Once the Islamic State is defeated, what is the long-term strategy to prevent IS mark 2?
Almost 6 months since the Islamic State (IS) seized large swathes of territory Iraq in a rapid advance, the war on IS remains as fierce as ever in Iraq and Syria.
The obvious goal is to defeat IS but sheer military might aside, what is the long-term strategy to keeping IS defeated? Initially, IS sprung-up in Syria with limited influence before their support base and military capability snow-balled into an avalanche.
One way or another, with increasing air-strikes, military supplies to the Peshmerga and other antiIS forces and a growing international coalition, IS will be defeated. But without long-term cross-border measures and strategy, could IS spring up again in the future, just when their defeat is celebrated?
The lack of a long-term vision or consideration of the bigger picture could not be clearer than in Syr- ia. Syria was very much the fertile Jihadist garden which allowed the IS seeds to flourish. This was only exacerbated by a lack of a clear and consistent Western foreign policy and in particular reluctance of the U.S. to get involved.
As Bashar al-Assad scathed through the population, crossing various red-lines along the way, it paved the way for hardline sentiment to dominate and IS took full advantage. At one point, IS was even tolerated or directly and indirectly supported by some powers as they became a tool to the toppling of Assad. But IS eyes were not fixated on regime change in Damascus and in fact Assad and IS had mutual interests.
Now the battle in Syria rages on and nowhere depicts the current ferocity and pro-longed nature of the battle against IS better than in Kobane. Hundreds of air strikes and dozens of Kurdish sacrifices later, IS was dealt a blow but remained a determined foe.
Even if IS is defeated in Syria, what then for rootcause of IS, the Assad regime? There is much talk of a political transition in Syria but this has been much of the same tone since the Geneva Communique of 2012. Assad did not leave his throne when the regime was at its weakest let alone when he has regained ascendancy and moderate rebel forces are diminishing fast.
In Iraq, long-time disenfranchised Sunnis welcomed and some tribes openly supported the IS onslaught in Iraq. IS may have hijacked the Sunni revolution but nevertheless the seeds of animosity and conflict were sown long-before between bitter Sunnis and a Shiiteled Baghdad government where the fuels of sectarianism were increased by the marginalization policies of Nouri al-Maliki.
Like the deadly battle with al-Qaeda in the several years before IS, where the grounds are fertile fundamentalism will always grow.
Sunnis are growing increasingly fed up of IS and some tribes have openly fought against them, but doubts remain as to whether a true national and representative government will ever merge in Iraq. The recent government of Haider al-Abadi has patched some cracks but does not account for the many other Sunni groups and tribes that remain unconvinced and hostile.
One factor that illustrates the Iraqi difficulty in striking a semblance of unity is a lack of cross-national armed forces. The sectarian-leaning armed forces were long viewed with distrust by Sunnis and Kurds and quickly collapsed under the IS onslaught. In fact it was the Shiite militias and in particular the autonomous Peshmerga that stepped up to the plate.
One key product of the IS battle is the growing erosion of Middle Eastern borders but also state relations and foreign policies becoming much more intertwined. Gone are the days that states can keep regional conflicts at arm’s length and pursue unilateral policies.
Passive attitudes in the end do greater harm on one’s soil. Since 2011, many regional states and Western powers tried to stay out of the Syrian civil war.
However, peace in any country can only be achieved with cross collaboration across the borders. Whilst it’s not quite the equivalent of the European Union, it’s the grassroots of such unions in the Middle East. Governments must work together, unify policies and seek common security objectives through pacts if they are to succeed.
One needs to look no further than Turkey. Just a few years ago, it was watching anxiously at the rapid development of a Kurdistan Region on its borders and had set its own red-lines.
Just this week Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pledged increased military support and training for the Peshmerga with the prospect of providing heavy weapons to the Kurdistan Region.
Of course, it doesn’t meant that Turkish nationalist anxieties have evaporated, one only needs to look at the Turkish hesitancy over support of Kobane over links of the Kurdish forces and the main party to the PKK.
But Turkey cannot turn a blind eye to the conflicts on its door step or to the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy. Turkey’s security and political stability will not endure by strong relations with one side of the border and animosity and distrust on another.