No matter what crisis grabs the headlines, from Thailand to Syria, there is always one danger zone in the Middle East which is in constant limbo between recovery from its troubled past, and becoming a failed state. Yet within the last week it would seem that Iraq has come back into the limelight with the rise of a Sunni Islamist insurgent force that poses a real threat to the government in Baghdad. The group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have taken the whole of northern Iraq and are determined to make their way further south to the nation’s capital after dismantling the army in the north.
This situation is not just concerning for the nation of Iraq, but also for all surrounding nations. ISIS would progress from Iraq into the likes of Jordan, whilst completing its “mission” in Syria, to create sectarian regimes, which in turn could potentially domino its way throughout other Arab and Farsi countries. The news of this group gaining ground and support is disheartening for many who believed that the recent Arab spring showed signs of desired democratisation and non-sectarianism within the region. This group represents the regressive tendencies that Islam can bring about within the middle east, especially in states such as Iraq where instability is constant.
The main question that must be answered is how did a handful of rouges emerge from nowhere and how did they rally so much support? To answer the latter half of the question, their existence can be traced back to the Iraqi war in 2003, which could leave some to argue that this is yet another extremist group formed as a result of Western actions. The group have been relatively inactive over the past decade due to their leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi being detained by US troops (2005-2009) in Iraq. According to some sources his views were radicalised during his time as a prisoner, which would certainly explain the sudden surge in this group’s activity since he has retaken the reins of control. The group has received funding from Islamic charities and rich individuals in the gulf, and has also looted banks whilst selling raw materials on the black market for money. The group now has around $2bn in funds. This high cash flow has enabled Baghdadi to breach out and gain support as well as arms. ISIS has used social media extremely well in spreading their cause, and have branded their movement as well as Al-Qaeda branded theirs. This, paired with the recent execution videos and photos, has only encouraged more men to join the Sunni cause and wage a Jihad on Shia Islam. This momentum gained from recent events has only contributed to ISIS’s membership, with Sunnis from all over the world (including around 400 UK nationals) fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
This however has been matched by the recent flux of Shia volunteers from Baghdad who are determined to fight off this new threat, with videos of truckloads of these enthusiastic volunteers jeering and singing appearing on news stations around the world. These volunteers have appeared in the hundreds, and considering the lack of Iraqi army ground forces, this may come as a breadth of fresh air for PM Nouri Maliki and the Iraqi government.
The threat of this strong Sunni force is being felt by neighbouring Iran, whose population is 89% Shia, putting it at high risk of attack from ISIS. Iran is inclined to aid Baghdad in its fight against ISIS, and as a result an unlikely alliance could potentially be formed…
The Iranian president has already highlighted the possibility of working with the US to combat the insurgents. These desires have been somewhat echoed by US Secretary of State John Kerry who has stated the US would be willing to share information with Iran over combating ISIS, but so far has been hesitant to cooperate fully with Iran in an alliance. This sentiment could, however, be changed. Obama has sent 300 US troops to Iraq to protect their embassy in Baghdad and advise the Iraqi government; other then this action Obama is reluctant to commit more troops to Iraq, despite ISIS growing in strength daily. It would appear that Obama is hesitant to repeat the same mistakes that the Bush administration made back in 2003. However if the situation in Iraq continues to escalate, paired with ISIS activity in Syria, the US may be incentivised to commit more forces to the area.
This could very well result in heightened cooperation with the US’s old enemy Iran. Iran have their own interests to protect in regards to the situation in Iraq, which could mean that the two sides would have to fight alongside each other. Britain has already looked to further cooperate with Iran through reopening its embassy in Tehran after long consideration on the matter. This rather brave act announced by William Hague will also pressure the US to take further steps in cooperating with their old enemies, perhaps even taking a similar step to the one that Britain has just taken. The Obama administration has seen a succession of failures when it has come to foreign policy, with the cherry on the cake being Kerry’s failure to reach a settlement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Obama does not want his foreign policy to be viewed as a complete failure in the history books, he must encourage his administration to take all necessary steps to stabilise the situation in Iraq, which could mean reopening diplomatic relations with Iran after a dormant 35 years.
Obama has so far refrained from committing too much to the crisis in Iraq and Syria for fear of making similar mistakes to the Bush administration; this will have to change. ISIS are growing at a terrifying speed and could be fighting in Baghdad within the next few days. If the capital is captured it would mean ISIS have a perfect vantage point to terrorise other Arab and Farsi nations. This is a risk that the West cannot afford to take, no matter how hard they try to avoid entering the conflict.
The future for Iraq (and Syria) is uncertain with ISIS gaining so much ground, but one thing that is in the hands of nations such as the US and Britain is that they now have an opportunity to cooperate with their old enemy and potentially end the tensions that have existed between them. The outcome of this conflict hinges on what the worlds great powers do to aid Iraq, with the country resorting to volunteers and air strikes to repel the attackers. With the Middle East already being the most volatile area in the world, a new threat to rival the likes of Al-Qaeda would send the area into complete and utter chaos, and it is vital that nations work together to strike at ISIS’s core and cut its momentum before it is too late.