One of the depressing mysteries of the day in the Middle East is why the many different parties involved in the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have not coordinated more urgently to fight and destroy ISIS. You would think that Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, assorted Kurdish groups in several countries, Hezbollah, and other non-state actors with powerful military capabilities would join forces at a minimum level in order to definitively end ISIS’ mini-expansions into or towards their territories.
That has not happened, so it allows ISIS to continue waging war on several fronts, despite its vulnerabilities and its disjointed control of patches of territory in Syria and Iraq. Recent events in both Iraq and Syria confirm what many, including myself, have always assumed, that a combination of ground troops from the region supported by coordinated air strikes from the United States and others would quickly constrain, weaken and then defeat ISIS in local battles.
This has happened most recently in northern Syria, where Kurdish forces led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), supported by units from the Free Syrian Army and intensive U.S. air strikes, have pushed ISIS out of valuable territory that connected its Raqqa city heartland with border crossings into Turkey. This included ISIS’ loss of the important border post of Tal Abyad.
Some estimates say that ISIS has been driven out of about one-third of the lands it controls around its ‘capital’ of Raqqa city. A comparison of maps of Syria today and several months ago shows ISIS-controlled areas that once looked like expanding blobs now looking more like thin slivers. Most importantly, press reports of some battles in and around Tal Abyad say that ISIS forces often left their defensive positions and fled for safety towards Raqqa or Turkey. We are witnessing a clear and repeated breakdown of the image that ISIS has tried to promote of itself, as an invincible fighting force that often wins even before any shot is fired, because its savagery and determination frighten any opponent into submission.
Well, the more accurate emerging reality in the military realm—as always pertained in the political and socio-economic spheres—is that ISIS is not so strong in absolute terms, but its gains have occurred primarily because of two related reasons: the weaknesses and uncoordinated nature of its foes in Iraq and Syria, especially governments, non-state militias and foreign air powers, and the general chaos and ungoverned nature of areas where it advances. When those two conditions are addressed and eliminated, ISIS is exposed for what it really is: a cult-like movement that attracts desperate people from the region and abroad whose main attraction to ISIS is that it offers them that which they seek but do not find in their own societies.
These desperate people who join or support ISIS include Sunni Arabs whose lives in Syria and Iraq have been a series of miseries for many decades, and Arabs and foreigners from other countries who see in ISIS the illusory promise of a noble struggle that gives meaning to their otherwise hollow and vulnerable lives. Its victories on the ground, like taking Raqqa, Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra, are less a reflection of ISIS’ mighty fighting abilities, and more about the consequences of the incoherent, corrupt and dilapidated state of the Arab societies around it.
The most significant element in the condition of the Arab societies, especially notable in Iraq, is the double-barreled problem of sectarian tensions within Iraqi nationals (such as Kurds vs. Arabs, Shiites vs. Sunnis, and others) and tensions between the United States and several key parties, notably Iran, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, the Syrian government, and Islamist rebel groups in Syria. Consequently, coordination among all the parties that are threatened by ISIS is minimized or prevented, and ISIS is left to expand here and there almost at will—until, that is, it comes up against a diligent ground force that coordinates closely with available air attack capabilities, as just happened in northern Syria.
This highlights the absolute centrality of political and socio-economic issues over military or strategic matters, in this episode with ISIS as well as with conditions across the Arab world in general. The political and sectarian problems that prevent military coordination also plague the constructive political development of countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, Palestine and others.
The threats from ISIS emphasize the central and common challenge facing all Arab states, of developing effective and equitable governance systems that allow all citizens to share in the fruits and toil of decent nationhood, and thus avoid the indecent vulgarities of ISIS and its ilk.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global