Cohesion in fighting IS

Upping the ante against the Islamic Caliphate proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, President Francois Hollande of France has ordered large scale air strikes in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris. President Barack Obama has approved the deployment of 50 Special Forces personnel to direct US air strikes more accurately and President Vladimir Putin has stepped up Russia’s fight against the Islamic State and Daesh. 

During the Cold War, the two superpowers had for long jockeyed for power and influence in the oil rich West Asia through their proxies, but both Russia and the United States are now direct participants in the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

The present round of instability in the perpetually strife-torn West Asian region is being fuelled mainly by the ultra-radical Sunni militants of the IS. The IS is engaged in a vicious fight with the armed forces of Iraq and Syria and the Peshmerga–forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from the Kurdish belt along the Iraq-Turkey border. It has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and demonstrated its ability to defend its gains.

The IS militia, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000, have seized key border crossings with Syria and Jordan and now control a large area straddling the Syria-Iraq border. Since the fighting began, up to one million refugees have been added to the large number of displaced persons already struggling to stay alive.

The real long-term danger arises from the inability of Iraq and Syria to eliminate the threat posed to their sovereignty by the IS. Syria’s long term ally Iran and the Hizbollah, the Shia militia based in Lebanon, have come to its aid. In the civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2012, almost 2,50,000 people have been killed and thousands of refugees have begun migrating to Europe; many hundreds have perished in the attempt.

Further west, Palestinian attackers backed by the Fatah and Hamas – designated as a terrorist organisation – have been clashing with the Israeli security forces on a daily basis, with casualties on both sides. The growing violence, attributed to Palestinian anger with Israel’s continuing occupation, has sparked fears of a new intifada on multiple fronts.

Disagreements over prayers at the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa mosque in Israel-controlled East Jerusalem are aggravating the tensions. Elsewhere, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are still mired in the aftermath of the tribulations of the Arab Spring; and, Saudi Arabia is engaged in fighting the Houthis on its border with Yemen and making heavy weather of it.

One year ago, after vacillating for long, President Obama decided to join the fight by launching air strikes against the IS militia while simultaneously arming anti-Assad forces like the Free Syrian Army with a view to bringing about a regime change in Syria. The US was 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 early-November 2014, Obama approved the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to take the strength of ground troops to 3,500. Though they were initially given only a training and advisory role and confined to their bases, the US is likely to soon begin embedding its troops with the Iraqi Security Forces in small numbers for specialised tasks such as acting as forward air controllers and coordinating intelligence. 

In a surprise move, President Putin’s Russia joined the fight on September 30, 2015 with the twin aims of defeating the IS and destroying anti-Assad forces. However, so far, the air strikes launched by the Russian air force have been directed mainly against the forces opposed to President Assad of Syria – the same militias that are being armed and supported by the US. Russian ground troops are also expected to join the fight soon.

Spreading its tentacles

Al-Baghdadi has openly proclaimed the intention of IS to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic state of Khorasan that will include Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan. The final battle, Ghazwa-e-Hind – a term from Islamic mythology – is to 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 somewhere in Pakistan.

Diplomatic moves have been initiated to coordinate operations and work together for peace and stability. The US and Russia agree that the objective of their interventions should be to end the civil war in Syria through a political deal and that both Iraq and Syria should remain united countries. They also agree that the IS extremists must be completely eliminated. Iran has agreed to join the negotiations to resolve the conflict in Syria. 

While the political objectives are similar, till the Paris attacks, the methods used to achieve them were different and were designed to extend the influence of each of the protagonists in the region. The recent G20 summit at Antalya in Turkey brought about better recognition of the nature of the threat and a confluence of views. It appears that the fight back will now be more coherent and better coordinated.

The conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria and Yemen – a number of seemingly unrelated crises – have the potential to blend together to unleash a regional nightmare with much wider repercussions. The international community must come together to first contain and then comprehensively defeat the IS and stabilise Iraq and Syria, failing which the consequences will be disastrous not only for the region, but also for most of the rest of Asia and Europe. 

(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi)