On Friday 19 September, France launched its first air strikes on the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The latest advances of IS have led many Western governments to change policy with respect to the Middle-East. Some governments have delivered weapons to the Peshmergas, others announced their willingness to back Syrian rebels, while aerial strikes continue in Iraq and might start in Syria as well. This lack of direction, or “non – strategy”, of the international community in the Middle East is likely to have deeply harmful regional as well as international consequences in the long-run.
Since 2013, the Islamic State is fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Formed in April 2013, IS has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq. Following IS successes, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a resolution in August strongly condemning its acts. This resolution was aimed at weakening the organisation by blacklisting six people, including the group’s spokesman, and threatening sanctions against its financiers and weapons suppliers. And the tools of the United Nations are not the only weapons countries are using in their battle against IS.
Although the United States (U.S.) has been launching air strikes against IS in Iraq since the beginning of August, the beheading of the American journalist James Fooley in August appears to have reinforced the will of the international community to defeat the organisation. Since then, many countries are considering all possible means to overthrow the jihadist group. According to the states involved in the fight, the legitimacy of fighting IS lays in the atrocity of the crimes committed by the organisation, on the one hand, and in the threat it could pose to the whole region and to Western countries, on the other. Unfortunately, this reaction is without considering the long-term consequences it might have in the region. Once again, the international community seems to be only “reacting” rather than thinking about actions included in a real strategy.
Many governments (U.S., Germany, France, Canada, Australia) have provided – or will provide – Peshmergas weapons to fight IS. Delivering Kurdish fighters weapons to combat the organisation can have positive short consequences, i.e. containing IS and yet, it will also most likely destabilise the region in the longer term by empowering Peshmergas, which aims to establish a Kurdish sovereign state. These issues are not sufficiently raised, however essential they are. To reflect on the possible impact that the delivery of weapons to Kurdish fighters could have in longer term is an obvious necessity for any responsible policy.
Arming the Peshmergas is not the only concern the “fight against IS” raises. On Thursday 18 August, U.S. Congress gave final approval to President Barack Obama’s plan for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to battle the joint enemy, as part of the U.S military plan to “degrade and destroy IS”. The White House – in collaboration with Saudi Arabia – believes that backing the Syrian rebels will be effective in doing so. But Washington and Ryiadh should not forget that rebel groups, by definition, do not answer to authority: they cannot be used as a “low (human) cost – army”. Indeed, if Syrian rebels and the U.S. have a common interest in defeating IS, Syrian rebels will continue to pursue their own goals while working with them. Yet, such a back up could lead to destabilising the region even further: with more than fifty rebel groups operating in Syria and in Iraq, the backing of some and not the others might reinforce the lack of unity, and disorganisation and animosity between them.
While some governments are backing the Peshmergas and the Syrian rebels, the U.S. and France are conducting air strikes in Iraq within the framework of the so-called “broad” international coalition. So far only those two countries are military involved, and is led by Washington. Here again, there is no global strategy, no real view of long-term consequences in the region as well as in the involved countries. Just a common goal shared by some countries: “destroying IS”. Each player is moving his pawns according to its own strategy. For those involved, the thinking seems to be that air strikes do not require a plan, and no global or regional strategy. In reality, however, air strikes do mean the country is involved in a specific armed conflict much in the same way it is engaged with ground forces: with many of the same risks and consequences, including revenge and retaliation.
Last but not least in this disorganised reaction come the future potential air strikes on IS in Syria. In august, the US began surveillance flights over rebel-controlled parts of Syria after presidential authorisation and on 11 September; Barack Obama announced for the first time that air strikes would be extended into Syria. The Syrian government declared it was ready to work with the West to fight IS but will not allow air strikes on its territory without its consent. Supporting Syria, Russia warned the U.S. that any such unilateral action in Syria would be “an act of aggression”. And so the U.S. is facing a dilemma: it clearly wants to “destroy IS”, but it does not want to collaborate with Assad because it has been condemning the regime since the very beginning of the conflict. The Pentagon said it has everything it needs to strike targets in Syria but is still waiting on Obama’s signoff. Obama deciding to launch air strikes in Syria without collaborating with Assad will be in breach of international law. More importantly, it might lead the U.S. to a broader conflict by fighting both enemies: IS on the one hand, and Assad’s regime and its allies on the other.
Even if the short-term consequences can be foreseen, the international community needs to be aware of the longer-term outcomes that its fight against IS might have in the Middle East as well as in the countries involved in the fight: empowering Peshmergas, strengthening disorganisation with the Syrian opposition, facing retaliation and revenge and broadening the conflict. A viable strategy in defeating IS cannot exclude acting within a long-term strategy. IS will surely be weakened by the international community reaction in the short-term, but the region and the countries involved are likely to suffer from this “non – strategy”.