The Coalition Against ISIL and Unexpected Challenges

  • Wednesday, November 19, 2014

By Robert Olson
Professor Emeritus University of Kentucky

It has been nearly two months since the Jeddah Communiqué was signed by some 40 nations, coming together to use their various political, economic and military resources to challenge the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  

What is the current situation? Very few of the signees have contributed any substantial resources, with the exception of the US. According to the most recent reports, in addition to the US, only two of the seven emirates of the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, France, the Netherlands and Australia have contributed air power.  

Despite Britain's clamor for war, parliament has refused to vote on whether or not to send aircraft. With the exception of the Gulf Arab states and other countries mentioned above, contributions have been minimal. This in itself should be of concern to the US regarding the prospects for finding solutions that would be acceptable to the countries, non-state actors and groups participating in the war.

 It is also clear that the war against ISIS is hardly an all-encompassing “war against terror.” It is rather largely a war to determine the newly forming geopolitical and geostrategic spaces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. If this were not the case, it would be difficult to comprehend why the US-led war has not made much progress.  

It should be of concern to knowledgeable analysts and policy makers that ISIS and other jihadist forces will not be militarily defeated in a reasonable amount of time, particularly if the war itself is not primarily about ISIS but rather about which countries, non-state actors and organizations will be able to obtain most, or at least some, of their cherished geopolitical objectives. Would this fact not help those trying to understand the reasons for the war reach some kind of reasonable conclusions other than attributing the war only to ISIS and its supporters?  

In this regard, perhaps it would be useful to consider the geopolitical and geostrategic objectives of the major countries and non-state actors involved in the war.  

If one takes the contributions to the war effort in terms of aircraft, weapons, funds and fighters (one hesitates to use the term soldiers), it is clear that the major contributors are the US and Gulf Arab countries.

The geostrategic objective of the US is to maintain as much stability as possible among the sovereign states of the Middle East, in particular Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and even Iran. It is the first five countries mentioned that are of particular importance.  

Four of these countries have been affected by the flow of refugees. There are now more than 1 million refugees each in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and several hundred thousand in Iraq. There are also some 6 million internally displaced in Syria and another 4 million displaced in Iraq, some of them in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region. In Iraq, some had been displaced prior to the war against ISIS.  

The results of this massive internal and external displacement threaten the very sovereign fabric of not only the countries mentioned above, but the entire central Middle East region.  

Unless the continuing accumulation of refugees can be ameliorated and addressed, the following geopolitical changes might well occur.  


Stability of Lebanon in jeopardy

The stability of Lebanon, which has been able to maintain a pluralistic society since 1943, is in jeopardy. The same can be said for Syria. Unless a settlement among the Bashar al-Assad and Baathist forces, their supporters and the resisting forces can be reached, it is quite possible that Syria will fragment largely into an enclave consisting of Alawites, Christians, Druze and Ismailis along the Mediterranean coast, a Sunni interior and a Kurdish region in the northeast, with a belt along Syria's border with Turkey.  

In Iraq, such ethnic-religious fragmentation has already occurred. The US policy proclivity toward keeping Iraq a sovereign state in order to maintain the viability of Washington's global geostrategic interests is doomed to failure.  

Washington has a policy of supplying Baghdad and its largely Shiite government over the next few years with an estimated $10 billion in weapons, arms and aircraft. This policy, along with Baghdad's expected production of 3 to 4 million barrels of oil per day in 2016, with an estimated annual income of well over $200 billion, will strengthen further the Baghdad government. Even if oil prices lessen, this assures that the Sunnis of Iraq will have to accept a subordinate position in a Shiite-dominated Arab-Iraq polity. A Sunni-Arab entity in central Iraq is simply not viable, and neither is such a state in Syria; to assert that such entities could become viable states is poppycock.

 As odd as it may seem, the greatest geopolitical challenges could take place in Turkey. To the uninformed, this is surprising. It is surprising because unlike Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and potentially Jordan, Turkey is far from being a failed state. In spite of a recent economic slowdown, Turkey is still an economically vibrant country, ranking 16th in the world.  

Turkey has been a reluctant member of the anti-ISIS coalition since the very beginning. Its opposition to US policies increased further as a result of the battle over Kobani and its lack of resolution. As the battle for Kobani gathered momentum, the US was compelled to increase its support for the Kurds fighting ISIS. By the end of October, the battle for Kobani had become a symbol of pan-Kurdish nationalist struggles not just in Syria but in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Kurds from Europe joined the battle.  

The battle for Kobani, and whether the town would be able to fend off ISIS forces or not, became of lesser importance than the greater unity shown by many of the Kurdish nationalists, political parties, military forces and organizations in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, in spite of differing policies and geopolitical alliances.  

Unlike Syria and Iraq, which have already assumed the status of failed states, Turkey is a member of NATO, an applicant for membership in the European Union and a strong ally of the US. It now has to confront reinvigorated Kurdish nationalist movements due partially to the policies of the US war against ISIS. To the uninformed, such a turn of events is geopolitically mind-boggling.  

This is especially true for Turkey itself. Now, instead of following its time-honored policy of "managing" the Kurdish question by a variety of different military, intelligence, police, gendarmerie, political and economic means in the hope of staving off Kurdish demands for political autonomy, it has to face the possibility of genuine decentralization and devolution of state power to the heavily Kurdish populated regions of southeastern and eastern Turkey along lines recommended by the EU charter of local administration for minority groups.  

This decentralization and devolution would not go so far as the autonomy that the Kurds of Iraq have attained, which amounts to a quasi-state. The number one demand of Kurds in Turkey is that they, and other minorities, be allowed to be educated in their mother tongue. Indeed, Kurds have already gone so far as to plan a private university in Diyarbakır in which Kurdish will be the primary language of instruction. Such a demand is anathema to the Turkish state, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  

Erdoğan has stated clearly that Turkey's policy is that there is no difference between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). In his opinion, both are terrorist organizations. His view also differs from that of the US State Department, which has declared of late, partially to mollify Erdoğan, that while it considers the PKK a terrorist organization, the PYD is not. Implicit in this statement, since the PKK and PYD are closely allied, is that the US also recognizes that the PKK might not be a terrorist organization. Such statements indicate Washington and Ankara differ not only regarding the war against ISIS but regarding the Kurdish question as well. The battle of Kobani showed that the two issues are becoming inextricably mixed.  

The current geopolitical changes taking place in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and increased Kurdish demands for a host of demands, including political autonomy, is yet another unexpected result of the US-led war against ISIS. In another historical irony, the geopolitical changes taking place may result in as much of a challenge to Turkey as ISIS is to Iraq and Syria. Yet a further irony is that the war against ISIS and its ramifications is contributing to growing differences between Turkey and the US.

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