Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg
Ever since the bearded fighters under the Prophet’s banner rode into Mosul in June this year, the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, has been on the radar of the international community. What had long been ignored as a local phenomenon in Iraq’s al Anbar Province and parts of Northern Syria, now grasped the attention of military strategists, analysts and the intelligence community from Tehran and Riyadh over Tel Aviv to Washington. Yet, it was not so much the horrific images of barbarism circulating on social media that concerned the international community as much more the implications of IS’ seizure of strategic positions in Northern Iraq and Syria. The negative integration witnessed in the Middle East uniting Israelis and Saudis as well as Americans and Iranians, was not founded on a genuine concern for the tens of thousands of individuals exposed to ethnic cleansing, mass executions or barbaric torture, but revolved around the strategic interests of those seeing the Levant as their sphere of influence. Now the suffering of the Yazidis has become the graphic testimony to the international community’s failure to protect individuals from the inability and unwillingness of regimes in Damascus and Baghdad to provide security inclusively. The international community responds reluctantly, ignoring its duties under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), by propping up the Kurds as a surrogate to act as a force multiplier. The long-term solution to this humanitarian disaster, however, cannot be found in Kurdistan, but lies with Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq who out of feelings of abandonment by the international community and arising despair have been the backbone of jihadist advances.
In the shadow of civil-societal outcries over Israel’s recent Gaza campaign, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of the Islamic State has deviated so far from the righteous path of Islam that the horrors of its reign have alienated Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Chopped off heads decorate town squares in Northern Syria, women are being stoned publicly for adultery, prisoners of war beg for their life before being mass executed in desert sandpits, men are being crucified for apostasy. The Islamic State spurns Islamic traditions of peaceful coexistence and tolerance by cleansing its area of responsibility of Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and of course, all other Muslims not ascribing to a 7th century Islamic lifestyle. The most recent tragedy of Yazidi men, women and children being trapped on the Sinjar Mountains, is just another result of the Islamic State’s ruthless attempt to catapult the region back to medieval times. In face of these atrocities that essentially root in the international community’s strategic failure to deal with the Civil War in Syria, the UN Security Council has missed the opportunity to go beyond merely ‘expressing grave concern’ about the humanitarian situation in the ‘Islamic State’. Consecutive Security Council Resolutions, including the most recent resolution 2169, have ignored the de facto reality on the ground by affirming the de jure sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. The Islamic State operates transnationally providing quasi-state functions within its area of responsibility beyond any reach of the government in Baghdad, which merely controls the capital and the Shite South of the country. The territorial integrity of Iraq is history, its sovereignty undermined by the direct interventions of the US and Iran. Instead of accepting this reality, the UN Security Council beats around the bush, failing under the pressure of Western war fatigue to affirm the R2P:
“Where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect”.
Although it might be premature to speak of genocide, the crimes against humanity being committed on a large scale certainly constitute a serious threat to individual security in the region and would justify a Chapter VII intervention. However, the state-centric nature of international law seems to favour international abstinence as the current crisis is not just international but transnational and occurs in a vacuum of insecurity beyond the reach of the failed states of Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State is barely a state either – neither under international law nor by any social contractarian standards. This legal ambiguity allows the Security Council to pay lip service to the R2P without giving the international community an obligatory mandate to do something to not just contain the spread of IS but to protect those individuals under threat of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
Without a clear mandate, the international community is left to deal with the Islamic State as they see fit weighing the severity of the threat against the costs of acting. The Arab World preoccupied with the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has remained silent. The GCC, the only Arab consortium militarily and financially strong enough to make a difference on the ground is divided over ideological disagreements on the role of political Islam in the Middle East. Qatar’s recently more expansive foreign and security policy has come to a halt amid the protests of its neighbours in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, although generally eager to provide assistance to suffering individuals in the region, will not make any moves in Iraq or Syria without consulting Riyadh. Iran has directly intervened in Iraq by protecting an almost exclusively Shite patronage network with Maliki as its disposable figurehead. The West after drawing repeated red lines in the desert sand, has decided to use the Kurds as both a military surrogate and force multiplier for sporadic US air strikes. The US sends arms and military advisors, France provides lethal military kit, Germany non-lethal military aid and the UK air lift capability. Israel although silently, has sent military advisors to support the Kurds as a regional ally with which it maintains a constructive long-term relationship. Yet, in face of austerity, defence cuts and public casualty sensitivity, the West is reluctant to reopen a front in Iraq from which the US and the UK hastily retreated in 2011. As high-altitude air power can neither protect civilians nor defeat IS as a military organization using hybrid strategies, the West relies on the Kurds and to a lesser extent on the Iraqi Armed Forces to deliver the punch on the ground. However, looking at current capabilities of the Islamic State, Western support at current levels will, if anything, only manage to protect those civilians who already found their way to Kurdistan.
Instead of propping up the Kurds as a Western military surrogate only able to fight IS from the outside, the international community should support the Sunni tribes of Iraq who by pragmatically rather than ideologically pledging allegiance to the Caliphate constitute its strategic centre of gravity. The solution in Iraq and Syria lies with those Sunnis who have been systematically marginalized by their respective governments and who have jumped on IS’ jihadist bandwagon to achieve more political self-determination – or at least autonomy. Creating a disconnect between those Sunnis and the mostly foreign mujahedeen of IS would be an approach that would undermine IS’ momentum and deprive the organization of its ability to enforce its medieval customs on a fearful civilian population. The international community would have to distant itself from the idea of Iraq as an integral nation state, would have to accept Sunni claims for autonomy, would have to rely on strategic partners in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to establish links of communication and oversight with Sunni tribesmen, would have to be ready to provide financial and military assistance to these tribesmen, and would have to put boots on the ground as military advisors to train, equip and monitor these tribesmen in establishing stability and security in those areas lost by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to IS. The international community’s current reluctance to accept strategic risks will gradually deteriorate regional insecurity and most importantly endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals living in the conflict zone.
 ICISS, (2001). The Responsibility to Protect. The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Ottawa: International Development Research Center. (p.IX)