What makes it difficult to fight ISIS?
ISIS or the Islamic state of Iraq and Sham (Syria), which in the Islamic world is called “Daesh,” rose in 2012 but it has its roots in the al-Qaeda group in Iraq after the Saddam regime fell.
Al-Baghdadi, a Sunni cleric extremist, was leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq until 2010 and then he abandoned them and created ISIS, when Islamist groups started to fight Bashar Assad. In 2013, he named himself the Caliphate of Muslims (successor of Prophet Mohammad).
Now his jihadists have occupied eastern and northern sections of Syria (one third of the country) and the northwestern part of Iraq. At least 30,000 fighters are working with Al-Baghdadi from 90 countries. One third of them have come from western countries. Mostly, they cross Turkey’s borders to join the Jihadist Group. They are controlling Aleppo city, Dier-ezzor and Raqqa in Syria and Mosel, the second largest city in Iraq.
The opposition groups in Syria are fractured. There are deep differences among nationalists, Islamists, extremists, and ethnic groups. Kurds in northern Syria are not well armed and there is still mistrust between the Kurds (10 percent in Syria) and Arab rebels. However, last November, ISIS and Jebhat Al- Nusra (a branch of al-Qaeda) agreed to end fighting and unite against their rivals. This step will weaken a US-led coalition.
US President Barack Obama stresses that he is not seeking authority for an open-ended ground war. Air strikes are ineffective to destroy ISIS. Obama's efforts against ISIS last month went to a plan to use force against ISIS. But it is still in trouble in Congress, mostly from his fellow Democrats. Republicans think the plan is not as strong as it should to be.
Gaps in the coalition
The International Coalition against ISIS includes 40 nations and it is divided among the members. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have a hypocritical policy about ISIS. Their secret services are engaged in arming them. There's Saudi Arabia, leading Sunnis in the Middle East and there's Iran, its rival, leading Shiites in the region. The Saudis' recent military involvement in Yemen can help ISIS, which is fighting the Iran- backed Houthis.
As a result, Saudi Arabia thinks weakening ISIS gives Iran the upper hand in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Recently “prince” Turki bin Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief said: "The US should stop Syria not ISIS.”
In return, Tariq Mahmud, an Egyptian who’s the coalition's legal advisor, recently accused Qatar and Turkey of supporting Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi and terrorists, which makes the gap bigger among the Arab members of the coalition.
On the other hand, Turkey has signalled a limited support for the coalition, because America has so far refrained from making a “buffer zone” in Syria to let Turkish troops enter Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are working together to make a Sunni bloc in the Middle East against the Shiite world. As long as the Assad Alawite minority is running Syria, their first priority is to change the regime in Syria rather than fight ISIS.
Moreover, Turkey wants to play the card of ISIS with western allies to get more advantages. Turkey sees ISIS as a tool to fight the Kurds. President Erdogan of Turkey doesn't want to see ISIS – which claims Kurds as blasphemers – to be destroyed, because destroying ISIS makes Iran and Kurds stronger, and Ankara could lose its authority on its borders.
Money for ISIS
Financially, ISIS has improved its resources and can manage its expenditures by smuggling oil. Last December, jihadists captured Al-Raqqa, which has oil wells, in east Syria.
ISIS announced the city as its capital and set its headquarters there. About 20 percent of Syrian oil is in their hands (200 wells in Syria and 350 wells in Iraq). ISIS sells more than US$1 million in black market oil daily through northern Iraq and Turkey's mafia. Al-Raqqa is far from Damascus and Baghdad and a safe haven for jihadists.
Although Iran has a basic strategy against ISIS, it largely seeks proxy war against the group through its allies in Iraq and more or less Syria.
There is some direct and indirect coordination between US and Iran related to the fight against ISIS in Iraq. Iran wants to get some privileges in Syria and the lifting of sanctions plays an important role in the battle against ISIS. In return, Obama wants to reach a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue with Iran after an agreed upon framework in Lausanne.
On the other side, Bashar Assad is focusing on the Western side of the conflict on his borders, which are close to Lebanon and his power base in Damascus. He wants to drag the West into this fight with ISIS so that he can study how his enemies are fighting each other. So in Damascus there is no intention to fight ISIS.
Even more, it is said that the Assad regime purchased fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities and has some connection with ISIS. That’s why US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he would be “willing to negotiate with Assad to end Syria's war.”
Indeed, ISIS can take advantage of the different policies of various regional and international players in the short term. It is a complex matter with many factions and players behind the scenes. I have sketched some of them. – Rappler.com
The author is a veteran Middle East journalist who used to be based in London. He now lives in Manila.