A few days ago, a map apparently released by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) itself, detailing the terror group’s five-year plan started to do the rounds on social media. This yet source-less map shows ISIS’s ambitions of conquering the entire northern Africa, Middle East, Indian sub-continent and continuing till Myanmar and Indonesia.
Meanwhile, 39 Indian contract workers kidnapped from Mosul still remain missing as the crisis spreads. Reportedly the US is already looking for a viable replacement for current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has come under fire by the Sunni minorities of the country for not doing enough for them.
The ISIS is basking in its new found glory, while unleashing a terrifying war in a now critically unstable Iraq, which has been pushed into a sectarian conflict largely due to the unchecked consequences of the Syrian civil war. During the nascent stages of the crisis in Syria, the town of Aleppo was one of the first where the ISIS made its mark and put up its cult-like black flags. At that time it was thought by politicians and experts alike that the chances of a spill-over are real, but little was done to avoid this prognosis.
Iraq, since the US troop’s withdrawal and the election of al-Maliki as its prime minister, has been walking a tight-rope as far as the Shia-Sunni divide in the country is concerned. Maliki’s win was a setback to Washington in some ways, as he was considered being close to the Iranian government. The man that America and Saudi Arabia had spent a lot of resources on, Ayad Allawi, failed to become prime minister of the country.
The Syrian civil war saw many regional powers funding and clandestinely supplying weapons to the opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s military. With a lack of a cohesive opposition to begin with, many of these weapons have found their way to various fringe groups across the Syria-Iraq borders. In fact, some blame Saudi Arabia exclusively for creating a “monster” in the ISIS in its quest to help the Syrian rebels dethrone Assad.
The rise of the ISIS along with the sectarian and political tensions in Iraq have made regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran overactive in projecting their own influence in the country’s Shia-Sunni deadlock. Riyadh has fiercely denied accusations against itself that its government has provided funding to the ISIS, while Tehran continues to blame Riyadh for meddling in Iraq. The closeness between Maliki and Iran is also well documented, with sources suggesting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are already fighting the ISIS inside Iraq as Baghdad’s own military struggles to cope with the rapidly moving terror group.
The fact that the region is awash with weapons, has also led to Shia groups take up arms in a bid to protect themselves and large parts of Baghdad. A graph published by The New York Times (accessible here) based on a study done at Columbia University has illustrated how sectarian politics has played a part in re-drawing the capital city’s demographics since 2003, with Shia dominated areas rising and ‘mixed’ areas reducing significantly.
This ethnic divide in the capital is the reason why Baghdad is being seen as the most crucial point in the on-going crisis. With sporadic reports of fighting from the city’s outskirts already filtering through, experts are expecting fierce resistance to the ISIS with possibility of violence spreading over several months to come. The regional balance in the Middle East has been shaken up due to the rise of the ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Qatar, one of the smallest but richest countries in the world, got embroiled in a tensed diplomatic spat with Riyadh after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha. The spat was over the way Doha was using its influential Al Jazeera media group to cover various regional upheavals, including the Syrian and Egyptian crisis. However, both Doha and Riyadh have been exclusively blaming al-Maliki’s “exclusionary policies” for the crisis.
Iraq, with its big oil riches today may well be unknowingly depending on the entire region’s dynamics to stay afloat as a single nation. Obituaries for Iraq, such as the new TIME magazine cover titled ‘The end of Iraq,’ are jumping to the same premature conclusions when the Syrian crisis started (and has not finished since). Ultimately what is going to happen in Iraq may be dictated from forces outside of its borders, and its own population (except the Kurdistan region in the north, maybe), for the moment at least, has little control over its own destiny.
To reiterate the influence that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in the region, not just with state but also non-state actors, India has reportedly approached both Riyadh and Doha to seek assistance in release of its 39 citizens kidnapped by the ISIS or a smaller Sunni militia group working in tandem with them.
Even though the West maintains that foreign intervention is not the answer, and US President Barack Obama has said that choosing Iraq’s leaders is not America’s job, the fact is, the final outcome of the crisis may have to be developed and implemented abroad. How the US will handle Iran and Saudi Arabia with its back-door diplomacy, and how it will handle al-Maliki (if at all), may well decide the fate of Iraq and its people.