Forming the anti-ISIL Front
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans,” John Lennon once said. This is exactly what is happening in the Middle East today. While states are forming their Iraq and Syria policies, the uncontrollable rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) turns the plans upside-down. Policies are being remade over and over again.
ISIL is holding a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq under its control at the moment. It is expanding its territories day by day, carrying out massacres against anyone standing in its way. Last week, for the first time, it attacked northern Iraqi Kurds. It is marching on the region rapidly and its next targets seem to be Arbil and Kirkuk.
This risky course of events has turned the plans of the U.S., Baghdad and the Kurds in the region upside down. First, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) declared they are more than ready to make any sacrifice for northern Iraq. Following that statement, hundreds of PKK militants rushed to the region, in addition to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the PKK-affiliated dominant group in northern Syria, Rojava, and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants. Rojava is already experienced in this struggle since it has been fighting against ISIL for months.
This development is a milestone since Arbil and the PKK-PYD camp have been at odds for a long time. However, the rise of the ISIL has changed this all of a sudden. I had written two weeks ago that “Arbil and PKK-PYD will have to cooperate against the ISIL threat and their reconciliation is not far away.” This is because their strategic interests fully overlap at the moment.
The U.S.’s Iraq strategy has also turned upside-down. Washington’s policy was as following: “Let Nouri al-Maliki go first and the new government formed will embrace Sunnis and Kurds. And once Sunnis enjoy their rights, they will withdraw their support from ISIL, which will eventually weaken. This is when we will attack the ISIL-held spots.” However, the truth of the matter proved itself to be different.
ISIL has not waited until the formation of the new government. In other words, until its Sunni supporters deceive it. Hence the U.S. had to change its plans accordingly. On Aug. 8, President Barack Obama gave the mandate to the armed forces to launch an airstrike against ISIL if American facilities and personnel are threatened. He was referring to the U.S. consulate and joint operations center in Arbil. And later during the day, the U.S. military attacked ISIL artillery in northern Iraq.
However, any airstrike will be as limited as the one of Aug. 8. It will be launched only if American interests are directly threatened and only ISIL spots are pinpointed. This is because the U.S. doesn’t want to re-engage in a war in Iraq and open a front against ISIL. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned this week against the risk that ISIL might launch an attack like 9/11.
Yet still, the U.S. had to change its short term plans and move the prospect of an airstrike to an earlier time without waiting for al-Maliki to step down. And if the uncontrollable rise of ISIL is not hampered, the U.S. plans will keep changing constantly.
The most interesting change has taken place in the Arbil-Baghdad line. Early last week, al-Maliki sent Iraqi air forces to support the Kurdish peshmerga. This is also a milestone, since the relations between Baghdad and Arbil have been at odds for a long while. Al-Maliki had even been accusing Arbil of supporting ISIL. And now they have found themselves cooperating.
Turkey’s position is extremely complicated. It is feeling the ISIL threat along its borders increasingly every day. In addition, there is the rising risk of an attack inside of its borders. Ankara will certainly take its place in these newly emerging alliances against ISIL. It is also certain that it will align itself with the U.S. line, getting engaged as indirectly and passively as possible.