By Jordan Morris
|Flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria|
Within the last few weeks we have watched a paradigm shift in Middle Eastern foreign relations. With The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham on Baghdad’s doorstep, the US is confronted yet again with the prospect of becoming involved in one of the most turbulent states of the Middle East. ISIS’s conquest in Northern Iraq and Syria has already led to President Obama doing something no one thought he would ever do: send American troops back to Iraq. The limited deployment brought some 300 military advisors to assist the Iraqi army in fighting the lingering ISIS militants who have stopped just short of Baghdad, but have explicitly stated their intent to take Iraq’s capital city. ISIS fighters, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will find that Baghdad is not Mosul or Tikrit, and at that the Iraqi government’s last stand will not be taken alone.
Iraq has pleaded for help from the US and received a limited response, one that is unlikely to be followed up with any significant US presence or even the air-strikes that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had petitioned for. Even without major assistance from the US, Maliki’s government may still stand, thanks to Iran. On June 18th Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, gave a speech at the Iraq-Iran border, pledging to do whatever it took to protect Shia populations and holy sites in southern Iraq (a move reminiscent of Vladimir Putin, who invaded Crimea citing his government’s duty to protect Russian nationals in Ukraine). At the eleventh hour, when an ISIS attack on Baghdad is imminent , we may very well see an anomaly of world politics take place—cooperation between the US and Iran. Both Iran and the US have been clear that there will be no conventional military coalition between the countries, but undoubtedly both recognize a common interest in protecting the current state of Iraq. Consequently, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has condemned cooperation, and suggested that the US is using this issue to further sink its teeth into Middle-Eastern affairs.
The ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ scenario is an optimistic look at the future of relations between the US and its historical adversary, but some, and specifically Israel, are wary of cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Understandably the small Jewish state is highly skeptical of and opposed to its biggest ally cooperating with a government that has time and time again threatened to destroy it, but Iranian action supported by the U.S. could actually benefit Jerusalem. ISIS has been clear its vision of al-Sham includes the lands of Palestine. The militants announced the development of a special unit, the Al Quds Unit, whose mission is to destroy the “Zionist regime occupying Palestine,” according to an article on CounterPunch.org.
Either unknowingly or arrogantly, the Natanyahu government has been retaliating against any attack coming from within Syrian borders with attacks against the Assad government, who fight not only against the al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, but ISIS as well. What this means is that if these claims of strict al-Assad regime punishment for any attack carried against Israel from Syria are true, then Israel would be aiding the very Islamic fighters who vow to destroy it. For Israel, Iranian and US cooperation in fighting ISIS could serve as a distraction that would move fighters and recruiters closer to the major fronts in southern Iraq, and away from Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, where their base of operations for their attack against Israel would most likely be rooted.
As ISIS draws nearer to Baghdad, the world’s eyes have focused on the last bastion of the current Iraqi government (in Iraq at least). In the north, the Kurds have more and more distanced themselves from Iraq. Now that the true weakness of the central government has been revealed, Kurds are more determined to disassociate and consolidate their independence. Their recent takeover of what would be the capital of Kurdistan, Kirkuk, signifies yet another milestone since the fall of Mosul and makes the central Iraqi government all the more arbitrary to the Kurds. The acquisition of oil deposits in Kirkuk will eliminate any further incentive the Kurds have to stand by al-Maliki, a figure who has already lost their trust by failing to produce on promises that he made to the Kurds in order to gain their vote. Before Kirkuk, the Kurds were receiving money from the government to remain part of Iraq, but their recent resource gains have made those incentives irrelevant. The Kurds have been autonomously ruling themselves since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and statements from Kurdish President Massoud Barzani suggest that the borders of Iraq going unchanged is very unlikely. The Kurds will not stand to be penalized for the sectarian antagonisms of Iraq’s current PM and the Kurdish Peshmerga have been able to stave off ISIS. While officials from the US State Department still believe that Iraq can remain whole, Kurdish victories have only strengthened their determination, and it is very unlikely that Iraq will look the same when all is said and done.
The incipient resurrection of independent Kurdistan has rendered an unlikely ally for the displaced ethnic group. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, tensions were already high between the Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish government. Turkey is home to the highest number of Kurds and a Kurdish secessionist movement could be devastating. Today, however, the Turkish government has shown support for the Iraqi Kurdish independence measures. The Kurds of northern Iraq and the Turkish government do almost $8b per year in trade. Kurdish pipelines supply Turkey with oil, which will now become even more profitable due to the addition of Kirkuk. The Kurds also provide a buffer zone between Turkey and ISIS, which could threaten Turkish interests. Domestically, Recep Tyyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister, announced peace deals with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Time.com reports that part of this deal included Kurdish support of the Erdogan government.
As the world waits to see what will become of what is currently known as Iraq, it is possible that we have mistakenly turned a blind eye to other important issues around the world. It’s not clear that there have been international benefits due to the distraction of what’s happening in Iraq and I don’t wish to marginalize the situation. Iraq and ISIS may be the most important international event of the year, and depending on how it unfolds, it could have dire consequences for the Middle East. I suggest that it is possible that certain actors are taking advantage of being out of the limelight. Iraq is important. We are stuck in a quandary of whether or not to go back to a country that we spend ten years, trillions of dollars trying to fix. That’s not counting the Coalition and Middle-Eastern lives that were taken over the course of our occupation. Could it be that when the US isn’t watching, when we are so focused on one issue, albeit an extremely important issue, that we miss a flurry of activity that happens right behind our back? When the powers at be look away, they miss those who truly need them, or worse, could they miss the beginnings of those who will dethrone them?