Review of 2014: Middle East solutions must come from within
Rapid growth of Islamic State has astonished observers
Iraqi Shiite men who have volunteered to join government forces and militias in the fight against jihadists from Islamic State. Photpgraph: Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)
In August of this year two groups of which few people had previously been aware came to global attention in dramatic fashion.
Thousands of Yazidis – adherents of an ancient religion that draws on Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam – found themselves stranded on Mount Sinjar, close to Iraq’s Kurdish region, their lives threatened by the advance of the militant Islamist group that is now known as Islamic State.
The threat to the lives of the Yazidis drew widespread international condemnation and ultimately led to air strikes against the Islamist militants, which, together with the efforts of Kurdish fighters on the ground, broke the siege and made possible the escape of thousands who had been trapped on the mountain.
As shocking as these events in northwestern Iraq were, what astonished observers was the success of a group of a few thousand hardened Islamist fighters, emerging apparently from nowhere to take control of a huge portion of the territory of Iraq with virtually no opposition from the national army and with the tacit support of many locals.
The shock was compounded when the group began in the most brutal fashion to execute western prisoners – journalists and aid workers among them.
The rapid expansion of the area under the control of Islamic State in both Iraq and neighbouring Syria is a direct result of the extraordinary upheaval in the region in recent years.
In the case of Iraq, the political instability since the US-led invasion of 2003, particularly the inability of the long-time Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern the country inclusively, helped to produce a situation in which many of the country’s substantial Sunni minority became at least receptive to, if not overtly supportive of, Islamic State.
In Syria the increasing strength of radical Islamist groups, in the course of the civil war that has riven the country since 2011, is a consequence of the regime’s deliberate targeting of more moderate opposition, outside support for jihadi groups, particularly from Turkey and the Gulf states, and the incapacity of the international community to mount a coherent responses to the Syrian crisis – not least because of US unwillingness to commit to another conflict in the region and persistent Russian support for its ally in Damascus.
Reluctant or not, however, the US has indeed been drawn back into conflict in the Middle East. President Barack Obama finally extricated the US from its involvement in Iraq with the withdrawal of the last US military forces in December 2012.
But the clamour for a response to the threat posed by Islamic State to Iraqi and regional stability has prompted renewed US intervention. According to a recent Pentagon report, the US has conducted 819 air strikes since August 8th of this year.
Nine other countries have joined the assault on Islamic State – the Netherlands, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The US has also committed several hundred military “advisers” to help the Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State on the ground.
In what has been described as an Iraq-first policy, the US is seeking to support Iraqi forces in anticipation of an offensive against Islamic State in spring of next year to be led by the Iraqis and supported by US airpower as well as Iranian-backed Shia militias.
This combination of Iraqi forces backed by both the US and Iran speaks to the much-altered regional situation that the rise of Islamic State has prompted. Relations between the US and Iran, under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, are less antagonistic than they have been for years, as the slow but welcome progress in talks on Iran’s nuclear capacity discloses.
In the Gulf, those who had supported radical jihadist groups in the region now find themselves on the wrong side of official policy as the governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council offer their support to US-led efforts to contain Isis.
Nonetheless, Islamic State will continue to pose a significant threat to stability in the Middle East for as long as the structural factors that underpin its popularity and expansion remain in place. That will require significant changes in domestic and regional politics that are unlikely to be brought about by air strikes or external intervention alone.
In Syria, US policy is moving in the direction of arming “moderate” opposition to the Assad regime, a tactic that a recent CIA study of 67 years of arming insurgencies has found to be largely ineffective. In Iraq it requires changes in the governance of the country that are, at best, slow in coming.
Yet if we have learned anything from decades of foreign interference in the Middle East, it is that solutions cannot be imposed from outside but must come from within, however long it may take.
Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin