Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

After Mount Sinjar

Finally, the pieces have fallen into place for dealing with the Islamic State threat in Iraq. But what about Syria, asks Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution on the Islamic State (IS) — formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — as well as Al-Nusra Front (the front organisation for Al-Qaeda) fighting the Syrian regime.

The resolution was adopted, on 15 August, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter that authorises the use of force in cases of non-compliance. The resolution outlaws financing, recruiting, arming and providing any support whatsoever to the two terrorist organisations.

The unanimous adoption of the resolution speaks volumes on the growing threat that IS represents to international peace and security, and to the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria. Arab countries, meanwhile, now realise that they must reorder their strategic priorities. Armed groups aim to overthrow the nation-state in the Arab world and replace it with the so-called Islamic Caliphate.

Western nations, including the United States, watched the surprising advances of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria from 10 June onwards without reaction.

On this day, Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, fell into the hands of IS. And from Mosul, the extremist forces advanced like a blitzkrieg westward into Syria, and to the north and northeast of Iraq. There was no organised force, whether governmental or non-governmental, to stop them. They even announced that their next targets would be Baghdad and Karbala.

Both the west and leading Arab powers called on Iraqi political parties and forces to come together to form a national unity government and empower the Iraqi army to take on the forces of IS. This presupposed that these parties and forces ­— be they Sunni, Shia or Kurdish — could agree on a candidate for the post of prime minister other than Nouri Al-Maliki, the incumbent who was seeking a third mandate without regard to the threat of Iraq’s territorial disintegration if he continued as prime minister. It took the combined efforts of the US administration, Iran, and the calls of Ayotallah Ali Al-Sistani to convince Al-Maliki that he had no chance of securing a nomination from Shias in the Iraqi parliament.

The mobilisation of western nations against IS became more urgent when IS forces started shelling the positions of Kurdish forces in preparation for an ultimate push to enter Irbil and occupy the capital of Kurdistan — an outcome that no western capital could accept, from the standpoint of their strategic calculations.

From 1991 onwards, the west has opted for a more autonomous Kurdistan within Iraq, a trend that gained momentum after the US invasion of Iraq. After IS captured Mosul in June, Kurdish forces occupied oil-rich Kirkuk, a city that Kurds had long claimed to be part of their territory. Kurdistan region President Masoud Barzani called on the region’s parliament to organise a referendum on Kurdish independence.

Kurdish officials later hinted that the US administration supported steps towards independence. While the American government has said on various occasions that it is committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq, there have been no official statements by the United States that it is opposed to the independence of Kurdistan. The same is true for other western governments.

The overreach of IS, shown by its siege of Mount Sinjar and the savage removal of Christians and Yazidis from their ancestral homes, caused alarm bells to ring around the world. Fleeing IS attacks, thousands of Iraqis sought refuge in the mountains of Sinjar. They faced death either at the hands of the butchers of IS, or from thirst or starvation.

Military developments on the battlefield and the political gridlock that existed in Baghdad until last Thursday, 14 August, prompted the US to order aerial bombardments of IS positions around Mount Sinjar. It was the first US military engagement in Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

President Barack Obama took the lead. On 14 August he spoke to the press corps in Edgartown, Massachusetts, where he is taking his summer vacation, and said that he ordered the aerial bombardment for two reasons. The first is to protect American personnel and facilities inside Iraq; the second is humanitarian, to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar.

He said that US aircraft carrier-based F-18 fighter jets had bombed IS positions around Mount Sinjar, improving conditions for civilians and breaking the siege. Obama added that the US will “continue air strikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq.”

Obama said that US military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting IS forces on the frontlines had increased. He urged Iraqis to come together to turn the tide against IS, above all “by seizing the enormous opportunity of forming a new government under the leadership of prime minister designate Haider Al-Abadi.”

He said that he had talked to the Iraqi official, and welcomed his insistence on the need of forming an inclusive government in Iraq that “speaks to all the people of Iraq.”

On 19 June the president said that the United States “will keep increasing our support to Iraqi security forces.” While he said that US forces will not return to combat in Iraq, he said the US “will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people.” He added that ISIL poses “a threat to the Iraq people, to the region, and to US interests.”

In the same remarks, the US president said Washington was prepared to create joint operations centres in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront “the terrorist threat of ISIL.” He referred to the newly created Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, and said that his administration is prepared to work with Congress to “provide additional equipment” and to send additional US military advisors, not to exceed 300, to assess how best to “train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

As for European Union, foreign ministers of the 28 member states met in an emergency session on Friday, 15 August, to discuss how best to assist the Kurds of Iraq to repel IS forces. They decided that each member country would take the measures that it deems necessary to help the Kurds. The emergency meeting was called by France after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Baghdad and Irbil.

Even before the emergency meeting, the French government had said it would provide arms and military hardware to Kurdish forces. The British government has provided humanitarian assistance, and there are unconfirmed reports that British Special Forces have been deployed in northern Iraq.

The unanimous Security Council resolution of last Friday, the prospect of an all-inclusive Iraqi government, and American and western resolve to support Iraqis have provided the politico-military and legal context necessary to confront the threat of Iraq’s IS.

I have two remarks to make in conclusion. The first is the absence of any talk or analysis of how to deal with the presence of IS in Syria. The second is related to Arab positions.

The devastating impact of IS is regional. Consequently, dealing with it should be expanded to include Syrian territory. From a military point of view, I don’t see how the two theatres of war can be dealt with separately, unless the aim is to stop IS in Iraq only. That would be shortsighted.

As far as the second issue is concerned, I believe the Arab world and the Arab League have not said their final word on how to aid the new Iraqi government in defeating the forces of IS and other terrorist groups threatening states across the Levant and throughout the Arab world. It is imperative that Arab governments reorder their strategic priorities away from insisting on the overthrow of other Arab governments, and supporting opposition and terrorist groups to destabilise their political opponents.

In this respect, extreme caution should be use when dealing with the new Turkey of Erdogan as president. The other day, while talking to his supporters after winning the presidential elections, he talked about “Egyptians and Palestinians” waiting on Turkey, inferring that the security and stability of Egypt would be decided in Ankara. The Arabs are called upon to make a common front against Erdogan’s Ottoman-like expansionist policies in the Middle East and the Arab world.

The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.

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