Memo to Middle East: Solve your own problems

The region must stop relying on the US to do the heavy lifting in confronting ISIL.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, as the US launched its first airstrikes by Turkey-based F-16 fighter jets against Islamic State targets in Syria [AP]
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik airbase [AP]

The expansion of United States air strikes into Syrian territory against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets, from Incirlik airbase in Turkey, marks a fresh escalation of US involvement in the region.

While President Barack Obama has promised to disentangle the US from the many crises of the Middle East, the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the face of approaching ISIL fighters in Mosul in 2014 gave Washington reason for pause.

Are the Iraqi security forces really capable of pushing ISIL out of Iraq without external support?

Would Iran fill the void if the US were to leave Iraq to its own devices? What would be the wider regional implications of such a shift in Iraq?

US, Turkey differ over ISIL strategy in northern Syria

The urgency of these questions is compounded by the fact that ISIL has emerged as a significant actor in the Middle East and North Africa.

It is not confined by territorial boundaries, and even if the Iraqi security forces, bolstered by Shia militiamen and US air support, manage to reclaim Iraqi territory, ISIL can simply retreat into Syria, regroup, and launch further incursions into Iraq or other neighbouring states.

Transnational threat

The extension of US aerial bombardment of ISIL targets in Syria is an acknowledgement of the transnational nature of the threat.

Still, it is highly unlikely that this escalation will deliver the expected results. The emergence of ISIL was due to a combination of political, ideological and geo-strategic factors. An expanded aerial campaign will hardly change those.

A meaningful response to ISIL would require addressing the underlying factors that allowed ISIL to gain so much ground with such ease.

This has been most evident in the Sunni-populated parts of Iraq. This was not the first time that the Sunni population rebelled against the central government in Baghdad. Anbar province was the scene of fighting in 2009, until a promise of political representation won over the Sunni tribes.

A meaningful response to ISIL would require addressing the underlying factors that allowed ISIL to gain so much ground with such ease.


Without doubt, the government of Nouri al-Maliki failed to deliver on the promise of political inclusion.

But the problem is systemic and traces back to the post-Saddam Hussein experience of de-Baathification under US occupation that purged the state machinery of members of the former ruling party.

This hit the professional class of Sunni Iraqis hard.

Frustration and rebellion

Repeated calls by the international community for an inclusive government and adequate representation of Iraq’s Sunni population fell on deaf ears in Baghdad.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Iraq’s Sunni population has been in a state of frustration and rebellion. Many see in ISIL a viable response to the Shia-dominated government’s sectarian politics. The irony is that this response further entrenches these sectarian politics.

ISIL is sailing in a sea of Sunni political disaffection. Only a political response can take the wind out of its sail. Still, the US is not the one to tell Iraqis how to run their state.

Obama was right when he acknowledged early in his first term in office that the US had interfered too much in Middle East affairs.

Religious fanaticism, which later morphed into terrorism, was a response to the role played by the US in the region.

By supporting unrepresentative governments, Washington has done more than any other actor to feed the monster.

As a result, any initiative out of Washington on political change will simply feed into an established narrative of US imperialism, discrediting the message. The solution needs to emerge and be advocated by regional powers.

Regional powers have an urgent interest in dealing with ISIL. Bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia, attacks in the Sinai, and not to mention the tide of refugees pouring into neighbouring states, means that they are all immediately affected.

New opportunities

But regional leaders have become too comfortable with the Americans doing the heavy lifting. They don’t get their hands dirty so they don’t have to confront some of their own political and ideological characteristics and practices that benefit ISIL.

But a US disengagement, at least in terms of not spearheading the anti-ISIL fight, would present the region with new opportunities and profound challenges.

For example, Turkey’s attitude towards ISIL is coloured by its obsession with the Kurdish question. There are allegations – that Ankara has used the cover of anti-ISIL operations to hit at Kurdish bases inside Syria, despite the fact that Kurds have proven to be a formidable bulwark against ISIL.

Turkey will have to put its security assessment of Kurds into perspective because ISIL’s sectarian ideology could easily spread to Turkish territory.

No matter how devoted Ankara may be to removing Bashar al-Assad from office, is this an acceptable price to pay?

Rather than depend on the Americans to do the heavy lifting in solving the problem of ISIL, it is time for the region to engage in some introspection.

Perhaps it is time to consider the ideological links between ISIL and what is taught in many religious seminaries in the region. How different is the religious curriculum in established places of learning to ISIL’s attitude towards Shia Muslims and other sects?

ISIL has presented the Middle East a rare opportunity to re-imagine the future, break with the past, and explore alternatives. Washington can help that process, but only in a supporting role.

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics at Deakin University and Co-author of Sectarianism and the Prevalence of ‘Othering’ in Islamic Thought, in Third World Quarterly 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.