Skip to main content

ISIS and U.S. Cooperation with Regional Actors

Andrew Szarejko contributed to this post.

The surge by the extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) into Iraq threatens to dismember the country and create a Sunni Islamist state that could become a training ground for a new generation of terrorists. Indeed, ISIS has declared that it has established a caliphate covering land from Syria to Iraq and now calls itself simply the Islamic State. Addressing this threat will require more than simply reversing ISIS’s territorial gains and pushing them out of Iraq. As President Obama has stressed, it will require a political decision by Iraq’s major ethno-sectarian groups—the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds—to stay, and govern, together. But the military dimension of the Iraqi crisis cannot be overlooked. It, too, will require coalition building, as the Iraqi Army struggles to contain ISIS on its own. With the United States already deciding that its military contribution will be limited to training and advising—committing U.S. troops to fight in Iraq once again is highly unpopular—it will have to look for other regional partners willing to shoulder some of the burden. In doing so, it is important to remember that in the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy may still be your enemy.

CrISIS in Iraq: Roots and Responses

Since taking office in 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has governed in an increasingly repressive, sectarian manner that has alienated Sunni Iraqis. ISIS has capitalized on this disaffection to recruit Baathists—former members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated military and government who have been barred from politics—and other more moderate Sunni groups. Its rapid advance in western and northern Iraq is the result, thus, not just of its fighting prowess, but also of a shrewd political strategy. Many Iraqi Sunnis seem to prefer, at least for now, ISIS rule to that of the central government in Baghdad.

For this reason, although they had long supported Maliki, U.S. officials have more recently expressed their desire to see Baghdad develop a more inclusive approach to governing. Whether Maliki is willing to do so or whether it will require the emergence of a new leader, remains unclear. Regardless of Maliki’s political future, a choice which is being left to the Iraqis, the United States will continue working with Iraq directly. To shore up the Iraqi Army, President Obama recently announced that the United States will send up to 300 military advisors to work with Iraqi forces, increase intelligence gathering and conduct targeted air strikes, if necessary.

It is unclear if this will be sufficient, from both a military and political perspective. The Iraqi Army largely failed to stand up to ISIS’s original push into Mosul and Tikrit, with troops laying down their weapons and slinking away. The success of the campaign against ISIS will depend on whether Baghdad can marshal enough of their own units with the training, discipline, and will to fight. The composition of those units will also matter. The uptick in enlistments in Shiite militias, and Baghdad’s seeming willingness to rely on them to supplement the military’s regular forces, portends a sectarian conflict, not a unified national effort to oust foreign extremists. As expected, results of the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive have so far been mixed, at best.

It is likely, then, that to accomplish its goals in Iraq, the United States will have to find international partners that can contribute both in helping combat ISIS and pressuring the Baghdad government to make necessary political concessions. Working in concert with other states poses unique problems, however, as each actor brings its own costs and benefits to the operation. The diversity of the actors involved further complicates matters—among those with a vested interest in Iraq are the Sunni NATO ally of Turkey, the quasi-state that is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, and the Shiite Iranian state whose nuclear program remains the subject of negotiations. Working with any one of these countries may harm chances of working with others regional actors.

Potential Partners and Prospects for Cooperation

Outside of the Iraqi government itself, Turkey may be the most natural partner for the United States in the effort to repel ISIS and maintain a unified Iraq. Turkey has an important security and economic stake in the situation—ISIS now holds territory in two neighboring countries, Iraq and Syria, that had been important to Turkey’s trade, it is considered to be responsible for the 2013 bombing of Reyhanlı, a Turkish city close to the Syrian border, has threatened an important Turkish historical site, the Syrian tomb of the Ottoman Empire’s founder’s father, and took dozens of Turks hostage in Iraq. Moreover, Ankara is one of the Washington’s strongest historic partners in the Middle East, a NATO ally, and has a sizable military.

But so far, Turkey has been hesitant to condemn ISIS’s Iraqi campaign, let alone take action against the group. That caution might be attributed to Turkey’s experience in Syria: first, working diplomatically to convince the Assad regime to accept political reforms that would have addressed protestors’ demands; then demanding Assad’s ouster once the situation devolved into armed conflict. In both cases, Ankara complains that it was promised, but never received, support from the United States. Such reluctance to rush ahead of international consensus is likely compounded by Turkish uncertainty about where its strategic interests actually lie in Iraq. The foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been increasingly sectarian, evolving to favor the emergence of Islamist Sunni regimes wherever possible, especially in Syria. In pursuit of this goal, Turkey has repeatedly been accused of supporting ISIS and other extremist groups. It might now be contemplating whether such continued support, and the emergence of a new Sunni state carved out of Syria and Iraq, could actually benefit Turkey’s regional influence. Similarly, although Turkey views the political claims of both its own and Syria’s Kurdish populations with unease, if not alarm, it seems much more sanguine about the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The KRG’s relationship with Turkey, lubricated partly by oil, has warmed in recent years, and Turkey now appears surprisingly willing to welcome a Kurdish state fashioned from Iraqi territory. Ankara, then, is unlikely to take an active role in helping keep Iraq together.

Iran, on the other hand, has taken an active role in the conflict—its Quds Force, a special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, is already on the ground in Iraq. Shiite Iran now finds two of its partners threated by ISIS: the Maliki government in Baghdad and the Assad regime in Damascus. This gives it a great interest in fighting back ISIS to both protect its coreligionists and preserve its regional influence. Iran arguably has the best intelligence on Iraq of any foreign country. Iran’s enmity to ISIS and its willingness to engage in Iraq makes them an attractive partner. But despite superficial similarities, it is unclear that the United States and Iran share similar interests in Iraq.

President Obama has stated that Iran can play “a constructive role” in the conflict if it sends the same message to Iraq that we are sending—that only an inclusive Iraq will be able to hold together—but if Iran is seen as acting only behalf of Iraqi Shiites, “That probably worsens the situation.” Iran’s history as the largest state sponsor of terrorism and supporter of Shiite groups against Sunnis—in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere around the region—suggests it is unlikely to be force for moderation and political inclusion. Moreover, the history of regional antagonism between Iran and regional Sunni powers—predominantly Saudi Arabia—would probably cause alarm and sharpen the sectarian tensions in the Middle East, rather than attenuate them.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia will be an important figure in the crisis, but it has yet to come out in the open as such. Riyadh has been an important funder and supporter of ISIS in Syria, a decision that now appears to have been short-sighted but grants Saudi Arabia some influence with the group. Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal of support from ISIS could deprive the group of needed resources to continue its campaign and, possibly, ideological legitimacy as well. And even further step—a Saudi call for Baghdad to reach out to Iraq’s Sunnis and for those Sunnis to work within the Iraqi political system—could provide much needed impetus to the political solution that the United States is seeking. But with Saudi alarm growing about Washington’s growing rapprochement with Tehran and continued concerns about whether a diplomatic deal expected in July will effectively constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Riyadh may feel little incentive to take a risk in support U.S. efforts in Baghdad.

The Kurdish Dimension

Meanwhile, the Kurds—both in Iraq and Syria—have been the only ones to successfully combat ISIS. Skirmishes have been limited, and it has even been reported that ISIS has offered to establish a truce with the Iraqi Kurds. Nonetheless, occasional reports of ISIS attacks on the KRG’s Peshmerga forces persist, and conflicts are becoming more frequent as ISIS expands its aims. The KRG’s apparent ability to stop the otherwise indefatigable militants and its close ties to Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups could prove useful in assembling a broad coalition. Likewise, Kurdish cooperation with Baghdad to form a joint government and target ISIS together would add legitimacy to the effort and signal resolve to keep Iraq together. Kurdish leaders, however, seem more inclined to consider this as a moment for declaring independence, not national unity. Having seized Kirkuk, KRG officials have stated their intention to keep the city. If the U.S. seeks to preserve a unified Iraq, it must convince KRG leaders that their best interests lie in the defeat of ISIS and the safeguarding of Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.

While tensions between ISIS and the KRG simmer, Syrian Kurds have taken the brunt of ISIS raids in Syria. Although there are multiple Kurdish groups operating in Syria, a small number of which have sided with Assad, one of the most prominent Kurdish opposition groups is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Like other prominent Kurdish groups in Syria, the PYD has frequently clashed with extremist groups likes ISIS. What makes the PYD unique among Syrian Kurds is its status as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group responsible for decades of bloody conflict in Turkey. As such, the PYD enjoys no support from Turkey and mixed relations with other actors in the region, complicating any initiative to jointly tackle ISIS in Syria.

A Time to Lead

Beyond Iraq, the four regional actors listed above—Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Kurds—are among the most likely to get involved in the fight against ISIS, and some already have. Turkey and the KRG appear to be the most capable partners for the United States and, more importantly, the least likely to turn the conflict into an even more sectarian issue. Unfortunately, they also appear to be the least likely to get involved in support of the U.S. objective of maintaining a unified, democratic Iraq. Conversely, the best chance of attaining this goal might come from keeping Iran and Saudi Arabia mostly on the sidelines.

Other regional actors may well join the fray, but most are likely to advance their interests in less direct ways than the actors described above. These countries, such as the UAE and Qatar, will not be the decisive actors in this conflict, but it remains important to elicit their support. These smaller regional actors may be most useful in helping to curtail funding for ISIS and their involvement in such a manner is less likely to fuel sectarian suspicions than direct Iranian intervention.

In seeking to resolve the spreading Iraqi crisis, then, the United States faces the irony that it is those actors that, for now at least, seem least inclined to assist with pushing ISIS out of Iraq, who would make the best partners in that effort. The less directly involved the United States is on the ground in Iraq, therefore, the more it will have to lead diplomatically in fostering cooperation and forging partnerships to contain ISIS’s spread.

Read Next