The War on ISIS Held the Middle East Together

“With the fall of Raqqa, the sad story will pick up exactly where it left off in 2014.”

Three fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces make the V-sign as their convoy passes
Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces make the V-sign as their convoy passes in Ain Issa, Syria, on October 16, 2017.  (Erik de Castro / Reuters)

The fall of the Islamic State’s stronghold and symbolic capital in Raqqa brings a certain grim satisfaction. It was in this regional riverbank city that the grisly, nihilistic group honed its medieval methods, spreading terror with acts of violence both intimate and public. A coalition consisting of Kurds, the U.S. military, and a supporting phalanx of Syrian-Arab militias, apparently drove the last ISIS holdouts from Raqqa on Tuesday. No longer will ISIS plant severed heads on stakes in the main town square and spew hate from repurposed churches and government buildings, painted black.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The end of ISIS’s temporal empire and first capital does nothing to spare the Middle East and the world of the array of strategic threats and headaches of which jihadis are but one leading edge. At best, the war against ISIS pressed a “pause” button on the unspooling narrative of conflict and fragmentation. With the fall of Raqqa, the sad story will pick up exactly where it left off in 2014.

Just before ISIS rose from fringe extremist group to the world’s leading transnational, violent proto-state, the Middle East was riven by destabilizing conflicts that threatened to blow the already-teetering region apart. Syria and Iraq were imploding as states, with shrinking state authority leaving terrorist and extremist groups ever more freedom to organize and launch attacks in the spiraling ungoverned zones of the Levant. America had disinvested and none of the would-be replacement powers in the region demonstrated the capacity for stability, control, or governance.

The ISIS horror show spread from Raqqa in January 2014 to Mosul in June of that year. Briefly, the group seemed able to strike everywhere, from Marseilles, Paris, and Brussels, to Baghdad and Tehran. For an instant, that threat spurred a clarity of focus.

Briefly united by common cause against ISIS, odd bedfellows temporarily set aside their differences. Although they didn’t always coordinate directly, almost every significant entity in Syria and Iraq supported the anti-ISIS campaign. Kurdish factions that detested each other worked in sync against ISIS. So did Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, Damascus and many of its sworn opponents, and Iran and the United States. But every single one of the destabilizing conflicts that was flaring in 2014 is worse today.

The United States, along with leaders in the Middle East, wasted the opportunity to build on the temporary anti-ISIS wartime alliance to address deeper conflicts. They did not begin laying the foundations for reunified states that elicited loyalty from disenfranchised populations, like Kurds and Sunnis. Instead, they ignored all the festering divisions, and, in many cases, made them worse. In Iraq, the United States emboldened a corrupt and ineffectual Kurdish leadership, which had let its peshmerga fighters fall into an alarming state of disarray. It rearmed the Iraqi military as well, aware that both the Kurds and Baghdad were likely, at a later stage, to aim at one other the weapons they were given to fight ISIS. Kirkuk is just one harbinger of the post-ISIS struggle, which is likely to break out with renewed fury like a cancer surging back after remission.

Just as the dispute between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad simmered in the background while everyone’s eyes were on ISIS, so did the same Sunni and tribal grievances fester in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Jihadi violence will continue its cyclical rise and fall in Iraq, as it has without fail since the Iraqi state was destroyed in the American invasion of 2003. Until Iraq is a fully governed and secured nation, extremist groups will continue to thrive in its margins and seams.

More consequential are the sectarian fissures. Baghdad seems, sadly, on track to continue to treat Sunni Arab citizens as second-class citizens and suspected fifth-columnists. Although Iraqi Sunnis shoulder some of the blame for refusing to commit to an Iraqi state that they no longer dominate, it is the government in Baghdad, with its Shia sectarian overtones, that is primarily responsible for sharing power with Sunni citizens, and with tribes.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime also seems to believe that it can indefinitely exclude or diminish entire swathes of it population. There, America has also added new problems through its troubled alliance with the country’s Kurds. Casting about for an effective proxy militia in Syria, the U.S. military finally found the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—really a shell for Kurdish militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This Kurdish-dominated militia proved able, or at least willing, to act as a conduit for American military aid and interests. But the PKK tops Turkey’s enemies list, and despite its nation-building rhetoric, is seen as a vehicle of Kurdish ethnic interests at odds with the Arab population. Predictably, America’s marriage of convenience with Syrian Kurds has driven a wedge between America and Turkey and sowed mistrust among Syrian Arabs.

The Kurds in Iraq ignored U.S. advice as well. Washington warned them against holding their independence referendum. It made clear that the Kurds wouldn’t be able to take Kirkuk, and that without Kirkuk’s oil and Turkey’s support, their independent state wasn’t viable.

For the first time in years, Washington at least emerged in the Kirkuk crisis on the side of national unity and the Arab state. Kurds might feel justifiably betrayed, but the U.S. decision not to back Kurdish aspirations vindicates the view that the United States isn’t secretly agitating to break the Middle East into a patchwork of feuding statelets.

After ISIS, the core problem is state collapse and unaddressed minority grievances. As goes Iraq, so goes Syria: If it doesn’t want to end up as a volatile confederation of sectarian mafia-warlords like Lebanonbut deadlierit will have to reestablish effective state governance that is welcomed by communities who feel frozen out or victimized by the state. No amount of brute force will woo Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis to Baghdad. No amount of brute force will elicit genuine loyalty from the many Syrians who supported or fought with the uprising. The anti-ISIS campaign lent a patina of shared interest to an assortment of powers that are actually in existential conflict with each other. The conflict will continue, to murderous and destabilizing effect, until and unless these Arab states change their entire approach and self-definition. That’s a tall order, but it’s the only alternative to endless war and fragmentation.