The air strikes have succeeded in buying time for the disorganised Iraqi forces to offer a more cohesive fight. IS operations have certainly been impacted, but the militia has absorbed the air strikes
The security environment in the perpetually strife-torn West Asia region has deteriorated so rapidly that the region has become an area of extreme concern for the international community. The triumphant march of the virulently radical Sunni militants of the recently proclaimed Islamic Caliphate, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been finally halted, but virtually on the gates of Baghdad. The militia of the so-called Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000 now, control a large area straddling the Syria-Iraq border and have seized key border crossings on the Syrian border with Jordan.
After capturing Fallujah in January, IS fighters made rapid progress in advancing along the Euphrates river in Anbar province of Iraq and have succeeded in holding on to their gains. In Syria, the IS militia has consolidated its hold over eastern provinces bordering Anbar province of Iraq. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have managed to retain control over Damascus and the area up to the Mediterranean Sea. The Al Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of the
Al Qaeda, controls most of northwest Syria and is gradually gaining ground. Syrian rebels known as the ‘Southern Front’ are continuing to fight President Assad’s forces while avoiding clashes with the Al Nusra Front. In the north, the Free Syrian Army has a tenuous foothold over a small patch of the territory.
With some help from the international community, the local players in this arc of instability in the West Asian region — Iraq, Syria and Turkey — are gradually getting into the act. After vacillating for several months and admitting that he had no strategy, US President Barack Obama decided to join the fight by launching air strikes against forces of the IS. The US has been joined in this endeavour by Australia, Britain, Canada and France and five Arab countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). In November, President Obama approved the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to take the strength of ground troops to 3,100. For the time being, they will continue to have only a training and advisory role.
Significant help is being provided to the Shia-dominated Government of Iraq by Iran and Russia. And, in a move that might be a game-changer in the long run, the Peshmerga, forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government that had captured oil-rich Kirkuk, regarded as the Kurd capital, have joined the fight against the IS in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Known as tough fighters, they are expected to drive the IS militia away from the areas claimed by the Kurds. So far, 5,00,000 to one million refugees have been added to the large number of displaced persons already struggling to stay alive in the steaming hot cauldron that is West Asia today.
The ideology of the IS is so primitive and barbaric that Osama bin Laden reportedly declined to have anything to do with them, when it had approached him. Baghdadi has openly proclaimed the intention of IS to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic State of Khorasan,which will include Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan. The final battle, Ghazwa-e-Hind — a term from Islamic mythology — will be fought to extend the caliphate to India. An IS branch has already been established in the Indian sub-continent. It is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli and is based in Pakistan. Some factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have already declared their allegiance to Baghdadi. Afghanistan’s new National Security Advisor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has said that the presence of Daesh or the IS is growing and that the group poses a threat to Afghan security. And, close to home, IS flags have been appearing sporadically in Srinagar.
So far, the air strikes have been only partially effective in military terms, but have succeeded in buying time for the disorganised Iraqi forces to regroup to offer a more cohesive fight. Though their operations have certainly been impacted, the IS militia has absorbed the air strikes fairly well so far, much like the Vietnam had done half a century ago. A major lesson that has emerged from the recent conflicts, particularly those in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that a guerrilla force that operates from safe havens among the rural population cannot be defeated from the air alone.
The US and its allies are unlikely to prevail over the IS militia without committing troops on the ground to fight a long-drawn counter-insurgency war against them. Alternatively, the Iraqis, the Kurds and the Turks must fight and defeat them.
The IS militia faces no serious opposition on the ground except from the Kurdish Peshmerga. These fighters — described by journalist Roula Khalaf as the “nicest men with guns” that she had encountered, were ill-equipped to fight the IS combatants who are far better armed, but have now begun to get new machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars from friendly powers. However, the Kurds are unlikely to be willing to fight beyond the land for which they seek autonomy, but part of which is in Iraq.
The coalition’s endeavour is to keep Iraq together, so there is an element of tension inbuilt into supporting and strengthening the Peshmerga. It may be more pragmatic to support a militarily strong Kurdistan as a bulwark against further IS expansion, but Turkey will have to be convinced that such a course of action is necessary. The US has been arming the Syrian opposition led-by the Free Syrian Army for several years to fight President Assad. It now hopes the Syrian opposition will join the fight against IS. Jordan needs to be given the support necessary to thwart the growth of IS to the west.
The US officials have been dropping broad hints to the effect that India should join the US and its allies in fighting IS as it poses a long-term threat to India as well. India has a large diaspora in West Asia, which includes female workers. Some Indian nurses had been taken hostage by IS fighters, but were released unharmed. India also has a large Muslim population that has so far remained detached from and unaffected by the ultra-radical IS and its aims and objectives, except for a handful of misguided youth who are reported to have signed up to fight. This may change if India joins the US-led coalition to fight the IS. However, India should cooperate closely by way of sharing information and intelligence and helping with efforts towards refugee relief.
A concerted international effort is needed to first contain and then comprehensively defeat the IS, failing which the consequences will be disastrous not only for the region, but also for most of the rest of Asia and Europe. However, it is for the Arabs to put together the military effort and resources necessary to seek and destroy IS fighters on the ground. Meanwhile, regional politics and attempts to take advantage of the situation to re-draw maps must wait if disastrous consequences are to be avoided.
(The writer is a Delhi-based strategic analyst