Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, Sept. 23, 2014
2015 may be the year when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers justify the name change from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to simply the Islamic State. The group now controls territory in Libya and has affiliates in a number of countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria. The expansion of ISIS presents a serious obstacle to realising the holy grail of Middle Eastern stability not only due to its direct military threat but also due to its power to draw attention away from other important regional issues such as nuclear proliferation.
Tunisia recently witnessed the deadliest terrorist attack in its history, an attack that targeted its vital tourism sector and constituted ISIS’ first operation in the country. Accounting for the greatest proportion of foreign fighters involved in the Iraq-Syria conflicts and with trouble on both its southern and western borders, Tunisia is an appealing new frontier for ISIS. Indeed, multiple gunmen involved in the Bardo Museum attack reportedly trained in neighbouring Libya, a country in chaos where ISIS is becoming increasingly active. With a border rife with Islamist militants, it is not unreasonable to think that more may cross into Tunisia and carry out further attacks.
Demographics in Tunisia also appeal to ISIS’ ambitions. With high youth unemployment and discontent at recent secularist policies, the terrorist group and its affiliates will be well tempted and well positioned to assault the nation’s attempts at democratic consolidation. Opening another front of fear in Tunisia would increase both ISIS’ reach and its appeal to radical Islamists. This threatens to damage Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and create yet another obstacle to Middle Eastern security.
On the other side of the transitional coin is Yemen — as Tunisia struggles to uphold democratic progress, Yemen is fighting to maintain basic sovereignty. Shiite Houthi rebels have ousted the elected government and now control the populated west of the country. Iran is backing its fellow Shia while the Gulf Cooperation Council and, indirectly, the US are supporting deposed President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
What threatens to devolve into a sectarian war on the Arabian Peninsula offers another opening to ISIS. In attacks on mosques in Sanaa, ISIS has claimed responsibility for bombings that go beyond the pale for even al-Qaeda. While the authenticity of their claims is suspect, ISIS may well attempt to garner support in Yemen and exploit the increasingly chaotic situation within the country.
While new ISIS affiliates across the Middle East may not present the same dangers as the main force within Syria and Iraq, they have the power to exploit divisions in countries trying to consolidate democracy or prevent state collapse. Attacks in Tunisia show the group as strong and far-reaching, strengthening their appeal to disenfranchised youth throughout the Middle East and further afield. Operations in Yemen will greatly complicate any military efforts to reverse Houthi advances, opening another long-standing wound in the Middle East.
Such expansionism cannot be stopped without a concerted effort to drive ISIS out of their Syrian strongholds. Unfortunately, ISIS is nigh on impervious to attacks on its ‘capital’, Raqqa, thanks to its strategies for safeguarding powerful figures and holding territory. While the anti-ISIS coalition strives to sever the many heads of the terrorist hydra, Baghdadi keeps his location and identity unknown to even his closest lieutenants. Precision coalition airstrikes have little chance of finding their targets when ISIS leaders are so secretive and targeting intelligence is thin on the ground.
Washington is reluctant to commit ground troops to the fight against ISIS — memories of the two Gulf Wars are strong. This reticence is hamstringing efforts to drive ISIS off captured territory. The group is not a conventional terrorist organisation due to its vice grip over a huge landmass. Its virtual monopoly on force within its domain means that it will only be truly “degraded and destroyed” once the coalition puts troops on the ground or the Iraqi central government can consistently repeat the success it recently enjoyed in Tikrit. Air strikes may prevent a repeat of last summer’s lightning advances but only a sustained ground war will remove ISIS.
Due to the resilience of ISIS’ leadership and its territorial control, it will continue to expand operations outside its nominal ‘caliphate’. Chaos in Libya and Yemen, fear in Tunisia, and fractures in Middle Eastern unity over Iranian nuclear ambitions will only strengthen the group. The Bardo Museum attack was horrifying but the world should brace itself for another similar event. Pictures of war-weary children and bloodstained streets will only become more frequent as ISIS realises its role as the destroyer of contemporary Middle Eastern order.
As much as these attacks affect the international community and wreak havoc upon the lives of innocent people, they also distract from other important issues in the Middle East. Washington is likely being so dovish in the Iranian nuclear talks because of its desire for Tehran’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS. This is a mistake. Iran needs a nuclear deal and the sanctions relief it will bring. Iran also needs a strong solution to ISIS, which presents both a military and existential threat. Iran needs the West far more than the West needs Iran.
Members of the anti-ISIS coalition are so eager to see damage done to ISIS that they have made concessions to Tehran on issues of nuclear weapons development. The crisis in Syria and Iraq could not have come at a worse time. American boots on the ground in Iraq are a long way off and Washington sees Iran and its militias as stopgap forces to contain ISIS. Iranian sponsored organisations are leading the fight in a worrying sectarian fashion. The US has allowed this to skew negotiations despite the vastly different positions of the two sides — the P5+1 wants a deal while Iran needs a deal. Despite this, American strategists see the nuclear agreement as a way to induce Iran to cooperate against ISIS.
Washington should turn the tables on Tehran. If negotiators were to make heavy military support against ISIS contingent upon Tehran’s willingness to forgo a nuclear arms program, the US would gain a powerful lever over Iran, thereby minimising the allowances that must be made in any nuclear deal. Doing this would help convince US allies in the Middle East of the strength of any system of restrictions placed upon Tehran’s nuclear activities. By conditioning heavy aid against ISIS on Iranian good behaviour, Iran’s regional rivals will be more confident that Tehran will obey the conditions of any nuclear deal. Sadly, the intertwined aspects of these issues complicate matters greatly and distract from long-term goals.
Terrorism has long presented a threat to the West — now it is increasingly targeting the Middle East. Previously, we could have allowed Islamic fundamentalism to exist relatively unchecked, however recent Western interventions have inflamed the issue, nurturing today’s jihadist movements. Because of strategies that have ultimately fuelled the rise of groups like ISIS, the West has hindered its ability to negotiate settlements for other regional problems. If the Middle East is to ever enjoy stable security, powerful actors must look beyond short-term issues. We must not sacrifice the major solutions of tomorrow for the minor fixes of today.
Alex Davies is an independent major at Cornell University, studying International Relations and Computer Science.