October 15, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State and the Divided Opposition

• The self-declared Islamic State (IS)’s strategy of exploiting and exacerbating divisions among its opponents ranks as one of its greatest weapons, and one of the coalition’s greatest weaknesses

• Turkey’s airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in southeast Turkey are the latest example—and perhaps most damaging in the near-term—of opponents of IS fighting each other instead of the group

• IS was sustained during its weakest period (2008-2010) in part by exploiting real tensions between various groups—Sunni vs Shi’a, Sunni vs Sunni, Sunni vs Kurd, etc—that prevented an “everybody vs IS” opposition that remains the only way to defeat the group

• IS will continue to create/exacerbate/leverage the differences between the US and Turkey, Saudi Arabia/UAE and Qatar, the Kurds and various parties, so much so that focus is more on tactically keeping the coalition together and less on strategically strangling IS.


To quote the American author William Faulkner, the truth in Iraq and Syria is that the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Age-old feuds and rivalries between its enemies finance and fuel IS as much as seized banks and oil wells.

Behind the gates of Andrew’s Air Force base yesterday, where military chiefs from 22 members of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition were meeting to consider next steps, there will have been bemused looks and possibly harsh words about Turkey’s role.

Despite considerable efforts to find common ground, Washington and Ankara still see things very differently when it comes to military action against IS. The ‘yes they did’ / ‘no we didn’t’ competing statements about Turkish agreement to the US use of Incirlik airbase in southeast Turkey as a departure point for airstrikes against IS paled into relative insignificance after Turkish fighter jets struck Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions on the Iraqi border on Monday, ending an almost two-year ceasefire. It is after all, PKK fighters who are keeping IS out of the Syrian border town of Kobani (‘Ayn al-‘Arab).

IS benefits hugely from these divisions between the allies. It is well aware of them and is all too ready to exploit them fully. But these disagreements are not so much about IS as they are about the internal dynamics of individual alliance members. In Washington, President Obama has been drawn into a military campaign that goes against all his instincts. The last thing he must have thought he would be doing at the start of his first term was beginning a new period of US military involvement in the Middle East as he moved into the last period of his second term. The messages coming out of the White House are all about the impossibility of beating IS through a limited air campaign while at the same time making clear that ‘boots on the ground’ are not an option. Domestic political pressures have forced the President’s hand and he will leave office with the consequences of the 2003 Iraq war a major part of his legacy, just as they were for his predecessor.

Turkey stayed out of the Iraq war, and benefitted from doing so. For a brief period, it managed to be friends with everyone and reasserted its position as a dominant regional influence. But President Erdogan, like President Obama, has been thwarted by events beyond his control. The vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has remained unfilled, except by competing sectarian interests, the relentless pursuit of unachievable objectives, and public despair at the general lack of leadership in the region. What should Turkey do? There is little upside in its unilateral deployment of troops to sort out Kobani or in establishing a buffer zone along the border if it is to be the only force on the ground.

IS didn’t create the conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists, but it leverages it well. In the latest edition of its English-language magazine Dabiq, IS tries to convey that it is an enemy to apostate Kurds who help the West while also a friend to true Muslim Kurds, a group conveniently left  undefined. It maintains that the group “doesn’t fight Kurds because they are Kurds” but rather fights “the disbelievers amongst them” who support the West. It’s a perfectly timed message, with the Kurds raging against Turkey. Kurds will of course fight IS when pressed as a matter of self-defense but their ire is now focused on a different target. IS thrives on the distraction.

Likewise, IS will seek to exploit the tensions between Turkey and the US over the former’s hesitation to act more effectively against IS while showing little hesitation towards acting against the Kurds. Indeed, IS’ pressuring the Kurdish enclave of Kobani may have turned out to be a smart strategic move after all, despite the tactical loss of many of its fighters. It has exposed the fundamental fault lines in a coalition that may more or less agree to reach a way station along the road, but not on the best way to get there, nor on where to go next.

This is nothing new. Indeed, a divided opposition has been IS’ not-so-secret weapon for a decade. At its weakest and darkest period, from 2008-2010, the group faced the unified anger and might of the Sunni Awakening, the US military surge, and the Iraqi security services, along with an underutilized Ba’athist pool of talent. But at its moment of maximum vulnerability, with its two leaders killed and cells from Fallujah to Mosul disrupted and displaced, the group was saved. Its salvation lay less in its resilience and capability (though these were important) but more in the inability of its opponents to work together, or even avoid actual conflict among themselves.

The reasons for IS’ resurgence are well-known—former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s divisive and vengeful rule, Sunni exclusion from Iraqi politics, the Syrian civil war—but these reasons are unfortunately viewed through the lens of the past, as if the current situation is more favorable to coalition building. It is these rivalries, and the reality that every member—official and unofficial—of the anti-IS coalition handles the threat according to their own self-interest that provides IS with perhaps its greatest weapon. A divided opposition will only strengthen IS.



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