The dramatic success of ISIS in Iraq shows that statesmanship is called for in the region or else West Asia could be consumed by jihadi and sectarian violence. This is also an opportunity for Asian countries that have high stakes in regional stability to promote dialogue and confidence-building measures in the Gulf

On June 10, the world awoke to the disquieting news that a shadowy jihadi group, till then known for its violent activity in the Syrian conflict, had captured Iraq’s premier town of Mosul. After this, over the next few days, there were reports of the capture of other towns — Baiji, Tikrit, and then north to Tal Afar on the Syrian border — so that within a week, the jihadis seemed to be grouping just outside Baghdad. The group was identified as ISIS — the “Islamic State of Iraq and [Greater] Syria,” a jihadi grouping affiliated with al-Qaeda.

According to observers, at least since 2012, ISIS has functioned more as a militia organised on military lines than as a terrorist organisation. Instead of random acts of violence against soft targets, ISIS cadres now launch “strategic attacks” to augment their food, weaponry and cash resources. While they avoid pitched battles, they were successful in Iraq in recent weeks because the Iraqi Army simply melted away in the face of their assault. In Mosul, they released Sunni prisoners, gained huge arms caches, and also got over $400 million from local banks and the treasury.

The retreat of Iraq

How did Iraq, particularly its armed forces, reach this pathetic state? The origins of the current situation lie in the U.S.-led military assault on Iraq which destroyed the country’s infrastructure, and in the immediate aftermath of the occupation when the country’s two principal institutions were systematically destroyed, i.e., the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the prohibiting of the employment of Baath Party members. The situation has further deteriorated during the eight-year rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, in the words of Fawaz Gerges, “delivered neither reconciliation nor security and prosperity,” but favoured a narrow and exclusivist agenda that aggravated the country’s sectarian and ideological divide, leaving the Sunnis marginalised and increasingly hostile to his government.

The Iraqi forces gave such a poor account of themselves because Mr. Maliki destroyed Iraq’s non-sectarian professional forces — non-Shias were purged and a poorly trained Shia element with low morale was left to face the ISIS onslaught. There was a further betrayal in that, during the ISIS attacks, the soldiers found that their military and political leaders had disappeared from the scene; hence, the soldiers saw no reason to fight ISIS zealots.

The first reaction of several commentators, Arab and western, is to see in ISIS’ successes straddling Syria and Iraq as the end of the Sykes-Picot territorial arrangements, commencing with the blurring of the Syria-Iraq border and the disintegration of Iraq. Indeed, several observers believe that the break-up has already happened: ISIS, a Sunni coalition, controls the Sunni-dominated provinces of the west and north, with the Maliki-led Shia government in Baghdad ruling only the primarily Shia territories southwards from Baghdad to Basrah. In the meantime, taking advantage of ISIS attacks and the failure of the Iraqi Army to take a stand, Kurdish forces, better trained and disciplined, have moved quickly to occupy Kirkuk, thus consolidating the quasi-independence of the Kurdish region.

India’s concerns

India’s immediate concern is for the security and safe return of its nationals who are stranded in different cities of Iraq under ISIS occupation. Ten years ago, when three Indian drivers had been kidnapped in Fallujah, the government had sent a team of diplomats to negotiate their release. While a similar team should go to Baghdad now, it will face far greater challenges. In 2004, Iraq was under U.S. occupation, while the kidnappers used to take hostages for ransom to augment their resources to fight the Americans. Now, the ground situation is quite different. There is a government in Baghdad, but it is despised by ISIS, a sentiment that is fully reciprocated. Again, ISIS is headed by jihadi zealots who are not known to negotiate in combat situations. Finally, ISIS seems to be flush with funds and does not need ransom to sustain itself. The only silver lining is that ISIS is effectively a coalition of anti-Maliki elements, including Baathists, tribal leaders and professionals, who are not jihadi zealots. They may still have some goodwill for India from old times. Again, so far, the ISIS leadership has also projected a moderate approach, though images of mass executions have not been particularly reassuring.

Besides the safety of its citizens, India has reason to be concerned about energy supplies. With great difficulty, Iraq has restored its oil production after the war, so that it now produces 3.5 million barrels a day (mbd), of which 2.8 mbd is exported. The bulk of the production, 2.5 mbd, comes from oilfields in the south which are not under threat. As of now, exports are expected to continue, a happy situation for India for whom Iraq is the second largest supplier.

But, serious concerns remain. First, ISIS has occupied Mosul and is fighting for the control of the Baiji refinery after taking the Baiji town. The broad Mosul area includes oil reserves of about 24 billion barrels, including the rich Kirkuk field which produces 4,00,000 barrels per day. Kurdish forces have occupied Kirkuk and safeguard its production. This production however will take place outside federal control and will boost the Kurdish drive for full independence. Again, if the Baiji refinery were to come under ISIS control, Iraq would lose refined products of about 3,10,000 b/d. Overall, the energy scenario is grim and India will have to locate other sources in case the situation deteriorates further. In the meantime, the fighting in Iraq has already led to oil price increases, which will have an adverse impact on the Indian budgetary situation.

Shedding identities

Given the dramatic success of ISIS in Iraq, the continuing stalemate in Syria and the ongoing political crisis in Baghdad, it is difficult to make confident prognoses. Some tentative thoughts are offered at this stage.

First, it is unlikely that the Sykes-Picot order will be extinguished any time soon. Conflicts in Syria and Iraq will continue, but national borders are likely to be retained. The Iraqi Kurds will assert increasing degrees of autonomy and even obtain greater financial freedom from oil exports, but they will not seek to aggravate the geopolitical scenario by declaring formal independence.

Second, there is a broad consensus on the causes of the present crisis and the way forward for the country: simply stated, Mr. Maliki’s sectarian approach has to be replaced by a broad-based government that provides the space and the opportunity for the country’s diverse population. Perhaps, the serious challenge posed by ISIS will concentrate the minds of Iraq’s quarrelling and short-sighted politicians and force the emergence of a government of national unity. The appeal of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for all Iraqis to shed sectarian and ethnic identities and come together to save the nation is a pointer to the way forward.

Third, while there will be consultations between the U.S. and Iran, and possibly some low-key air strikes (not likely to be particularly useful), neither of them will intervene militarily in the country unless Shia shrines are directly threatened or it is feared that Baghdad is likely to be overrun. Given the opposition of Iran, Turkey and the U.S., it is unlikely that ISIS will attempt to take Baghdad.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners are in a painful dilemma. There is deep mutual animosity between them and ISIS, and ISIS’ successes in Iraq threaten their security. But, the countries are also wary about the Shia upsurge in Iraq, the improving U.S.-Iran engagement, and the likelihood of an Iranian intervention to maintain Shia primacy in the country. This dilemma can only be resolved by Saudi Arabia and Iran giving up their sectarian approach to regional affairs and engaging directly to address issues of regional security. Only through direct dialogue can they look at the issues of Iraq, Syria, the jihadi challenge, and the burgeoning sectarianism, all of which threaten to destroy the regional order. Statesmanship is called for not only in Baghdad but also in Tehran and Riyadh, otherwise all of West Asia will be up in flames fuelled by jihadi and sectarian violence.

This is also an opportunity for Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan and Korea, that have such high stakes in regional stability, to consult with one another and promote dialogue and confidence-building measures in the Gulf. As the U.S. retreats from military interventions, Asian nations should assume responsibility for their own security.

(Talmiz Ahmad was India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.)

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