The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is like an Islamic Khmer Rouge and deals with the rest of the world through violence.
But a slogan of Isis is that “media is half of jihad”, so events like the ritual murder of David Haines are geared to show strength and dominate the headlines, obscuring any sense that Isis’s many enemies are making headway through American airstrikes.
President Barack Obama was last week speaking about the plans of the US and its allies to combat Isis, saying they intended “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group”.
For the moment, they are long way from these ambitions and will be doing well if Isis can be contained within the confines of its Caliphate, which already stretches from the Iranian border to the outskirts of Aleppo.
Fear of Isis is producing strange bed-fellows: in Iraq the Iranian controlled Shia militias, which used to specialise in killing American troops, have relieved the Shia town of Amerli, long besieged by Isis, the militia’s advance made possible by US airstrikes. Hundreds of officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are embedded in the militias as leaders and advisers without Washington making any objection.
The line-up of opponents of Isis is strange and not at all what it appears to be. There is a core group of NATO members including Turkey that is a sort of supporters club for those opposing Isis. By highly publicised killings, Isis is showing that it will retaliate against any of these countries and make them pay a price. With Isis holding 49 hostages from the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Turkey says it dare not do too much, even if it wanted to do.
Within the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry has been rushing from capital to capital putting together a coalition of Sunni states pledged to fight Isis. Some local observers are calling this “the coalition of the unwilling” since its members are cautious about confronting Isis. Mr Kerry has been in Cairo and before that in Jeddah and Ankara, but he is receiving only vague promises of backing. Saudi Arabia has agreed to host a base to be used for training Syrian opposition fighters who are supposedly going to go to war with both Isis and Syrian government forces. Turkey will not allow the US to use its big base at Incirlik to launch air strikes. Jordan senses its vulnerability if it is in the frontline of opposition to Isis which has Jordanian sympathisers.
If Mr Kerry has any sense he will be satisfied with this limp-wristed level of regional support. After all, Isis and the Sunni jihadi movement in Iraq and Syria could not have come to dominate the anti-government opposition in both countries without sustained backing from Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf.
The US will be pleased if these countries stop aiding Isis with money and propaganda. Having them on board may protect any anti-Isis campaign from being seen as an anti-Sunni crusade since the beneficiaries are likely to be Shia or Alawite governments. Turkey is being asked to close its 510-mile long border with Syria ending the free flow of personnel and equipment so important to the rise of Isis. Lastly, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf oil states and Jordan have tribal and financial links to the Sunni in Iraq and Syria whom they can seek to turn against Isis – though this will be not easy to do when dealing with movement specialising in ferocious retaliation.
In addition to these cautious or reluctant allies the US has states and movements who are actively fighting Isis on the ground, but many are long-demonised enemies of America and the UK. One commentator calls this “the un-coalition of the willing” because those willing to oppose Isis in Iraq include the Iraqi army and the pesh merga of the Kurdistan regional government, but the most potent fighting force on the government side is the Shia militias, most though not all of which are led or advised by Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers. Iran is crucial for the defence of the Baghdad government. Mr Kerry knows this but was grandly declaring at the weekend that Iran could not join his anti-Isis coalition.
In Syria the situation is even messier since the most powerful opponent of Isis is the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad whom the US and its allies are supposedly trying to weaken and displace. Washington, London and Paris are publicly aghast at the idea of undertaking a public U-turn and allying themselves against Isis, but they may not have a choice but to cooperate with him covertly. “What do you think intelligence services are for?” commented one former diplomat.
Other effective opponents of Isis in Syria include the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish movement which the US and Europe still regard as “terrorist”. Part of the Turkish Kurd PKK, these fighters were highly effective in fighting Isis in Iraq. Hezbollah of Lebanon have also been central in battling the Jihadis. If Mr Obama and David Cameron are serious about acquiring local partners to stop Isis then they must look to the members of “un-coalition” who will do most of the fighting. It is not going to be easy.
‘The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising’ by Patrick Cockburn, published by OR Books, is available at orbooks.com
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