ISIS: will US intervention fuel sectarian war?
Iraq's new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi issued a statement welcoming Barack Obama's announcement of a new campaign against ISIS. On the same day Obama gave his speech, Abadi met in Baghdad with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss international support for Iraqi forces in the drive against ISIS. (BasNews, Sept. 12; Aswat al-Iraq, Sept. 10) While Abadi's government continues to be Shi'ite-dominated, there are signs of success in his efforts to forge a pact with Sunnis to resist ISIS. Sunni tribes in Salaheddin governorate have formed a council to mobilize tribesmen to retake the provincial capital of Tikrit from ISIS in coordination with Iraq's army. Significantly, the new command center established for the effort is in Auja, a district recently retaken from ISIS by Iraqi troops—and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, who was buried there following his execution in 2006. (Azzaman, Sept. 12)
The League of Arab States approved a resolution Sept. 8 to combat ISIS, although it contained few specifics on what actions will be taken. It invoked a UN Secuirty Council Resolution 2170 of Aug. 15 that imposed sanctions on ISIS leaders. (Jurist, Sept. 8) But there are questions about the equivocal positions of some Arab League member states. A delegation from Qatar is currently helping to broker the release of Lebanese soldiers and police held hostage by militants, serving as mediators between the government and commanders from ISIS and the Nusra Front. The Qataris were brought in after the goverment rejected the demands of the militants, who have seized positions at the village of Arsal, to swap the hostages for Islamist detainees held in Lebanon's Roumieh prison. Nusra Front has released a video of the nine captive police and soldiers, warning that Lebanese will "pay the price" for Hezbollah's involvement in the war in Syria. (Daily Star, Lebanon, Sept. 6)
Qatar late last month played a key role in securing the release of journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who was being held by the Nusra Front in Syria—sparking speculation about the sway that the Qatari state holds over the Islamist networks. Although Qatar was one of the first Arab countries to publicly condemn the ISIS beheading of James Foley, Germany's development minister, Gerd Mueller, remarked after the freeing of Curtis: "Who is financing these troops? Hint: Qatar." The German government distanced itself from Mueller's comment, saying it had no evidence of Qatar supporting the militants. (The National, UAE, Aug. 25)
We've already noted Iran's presence in the Great Power covergence against ISIS. Last week, the BBC's Persian service reported that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has approved co-operation with the US against ISIS, actually authorizing his top commanders to coordinate military operations with Washington, as well as Iraqi and Kurdish forces. (BBC News, Sept. 5)
What could ultimately defeat ISIS is a Sunni uprising within the territories they control. There have already been such rebellions—of course put down by ISIS with their usual methods of mass murder. Many Sunnis of course reject ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's hubristic declaration of himself as the new caliph, and their genocidal and ultra-intolerant program generally. But ISIS is betting on sparking a general sectarian war throughout the Middle East, in which Sunnis and Shi'ites will be forced to take sides—the Sunnis having to accept ISIS as the only alternative to extermination. The US intervention could play into this strategy, as well as giving ISIS the cachet of anti-imperialist "resistance." If Washington is perceived as leading an alliance that includes Iran and Hezbollah, this will only augment the propaganda assistance that will be loaned to ISIS with every US missile that falls.