ISIS: A tragedy, but also an opportunity

4isisflagBy now, the world has heard about the so-called caliphate set up around Mosul in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now simply calling itself the Islamic State (IS). The Telegraph reported that during its offensive against the precarious Iraqi state, the IS has executed more than a thousand civilians and wounded a thousand more. In areas under its control, it has restored a degree of order, but also implemented an extremist interpretation of Shari’a law so brutal that both al-Qaeda and Hamas are said to have balked. It is also worth noting that the caliphates of early Islam, upon which the IS is based, were hardly ever this arbitrary or intolerant. Regardless of historical precedent, however, most would agree that the rise of ISIS is both a humanitarian crisis and a tragedy. However, it also represents an opportunity.

This opportunity rests with the fact that major actors across the region all have a vested interest in seeing the IS defeated. For a useful visual representation of this, observe the helpful Middle East Friendship Chart, published by Slate. By Slate’s estimation, the IS has no major allies in the region, and more than a few enemies. The most immediate beneficiaries of the creation of the Islamic State have been the Iraqi Kurds. As Baghdad has pivoted towards dealing with the IS, the Iraqi Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, has gained control of Kirkuk and other oil-rich areas. However, should Maliki’s government in Baghdad fall, the Kurds could be forced into conflict with a strengthened Islamic State. By assisting Iraq, the Kurds have a chance to win from them a peaceful separation or partial autonomy, a chance they would certainly not have under the hegemony of the Islamic State. There is evidence that this antagonism between the Kurds and the IS has started to crystallize anyway: BBC reports that the occupation of Kirkuk will probably draw the Kurdish Peshmerga into the fight against ISIS, and the militia has even been training female fighters to assist in the defense of Kirkuk.
Turkey, too, has a direct conflict with the IS: It has kidnapped over two dozen Turkish diplomats, including the Turkish consul. Turkey could also strengthen its ties with its Kurdish population. The decades-long war between Turkey and a Kurdish insurgency ended in 2012; that peace could be solidified through an alliance with Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi state against the Islamic State.

Iran, too, has much to gain from an anti-ISIS stance. The Islamic Republic, ideologically, is most likely concerned for the Shi’a in Iraq: the IS is extremely anti-Shia. Videos even show IS fighters rejoicing once they realize their executed victims were Shia. In more pragmatic terms, Iran should act to stabilize its western neighbor. A destabilized Iraq is simply more trouble than it is worth for Iran. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani may have realized this: Slate reports that Iran and the United States, bitter enemies only a few years ago, are “now tacitly cooperating in helping the Iraqi military fight ISIS”. Of course, there is also the matter of the United States, which has plenty of reasons to prop up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Baghdad government. The failure of the Iraqi nation-building project would be a major blow to imperial prestige.

The Obama administration in particular, having presided over the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, should hold an interest in maintaining stability for purely political reasons, if nothing else. However, direct military intervention is ill-advised: Regardless of the righteous, or not so righteous, intentions of the United States, the most probable result of military intervention is chaos. If the United States is to play any role at all in the defeat of the IS, it should be a backseat role, one of organizing coalitions and supporting alliances. Fortunately, this appears to be the way things are unfolding: President Obama and Secretary Kerry have opted for a soft-power, hands-off approach. This, alongside support from regional powers, might spell the end for the Islamic State.

The triple crises of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of the IS continue to rock the Middle East. We can anticipate that the first two crises will be protracted and bloody. However, the Islamic State is not an undefeatable problem: if the interested powers in the region are willing to work together for long-term stability, they may be able to put an end to the Mosul caliphate and its inhumane policies. This cooperation is perhaps not a likely scenario; but it is a possible course of action, and one the powers that be of the region would be wise to consider.