by Julien Barnes-Dacey
The designation of Haider al-Abadi as the new prime minister of Iraq is a significant step toward opposing the Islamic State if his premiership can be secured and fulfils the potential to create an urgently needed cross-sectarian coalition against the jihadist group.
However, a fundamental ingredient is still missing in shaping a coherent strategy for targeting the Islamic State in Iraq: a concurrent strategy to defeat its presence in Syria. In the absence of such a policy, any plan for Iraq is doomed to failure.
Abadi’s nomination has been widely welcomed at home and abroad — including Washington and Tehran. He must now urgently form an inclusive government that draws in meaningful Sunni representation and Kurdish support. Given the depth of Iraq’s sectarian polarization, this will be no easy task and it remains to be seen just how willing he is to take it on given his own background in the Shia Islamist Dawa party. The likely price for meaningful Sunni participation in a new government will be significant power-sharing and federalisation and any unwillingness by Abadi, or narrowing of his ability to negotiate, could be fatal. But with incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki viewed as the source of the divisions now tearing the country apart, Abadi offers a more hopeful way forward.
This approach is probably the only way of peeling local Sunni support away from the Islamic State, which has been the foundation of much of the group’s recent gains in Iraq. It also offers the prospect of securing expanded and urgently-needed US military assistance for Baghdad. Washington, which is already directly arming Kurdish forces against the Islamic State, has promised Baghdad increased backing if a new inclusive government is formed. While it may be doomed to failure, Abadi’s nomination offers the starting point for a strategy towards combatting the Islamic State in Iraq.
For any prospect of success, however, the response to the Islamic State cannot be viewed through an exclusively Iraqi lens.
The group that grew from al-Qaeda in Iraq and until recently was known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has over the past three years concentrated its efforts in neighbouring Syria, where it is now the leading military opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Its recent surge into Iraq was conducted on the back of its presence in Syria (which it has in turn expanded on the basis of its new gains in Iraq). These territorial ties linking the Islamic State mean that any strategy geared towards its demise must confront its presence in both countries.
Without a comprehensive approach, the Islamic State will respond to political and military setbacks in Iraq by regrouping in Syria from where it can continue to destabilise Iraq — and the wider region. Yet international governments continue to narrowly focus on an Iraq response, largely ignoring the critical Syria component.
To be sure, there are no easy options in Syria today. On the one hand, direct Western military action against the Islamic State will play into Assad’s hands by weakening his main rival on the ground. The idea that “moderate” rebels will fill the void is farfetched. They are weak in numbers and fighting ability and there are real question marks over the reliability of their moderate stance. Moreover, any approach grounded on this hope would unrealistically require the West to drastically step up its armed support for the rebels, effectively taking ownership of the fight against Assad.
The alternative of deal-making with Assad against the Islamic-State is not only hugely unpalatable, it is also an illusion given his deliberate role in fuelling the extremism.
The more promising avenue — continuously rejected by those still seeking absolute victory in Syria — could now lie in using the regional and international consensus formed against the Islamic State in Iraq to forge a similar approach in Syria. This will require drawing Assad’s key backer, Iran, and Western and Gulf supporters of the opposition together. While Assad’s removal cannot be a precondition, the different external actors need to shape a negotiated path towards a power-sharing agreement that moves towards eventually excluding Assad, or at minimum limiting his powers. It is increasingly in all parties’ interests to see significant parts of the regime remain in place. That could be a unifying factor that, given the growing regional threats, offers a greater prospect than ever for progress in regional and international deal-making.
Leaving Syria alone is not an option if the West is serious about combatting the Islamic State. While grappling with policy dilemmas in Iraq, the crisis in Syria needs to be placed at the forefront of the international agenda. Despite the distinctions between the two conflicts, it is clear that to fix Iraq, you also need to fix Syria.
Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme for ECFR.