AMSTERDAM, June 18, 2014 — While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) movement is gaining ground in Iraq and spreads its violence, the world is still pondering what to do about it. The delay has allowed ISIS time to get stronger. All solutions discussed so far will push the country further into a civil war, with the potential to turn the crisis into a regional conflict.
ISIS was founded in 2004 as chapter of al-Qaeda. The organization was basically dormant until the civil war in Syria opened opportunities. After it became clear that foreign countries would not provide substantial support for anti-Assad movement, radical Islamist movements in the opposition blossomed. ISIS seized this chance in 2013, first as part of the rebel forces. However, ISIS soon broke with other rebel groups because militants, including al-Qaeda, due to extremist actions by ISIS such as cruelties against the local population.
In early 2014, ISIS split from al-Qaeda over differing views on the strategy in Syria.
Since then, ISIS has operated independently. Led by a former Iraqi, ISIS aims to create a Caliphate in (parts of) Iraq and Syria.
Currently ISIS controls parts of East Syria and the North-West of Iraq, quickly advancing towards the South of Iraq. Its troops have been kept out the North-East by the well-organized Kurds which control that part of Iraq with their own regional government.
The three solutions discussed by foreign governments so far are the use of drones and airstrikes to weaken ISIS, the use of ground troops to support of the Iraqi government, potentially together with Iran. The first two options are more or less ruled out, rightly. Drones and airstrikes might weaken ISIS but will almost certainly also cause civil casualties. In addition to the humanitarian concerns, these strikes would likely lead to more support for ISIS. Deploying troops might be more effective against ISIS , but will also only increase support. In the long run, ISIS will come back after the troops leave.
Supporting the government of Nouri al-Maliki ignores the fact that his current government is sectarian pro-Shiite and not accepted in the Sunnite parts of Iraq. Supporting his government will only be another step towards a full fledged civil war, especially as long as he refuses to talk with Sunnis.
Iraq has three main groups: Sunnites, Shiites and Kurds. ISIS is a Sunni group. Although some Sunni’s oppose the radical views of ISIS, they tacitly support the group because it is anti-Shiite.
Sunni’s are a minority in Iraq, but held most of the power under Saddam Hussein. After Hussein’s fall, and subsequent elections, the two groups attempted to cooperate and establish a unity government. However, President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, inflamed sectarian tensions by attempting to arrest his Sunni Vice President and taking other actions against the Sunni’s.
To many Sunnis, ISIS looks like a better option than they have under the current regime.
Working with Iran to support Maliki would entail a highly complicated situation. Only minutes after the president of Iran, Hassan Rohani, announced that he will do everything needed to protect sacred Shiite religious sites in Iraq, including sending troops as ultimo ratio, Saudi-Arabia foreign minister Saud Bin Faisal Al Saud rejected all external involvement in Iraq. Saudi-Arabia is largely Sunni, and Iran and Saudi Arabia play out a brutal and bloody effort for dominance throughout the Middle East.
The only viable solution is to make Iraq a federal state. Giving the Sunnis their own regional government and autonomy from the central government could persuade them to turn against ISIS. It is about time that this option comes on the table – before the conflict turns into a regional war.