their sake, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of the world. It is time to really step up to high-level and effective strategic thinking.
Too much is in the balance on this.
(All opinions are Dr. Sullivan’s alone.)
Paul Sullivan is an Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and an Adjunct Fellow of Future Global Resource Threats at the Federation of American Scientists