The United States is reluctantly but decisively becoming engaged in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to combat Isis, which calls itself Islamic State.
President Barack Obama will outline his plans in a speech today to create a grand coalition of Western and regional powers to contain and defeat Isis, which has established a quasi-state stretching from the frontiers of Iran to the outskirts of Aleppo.
The US is encouraged by the formation on Monday of what it sees as a more inclusive government in Iraq under Haider al-Abadi, the new Prime Minister. He replaces Nouri al-Maliki who, in his eight years in office, became a hate figure for the Sunni minority as the architect of Shia dominance and arbitrary power. Mr Maliki’s government was notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional, its 350,000-strong army routed in June by a few thousand Isis fighters in northern and western Iraq. Fear of Isis has led former rivals and opponents such as the US and Iran, Kurdish parties and Shia and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, to sink some of their differences, though these have not gone away.
Mr Obama said after the Nato summit in Wales last week that “we are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against Isil”, using the US government’s preferred name for Isis. But in seeking such partners in Iraq and Syria, the US will be taking sides in complex sectarian and ethnic struggles. Kamran Karadaghi, a Kurdish commentator and adviser to the former President Jalal Talabani, said: “It is still a sectarian government in Baghdad and Abadi had his ministers chosen for him by the different parties.” He says the Kurds were pressured into agreeing to join it by the US and UN envoys sitting in on a decision-making meeting in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region, though the main Kurdish demands have not been met. Among issues at stake are the sale of Kurdish oil, the future of Kirkuk and the central government’s payment of the Kurdish share of Iraq’s oil revenues. Mr Karadaghi says: “So far we have got nothing except some promises over payment of salaries.”
The new government may be less divisive than the old one – it would be difficult to be more – but only to a limited degree. The most important security jobs of defence and interior minister have yet to be filled and there are many old faces in Mr Abadi’s cabinet. Senior members of the Marjaiyyah, the Shia clerical establishment, are reported to be disappointed that there are not more people chosen by merit rather than party allegiance.
Commenting on the euphoric response by the US Secretary of State John Kerry to the new line-up in Baghdad, an Iraqi observer said he doubted if Mr Kerry’s optimism would survive a meeting with Ibrahim al-Jaafari, notorious for his elusive style of conversation, who replaces Hoshyar Zebari, previously Iraq’s highly effective Foreign Minister.
Most importantly, the new government may not convince Iraq’s six million-strong Sunni community that they have any choice but to stick with Isis which has seized the Sunni provinces. Aside from minorities in these areas, such as the Shia, Yazidi, Turkoman, Kurds and Christians, the Sunni are more terrified of the return of vengeful Iraqi government forces than they are of Isis.
They have reason to be frightened since revenge killing of Sunni are taking place in Amerli, the Shia Turkoman town whose two-month siege by Isis was broken last month by Shia and Kurdish fighters aided by US air strikes. Mass graves of Shia truck drivers murdered by Isis are being excavated and local Sunni are being killed in retaliation. The family of a 21-year-old Sunni man abducted by militiamen was soon afterwards offered his headless body back in return for $2,000 (£1,240).
In the 127 villages retaken by the Kurds from Isis under the cover of US air strikes, the Sunni Arab population has mostly fled and is unlikely to return. Often Sunni houses are burnt by Shia militiamen and in one village Kurdish fighters had reportedly sprayed over the word “apostate” placed there by Isis and instead written “Kurdish home”.
This atmosphere of terror means that the favoured US policy of getting the Baghdad government to give enough concessions to the Sunni to lure them away from support for Isis may not work. The US succeeded in 2006 and 2007 in turning many Sunni tribes and neighbourhoods against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But Isis is stronger and better organised than AQI and is wary of a stab in the back by fellow Sunni. To guard against this in Mosul it has taken some 300 hostages, including senior Sunni retired generals. In Deir Ezzor province in Syria, one tribe called the al-Sheitaat staged an uprising against Isis last month only to be swiftly defeated with 700 tribal members rounded up and executed.
Isis will be difficult to defeat in Iraq because of Sunni sectarian solidarity. But the reach of Isis in Iraq is limited by the fact that Sunni Arabs are only 20 per cent of the 33 million population. In Syria, by way of contrast, Sunni Arabs make up at least 60 per cent of Syrians, so Isis’s natural constituency is larger than in Iraq. Motorised Isis columns have been advancing fast here, taking some 35 per cent of the country and inflicting defeats both on other Syrian opposition fighters, notably Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, and on the Syrian army. Isis is now within 30 miles of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the war.
The US and its allies face a huge dilemma which is largely of their own making. Since 2011 Washington’s policy, closely followed by the UK, has been to replace President Bashar al-Assad, but among his opponents Isis is now dominant. Actions by the US and its regional Sunni allies led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey, which were aimed at weakening Mr Assad, have in practice helped Isis. The 560-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border was left open by Ankara for jihadis to cross, enabling 12,000 foreign recruits to join the rebels, most becoming part of Isis. The US is now desperately trying to persuade Turkey to close the border effectively, but so far has only succeeded in raising the price charged by local guides taking people across the frontier from $10 to $25 a journey.
So far it looks as if Mr Obama will dodge the main problem facing his campaign against Isis. He will not want to carry out a U-turn in US policy by allying himself with President Assad, though the Damascus government is the main armed opposition to Isis in Syria. He will instead step up a pretence that there is a potent “moderate” armed opposition in Syria, capable of fighting both Isis and the Syrian government at once. Unfortunately, this force scarcely exists in any strength and the most important rebel movements opposed to Isis are themselves jihadis such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front. Their violent sectarianism is not very different to that of Isis.
Lacking a moderate military opposition to support as an alternative to Isis and the Assad government, the US has moved to raise such a force under its own control. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), once lauded in Western capitals as the likely military victors over Mr Assad, largely collapsed at the end of 2013. The FSA military leader, General Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, who defected from the Syrian government side in 2012, said in an interview with the McClatchy news agency last week that the CIA had taken over direction of this new moderate force. He said that “the leadership of the FSA is American”, adding that since last December US supplies of equipment have bypassed the FSA leadership in Turkey and been sent directly to up to 14 commanders in northern Syria and 60 smaller groups in the south of the country. Gen Bashir said that all these FSA groups reported directly to the CIA. Other FSA commanders confirmed that the US is equipping them with training and weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles.
It appears that, if the US does launch air strikes in Syria, they will be nominally in support of the FSA which is firmly under US control. The US is probably nervous of allowing weapons to be supplied to supposed moderates by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies which end up in the hands of Isis. The London-based small arms research organisation Conflict Armament Research said in a report this week that anti-tank rockets used by Isis in Syria were “identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella in 2013”.
In Syria and in Iraq Mr Obama is finding that his policy of operating through local partners, whose real aims may differ markedly from his own, is full of perils.
Patrick Cockburn’s new book is The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,