Battle against IS group mired in conflicting national interests
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French president François Hollande won a standing ovation from a rare joint session of parliament this week when he declared that France was "at war" with Islamic State (IS) militants.
He insisted that France would wage a merciless military campaign against the jihadist group, which claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks in Paris on Friday in which 129 people were killed.
France has been actively pursuing a war against Islamists since its intervention in Mali in early 2013, and Paris regards the Islamic State group as its main enemy.
Since Friday’s attacks, Hollande has stepped up air strikes against IS group targets in their Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa, while urging the US and Russia to put aside their differences and fight a coordinated campaign against the IS group.
Beyond Russia and the Western powers, the cooperation of regional powers in the Middle East will be a pivotal factor in the fight against the IS group. But the potential for this cooperation is undermined by conflicting national interests.
“Turkey has been playing a fairly duplicitous game”, tolerating the IS group as it fights the Kurds, according to Chatham House associate fellow Sanam Vakil.
The Kurdish PKK party has waged a more than three-decade-long fight for independence on Turkish soil, and Turkey has used the IS group crisis to launch new strikes against the Kurdish party in Iraq and Syria.
According to Tancrède Josseran, Turkey specialist at the Institute of Comparative Research (ISC), a Paris-based think tank, the PKK remains Turkey’s “principal enemy”.
“Turkey refused to help Syrian Kurds besieged by the IS group in Kobane,” he said. “So far they have been wary of antagonising the IS group, because they don’t want these jihadists committing atrocities on Turkish soil.”
Furthermore, Turkey has kept an open border with Syria between the Syrian towns of Azaz and Jarabulus, which are not under Kurdish control, ostensibly to allow the flow of migrants out of the Syria but also allowing the IS group free passage in and out of the country.
“This is how the Paris attackers were able to leave Syria and get back into Europe,” said Fabrice Balanche, a researcher at the Washington Institute and a Syria expert. “Keeping this border zone open has allowed the IS group to recruit recruits coming in, and to send others out for operations outside of their geographical zone of influence.”
Friday’s attacks in Paris, and the international pressure to respond to the IS group threat, "may have forced Ankara to re-think this policy”, according to Vakil.
“The IS group has become a real problem for Turkey, which is hosting millions of Syrian refugees and is the main transit for IS fighters coming in to Syria from Europe,” she said, adding that Turkey was likely, at least in the short term, to align itself with a developing global consensus, especially the idea that IS has to be eliminated before the interests of individual countries can be addressed.
The Kurds, who have an autonomous region in northern Iraq, have proved themselves to be a stalwart element of the US-led campaign against the IS group and are likely to become a close ally to France.
“It’s absolutely true that the Kurds could be an important part of a broader coalition,” said Balanche. “But they will not go so far as to liberate Raqqa (in Syria) or Mosul (IS-held city in northern Iraq). They are fighting the IS group merely to protect their own territories.”
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, keen to see a strong American military presence in the Middle East in order to maintain balance in the region and to reduce the potential of Iranian influence, joined US-led airstrikes against IS targets in September 2014, although active participation was short-lived.
“Saudi Arabia and Qatar claim to be active members of the coalition but they are no longer taking part in air strikes,” said Balanche. “Likewise the United Arab Emirates pulled out of airstrikes when a Jordanian pilot was publicly burned alive by IS group militants.”
Balanche added that these Sunni countries’ overriding priority was to contain the influence of Iran – an influence that has been held in check by the IS group and other Syrian rebel groups who have “fractured the continuity of Iran’s Shiite axis, through Alawite Damascus through to Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon”.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s rulers see the Syrian civil war as a means to foster sectarianism in the Middle East and so distract the Sunni populations of the oil-rich Gulf States from the grievances which started the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, according to Vakil.
But at the same time, the IS group represents a lurking existential threat to Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, “a threat that needs to be eliminated”, she said.
“Although the IS group and Saudi Arabia are both of the extreme end of Sunni Islam, there are significant doctrinal differences,” Vakil said. “The IS group espouses a neo-Wahhabist idea that Saudi Arabian rulers and clerics have strayed from the true Muslim path and are unjust and irresponsible, while the Saudis see IS as heretics.”
Shiite Iran, coming out of the cold on the international stage following nuclear talks with world powers that will ease crippling sanctions, is the major regional economic and energy competitor to Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
“Iran sees Syria as an important part of its asymmetric policies and alliances in the Middle East,” Vakil said, adding that Tehran will do everything it can to preserve the Shiite axis of influence that reaches from Syria to Lebanon.
According to Balanche, the growth of the IS group has in fact been beneficial to Tehran’s regional strategy.
“On one hand, Iran sees the presence of the IS group as a factor that has forced the West to accept Assad as the lesser of two evils,” he said.
“But at the same time, the Iranians are not underestimating the IS group, which wants to reignite the fitna,” he said, using the Arabic term for open conflict between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam. “Iran does not want to find itself surrounded by hostile Sunni countries and it needs to repair the Shiite link through Damascus to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, France has refused all dialogue with dictator Bashar al-Assad and has insisted that he must stand down as part of a post-war peace settlement.
Assad has also been accused of fostering the growth of the IS group for his own ends.
“Assad’s priority is the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam and other rebel groups who threaten him directly,” said Balanche. “Assad has been hitting these groups, as well as moderates, knowing that if the final battle is between him and the IS group, the international community will be forced to side with him as the lesser of two evils.”
Moscow is also a close ally to Assad, whose regime hosts Russia’s only Middle Eastern naval base at Tartous.
Russia is adamant that Assad must play a central role in negotiations for a political settlement in Syria, contrary to the position, held until now by France and the US position, that the Syrian dictator must go if peace is to be achieved.
Events this month, including the Paris shootings and the downing of a Russian airliner, for which the IS group has claimed responsibility, have thawed relations between Russia and the West, and Moscow is now providing Washington with details of its raids against Syrian rebels for the first time.
“It is true that Russia is not in any kind of hurry to eradicate the IS group, whose presence in the country strengthens Assad’s hand,” said Balanche. “But in the long term the IS group is a threat to Moscow. There are many fighters from Russian Federation countries (such as Chechnya) fighting in the ranks of the IS group, and Moscow doesn’t want them coming back to Russian territory to wreak havoc there."