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The Rise of ISIS Reveals the Middle East’s Shifting Alliances

By Blaise Misztal

Friday, June 13, 2014

On June 10, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as well as Tikrit, and is now steadily advancing towards Baghdad. The ascendancy of this extremist organization—which had been excommunicated from al Qaeda earlier this year—has profound implications for the security and stability of the region. It also exposes just how fractured and unsettled the Middle East is.

The fall of Mosul is another episode in an ever-unfolding drama in the Middle East, involving sectarian and ethnic tensions and a wide array of state and non-state actors, all interlocked in a complex and evolving web of relations. Attempts to boil down the conflicts into simple dichotomies—Sunni vs. Shia, extremists vs. moderates—ultimately fail. The region is rife with unholy alliances, shifting loyalties, and internecine disputes. As captured in this chart of alliances and enmities between different groups in the region, the Middle East may be the only place in the world where the transitive property of alliances does not hold: the enemy of your enemy could very well still be your enemy.

View the full chart here

Turkey, Regional Extremists, and the Syrian Conflict

As recently as four years ago, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was one of Turkey’s closest regional partners. That changed with the civil war that broke out in 2011. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pivoted to become one of the loudest voices calling for the ouster of his former ally and demanding international aid to attain that goal.

Since then, Turkey has advanced the position of Sunni groups within the Syrian opposition, at the expense of the more inclusive coalitions (such as the Free Syrian Army) that the United States and others have sought to build. Turkey originally presented its decision as a matter of practicality: the al Nusra Front and other Sunni groups were the most successful in the battle against Assad. Through its support for these groups, however, Turkey had another goal: shaping the post-Assad Syrian state in its own interests and its own image, as a Sunni client state looking to Turkey for guidance.

Despite vehemently denying claims of colluding with extremists, Turkey has been accused of providing material support to terrorist groups as well as allowing them unfettered access to the Turkey-Syrian border. Turkey is accused of using its National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to covertly transfer arms across the Syrian border, exempt from police searches. When the United States declared Jabhat al Nusra a terrorist organization in December 2012, Ankara argued that the decision was “hasty” and defended al Nusra as the most effective group fighting against Assad. And in February, the United States Treasury identified Turkey as a conduit for an Iran-based al-Qaeda network, moving funds and fighters through its territory to support al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria.

While Sunni groups at first appeared to be natural allies for Turkey in Syria, they have shown themselves to be more of a liability than an asset. Now, the very groups that Turkey provided material support to and advocated for on the world stage are attacking Turks.. In Iraq, ISIS kidnapped 32 Turkish truck drivers, seized the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, and abducted the consul general and the consulate’s 48 workers, including three children. Realizing this growing threat, with its Syria policy wildly unpopular at home and failing to reap any tangible benefits abroad, Turkey is starting to make an about-face. As a first step, it designated al Nusra a terrorist organization on June 3.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Turkey and Iran is many-layered, encompassing areas of both stark opposition and cooperation. While effectively engaged in a proxy war in Syria, with each providing heavy support to opposite sides of the conflict, the two countries have professed great friendship with one another. Turkey’s Prime Minister traveled to Iran in January, declaring it his “second home.” And just this week, Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani came to Ankara in Iran’s first presidential visit to Turkey in 18 years. The Iranian president announced that Turkey and Iran signed 10 agreements on a wide range of issues, and Turkish President Abdullah Gül announced their intent to double the trade volume between the countries by 2015.

The Kurdish Dimension

In addition supporting ISIS and al Nusra in the fight against Assad, Turkey has allied itself with these Sunni extremists in another battle: constraining Kurdish autonomy. As the conflict has dragged on, Kurds have carved out de facto autonomy in northeastern Syria. In addition to clashing with Syrian government forces, both ISIS and al Nusra have fought against the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and its militant arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as against each other for control over territory in Syria’s northeast, which includes the Rumeilan oil fields.

Further complicating this picture is Turkey’s relationship with its own domestic Kurdish population. The PYD is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which entered into a ceasefire with the Turkish government in March 2013, after decades of conflict that claimed 40,000 lives.

Despite its engagement in a fraught peace process with the PKK and fighting the PYD through proxies, Turkey has cultivated a close relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, much to the chagrin of Baghdad. Baghdad has been adamantly opposed to the burgeoning energy relationship between Turkey and the KRG, insisting that under Iraq’s constitution, the KRG does not have the legal right to export oil independently. However, despite the central government’s protests, the KRG began exporting oil to Turkey late last year. Although Turkey held off selling the Kurdish crude initially, in May its storage tanks in the port of Ceyhan reached full capacity and Turkey filled two tankers with 3 million barrels of KRG oil for sale. In response, the central government has filed complaints against both the KRG and Turkey’s state-run pipeline operator, Botas, in the International Chamber of Commerce.

In the short term, the current state of disarray in Iraq may yield some benefits to the KRG, and possibly to Turkey’s energy supplies. The Iraqi Turkish Pipeline, used by both Irbil and Baghdad, is comprised of two pipelines which cannot run simultaneously. The KRG has been able to use its export line with no interruptions, as the Iraqi Arab side has been attacked and fallen into disrepair and the security situation prevents workers form repairing it. Additionally, as ISIS advances towards Baghdad, the Kurds are advancing as well. Kurdish security forces, known as the peshmerga, seized Kirkuk after Iraqi security forces fled, with their spokesman Jabbar Yawar declaring that the whole of the oil-rich city has fallen to the Kurds, and “no Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”

But with ISIS’s record of attacking Kurdish enclaves in Syria and the close proximity of ISIS- and KRG-controlled territory in Iraq (Tikrit and Kirkuk are just 70 miles apart), it is likely that jihadi threat in Iraq will force the creation of a new patchwork alliance. The KRG and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad are both threatened by the ascendance of extreme Sunni groups and will have to fight back ISIS together. Moreover, the Turkish government’s close relations and economic ties with the KRG, as well as ISIS’s predation on Turkish nationals in Iraq, are likely to convince Ankara to turn its back on the group it once supported. But in making common cause with the KRG against ISIS, Turkey would also have to tolerate the Syrian PYD and Maliki government in Baghdad that it has routinely opposed. And the risk that Iraq’s Shiite regime might fall has now forced Iran to also enter the fray against ISIS.

More than any one group, it is this dangerous cauldron of national, ethno-sectarian, and non-state actors with shifting allegiances that most threatens the Middle East’s order now. It is hard to imagine that following this chaos the region could be put back together in the form of the arbitrary borders drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement after World War I.

KEYWORDS: AL QAEDA, BAGHDAD, BASHAR AL-ASSAD, IRAQ, ISIS, KRG, KURDS, PKK, PYD, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY