Battling Islamic State

June 12, 2015 01:40 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:04 pm IST

A year after >it captured Mosul , the major Iraqi city, Islamic State remains a formidable force in the West Asian region. The U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign shows no sign of checking its momentum. Barring some setbacks suffered at the hands of Kurdish and Shia militias, IS has expanded its zone of influence beyond its base in ‘Syraq’ over the year. It recently captured Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. It now has branches in countries including Lebanon, Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria. President Barack Obama all but admitted on June 10, the anniversary of the fall of Mosul, as he ordered an additional 450 military advisers to join the 3,500 already in Iraq, that his anti-IS strategy wasn’t working. To be sure, IS has no dearth of enemies in the battlefield. The Syrian and Iraqi armies have declared war on it; Gulf monarchies are a party to a U.S.-led coalition bombing IS locations; Egypt had struck IS militants in Libya; and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, has said it would fight IS along the Lebanon-Syria border. Still, why does IS appear so formidable?

IS’s advantage perhaps is that its rivals have no coordinated strategy: they are driven not by a common goal of defeating the enemy but by their own self-interest and sectarian calculations. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al Assad is the most potent force against IS. But the U.S. and its allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar want a regime change in Damascus. The efforts of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to weaken the Syrian regime are helping IS grow. In Iraq, the army, disbanded and rebuilt by the Americans, is largely sectarian and too inefficient to mount a major attack on its own. The Hezbollah may be able to protect the Lebanese-Syrian border from IS, but it is considered a terrorist outfit by the U.S., and an Iranian lackey by the Saudis. The Kurdish guerrillas in the Syrian and Turkish border regions had resisted IS effectively, but Turkey doesn’t want them to be brought into the anti-IS coalition. Iran has sent Shia militia groups to the battle-front, but they are viewed with suspicion in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated areas owing to sectarian reasons. IS feeds off this complex sectarian-geopolitical game, and with savagery and extremism tightens its grip over victims. But all this doesn’t mean IS is invincible: it could be defeated, as Kobane and Tikrit show. But to turn such isolated victories into a comprehensive triumph, the forces battling IS need to come up with a cohesive strategy cutting across sectarian fault-lines. Until that happens, West Asia will continue to see more bloodshed.

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