Perhaps the most surprising thing about the rise of ISIS, the militant group that has proclaimed an Islamic state in parts of Iraq and Syria, is the odd collection of former adversaries that are teaming up to fight it. In recent weeks, US warplanes, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and Kurdish fighters have successfully battled the group, dealing it a series of military setbacks.
The 82-day siege that ISIS had laid on the town of Amerli, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, was broken after US war planes bombed strategic locations, allowing Kurdish fighters, Iraqi soldiers, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias to move in. A similar assault retook Iraq’s largest dam. The gruesome stridency of two recent ISIS videos, in which a masked fighter beheads kidnapped journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, belies the group’s worsening fortunes on the battlefield.
Amid an entirely justified public outcry over those videos, President Obama is coming under increased pressure to step up American military action against the group. But the breadth of forces arrayed against ISIS suggests that defeating the group may be the easy part. What will happen if and when this coalition of convenience actually wins? Who will take charge of the areas that ISIS has conquered after it melts away? The United States needs a diplomatic strategy that promotes a concerted multilateral effort against ISIS, as well as a political strategy to prevent a power vacuum that leads only to further violence.
If extremist Shiite militias are allowed to take charge of Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province of Iraq controlled in part by ISIS, serious human rights abuses against Sunnis will follow. And if the various members of the factions that are fighting ISIS end up turning their guns on one another, turmoil will continue for years to come. “Once the fighting is over, the political infighting will begin right away,” predicted Bill Roggio, of the Long War Journal, which closely tracks conflicts.
Nearly all of the members of the coalition against ISIS have been at odds with one another in the past. Iraqi forces under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki once crushed Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but now Iraq needs Sadr’s men to help fight ISIS. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias once killed American soldiers with improvised explosive devices. Now the United States quietly supports them by bombing ISIS, their mortal enemy. And Iraq’s central government has long struggled with local authorities in largely autonomous Kurdistan over control of oil and the city of Kirkuk. Now officials in Baghdad are counting on Kurdish fighters to defend Kurdistan from ISIS.
Meanwhile, the local militias known as peshmerga aren’t the only Kurdish fighters involved. Some of the most effective soldiers against ISIS hail from the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla force designated as a terrorist group in the United States and Europe. The PKK has fought for decades to win self-determination for Kurds in Turkey, and it has had an uneasy relationship with Kurdish authorities in Iraq, who want good ties with Turkey. But recently, the PKK has seen its image rehabilitated. Its fighters, which include many women, helped rescue the Yazidi minority, who had been attacked by ISIS. Turkey, which has already taken steps toward peace talks with the PKK, should accelerate that process. The brutality of ISIS is convincing Turkey that the PKK could be a useful buffer against an even greater threat.
When the dust settles, the lasting legacy of ISIS might be the bolstering of Kurdish nationalism. Since the US-led invasion, Iraqi Kurds have been told to remain loyal to the government in Baghdad. But it’s difficult to be loyal to a government that can’t even protect its people. As long as ISIS remains in charge of a terrorist quasi-state in the middle of Iraq, Kurds will ask why they have been forbidden to create their own peaceful and prosperous one.
What remains to be seen is whether Obama can corral factions besides the Kurds to play a constructive, stabilizing role. The temptation for the United States, especially after the murder of Foley and Sotloff, is to seek to wipe ISIS out immediately, even in the absence of a long-term plan for the aftermath. But that very approach created the conditions allowed a group like ISIS to emerge, and it must not be repeated.