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After the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) invaded and captured the northern cities of Iraq, it became apparent that they intended to eliminate the artificial borders that were drawn as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The territory ISIS controls stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo in the West, to towns in eastern Iraq. In Mosul, ISIS seized a cache of largely American supplied weaponry and equipment, and about $425 million from the city’s central bank.In an audio message released on June 11, ISIS’s official spokesperson Abu Muhammed al-Adnani urged ISIS fighters to march on Baghdad and to continue their advance to the southern cities of Karbala and Najaf which are considered two of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.
Authoritarianism, sectarianism and the failure of Arabism…
Since state sponsored Arab secularism, socialism and nationalism could not resolve the social and economic problems they faced, the governments in the region resorted to manipulating and mobilizing the people by shifting their attention from domestic problems to external threats. They waged war against these external enemies under the slogan: “fight against imperialism;” some of these enemies were real, while others were imaginary. The people did not recognize that the real enemy was within. The cancer of sectarianism and corruption spread through the region for decades. With the demise of Pan-Arabism as a strong state ideology, Islamists tried to fill this vacuum. With the spread of sectarian and religious hatred on the one hand, and authoritarian policies on the other, these Islamist movements began to radicalize. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are clear examples of how they both mobilized and radicalized the Sunnis to some extent in the regions that they control. In Iraq, the secular Baathists of Tigrit city (Saddam Hussein’s hometown) allied with ISIS and drove out the Iraqi army after accusing them of being a “Shiite controlled army.”
Consequently, Shiite clerics called on their community to take up arms against ISIS. A similar process was witnessed in Syria when Christians and Alawites volunteers organized defense units to fight against the “Sunni dominated” Syrian opposition forces.
The trust between the ethnic and religious groups has been broken. If actions are not taken soon, the borders that were drawn by the imperialists as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement would be redrawn with the blood of the locals. Some minorities might not survive, while others might try to draw their own borders—if they are lucky enough.
The Kurdish factor…Get ready for independence…
Presently, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are in full control of the disputed, oil-rich Kirkuk area. The Kurds had hoped to regain the disputed territories with the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, but seven years later the proposed referendum was never held, and the Iraqi federal government showed no intention of organizing a referendum. As the fighting intensifies between the Iraqi army and ISIS, the Kurds stated that they would only launch an offensive if PM Maliki grants them their century old dream: Kurdish independence.
Why is Kurdish independence inevitable? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has good relations with Turkey, and the latter is investing heavily in KRG’s energy sector. However, Kurdish independence in Iraq could pose a threat to Syria, because it might lead to the mobilization of Kurds living in Hasaka and other Kurdish populated areas in Syria. Moreover, Iran would prefer to build good relations with Kurdistan to keep the Kurds of Iran in check. In addition, the Iraqi army is unable to launch an offensive against ISIS militants in the North, unless they join forces with the Kurdish Peshmrega forces.
Meanwhile, on the international front, the West would welcome a democratic and pro-western state in the Middle East, where they can secure access to Kurdish oil fields. In the future, this could change the strategic importance of the oil rich Gulf.
Bringing together rivals…
The latest military gains of the Syrian army in Kessab and Aleppo should not come as a surprise. However, the tides are shifting; even though there have been allegations that Turkey is supporting ISIS, the closure of Turkey’s border with Syria and listing Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization are signs of Turkey’s shifting stance on Syria and the Middle East. Some would argue that it’s a result of the beginning of a new chapter in the Turkish-Iranian relations. On June 9, Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News reported that in an attempt to strengthen Turkish-Iranian relations, the two nations will be signing economic, cultural and political agreements during Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s visit to Turkey. According to Reuters, US President Barack Obama has considered the option of taking military action to support Iraq’s besieged government. Furthermore, the British foreign ministry has expressed its readiness to reopen the British embassy in Tehran. The latest Western rapprochement with Iran revealed that it’s impossible to exclude Iran from regional issues.
ISIS is fighting against Iraq’s Maliki and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad— both allies of Iran. If Iraq falls into the hands of the insurgents, Iran’s supply route to the Syrian regime will be cut off. Thus, if Baghdad falls, Iran will not remain silent; it will intervene militarily to protect the holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, and to ensure that the supply routes to Syria remain open.
The important question is whether or not ISIS will launch an offensive in Syria and if they do, will it spread to the Mediterranean coast? It’s not clear whether or not the US will interfere directly, but if ISIS threatens Jordan or the oil-rich Gulf countries, the US would interfere to secure its interests. Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who want to see Maliki defeated, will support any intervention that would hinder Iran’s involvement and ISIS’s territorial expansion from reaching their borders. Thus, despite the differing interests of these countries, they are willing to cooperate based on their mutual security concerns and interest of defeating ISIS.
The uncalculated policies of Arab leaders and their inability to build a sovereign state brought this catastrophe to the region. It’s not clear when or if ISIS can be defeated, but the longer it survives, the more power it gains and the more hatred it will spread.
The article was originally published at NOW Lebanon
Yeghia Tashjian holds a B.A. in political science from Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a Lebanese-Armenian political activist, researcher, blogger and the founder of the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. Currently, he is the regional and communication officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank and research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center-Haigazian University. You can follow the author on Twitter @yeghig.