Security Threat Analysis: ISIS
In mid-June, a group of militant Islamic extremists launched a coordinated assault across northern Iraq, seizing large territories including major towns and cities. Iraqi security forces, in the face of the onslaught, were able to do very little in defense of their country. As a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly appealed to the United States and the international community for assistance in the fight against the organization known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
The moniker ISIS derives from the group’s primary objective, which is to establish a Sunni Islamic caliphate, governed strictly by Sharia law, in the lands of northern Iraq and Syria. Prior to their recent activity in Iraq, ISIS had been heavily involved in the ongoing Syrian civil war, battling Syrian government forces to carve out territory for the foundation of their Islamic state. In both that conflict and the current, ISIS has gained a reputation for brutality against civilians (particularly Christians and Shiites) and for enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam that, among other regulations, bans alcohol, smoking, and music.
How does ISIS affect regional security?
ISIS has already had a profound effect on regional security. Their involvement in Syria has elongated the ongoing conflict there, and added another layer of complexity to the dynamic of factions fighting to overthrow President Bahar al-Asad’s regime. To Iraq’s south, Saudi Arabia has recently put its military on alert in response to ISIS’s gains and explicit threats to attack the state, home to the holiest sites in all of Shiite Islam.
Within Iraq, the autonomous Kurdistan regional government has come to the forefront with its organized, disciplined, and well-provisioned military force (called peshmerga) as a possible bulwark against ISIS. Whether the peshmerga will seek only to secure Kurdistan or push further south in Iraq remains to be seen.
ISIS’s advances have given Iran a legitimate reason to become militarily active in the region by supplying hardware to Iraq. Iran has additionally made it clear to the Iraqi government that it is willing to do more toaid its neighbor in this conflict.
How does ISIS affect US foreign policy?
ISIS’s actions have real consequences for US foreign policy, both in the near- and long-term future. Since ISIS began advancing across Iraq, the United States has announced two separate deployments of military personnel to the country for the protection of embassy staff and assessment of the state of Iraqi security forces. The United States also has not ruled out the use of air strikes.
Strategically, the inability of Iraq to defend itself after the withdrawal of US forces casts a major shadow of doubt on the assertion that the closeout of the second Iraq War was planned and executed successfully. Should future conflicts call for similar US engagement, planners will place heightened focus on developing exit strategies that ensure a state is capable of self-defense after drawdowns are complete.
How does ISIS affect global security?
What differentiates ISIS from a terrorist group such as al-Qaeda is that their goals are geographically localized. In this regard, a more apt comparison might be with the Taliban. As we know, al-Qaeda was able to operate in Afghanistan because the Taliban were in power, and sanctioned their presence. If ISIS were to succeed in establishing an Islamic caliphate, there is a real risk that they would offer safe harbor to terrorist groups with similar beliefs but more global goals, thus providing a place to plan and train for attacks around the world.
In the face of such a threat, the United States should make a concerted effort to counter ISIS. Sending military advisers to aid in intelligence analysis and strategic planning is the preliminary stage of US involvement in this conflict. If the advisers are able to aid in identifying opposition targets, US airstrikes should be used to give Iraqi security forces assistance in retaking territory.
Diplomatically, the United States should encourage the government of Iraqi Kurdistan to take a leading military role against ISIS. If encouragement does not suffice, there are other opportunities to entice the Kurdistan Regional Government by relaxing restrictions on the sales of oil that originates from the region and access to additional oil fields.