To fix Iraq, don’t lose sight of Syria

A fundamental ingredient is still missing in shaping a coherent – though challenging – strategy for targeting IS in Iraq.

The designation of Haider al-Abadi as the new prime minister of Iraq is a significant step towards opposing the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq if his premiership can be secured and fulfils the potential to create an urgently needed cross-sectarian coalition against the jihadist group.

However, a fundamental ingredient is still missing in shaping a coherent – though challenging – strategy for targeting IS in Iraq. That is a concurrent strategy to deal with its presence in Syria. Without a policy to defeat IS in Syria, any approach in Iraq is doomed to failure.

Abadi’s nomination has been widely welcomed at home and abroad – including in both Washington and Tehran. He must now urgently form an inclusive government that draws in meaningful Sunni representation and Kurdish support. Given the depth of sectarian polarisation this will clearly be no easy task and it remains to be seen just how willing he is given his own background in the Shia Islamist Dawa party. But with incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki viewed as the source of the divisions now tearing the country apart, Abadi offers a more hopeful way forward.

The challenge will clearly be complicated by Maliki’s initial refusal to give up office. His stance is unlikely to provoke intra-Shia conflict given the coalescence of support around Abadi, but it could push the country into a prolonged impasse and might force the Prime Minister designate to tack right to protect himself against claims of deal-making with Baathist terrorists. The likely price for meaningful Sunni participation in a new government will be significant power-sharing and federalisation and any unwillingness by Abadi, or narrowing of his ability to negotiate, could be fatal.

This approach is probably the only way of peeling local Sunni support away from IS, which has been the foundation of much of its recent gains in Iraq. It also offers the prospect of securing expanded and urgently-needed US military assistance for Baghdad. Washington, which is already directly arming Kurdish forces against IS, has promised Baghdad increased backing if a new inclusive government if formed. Although, it will not be easy or quick and may be doomed to failure given the centrifugal forces tearing at the country and IS’ formidable fighting power, Abadi’s nomination offers the starting point for a strategy towards combatting IS in Iraq.

For any prospect of success, however, the response to IS cannot be viewed through a solely Iraqi lens.

The group that grew from al-Qaida in Iraq and until recently was known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has over the past three years concentrated its efforts in neighbouring Syria where it is now the leading military opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Its recent surge into Iraq was conducted on the back of its presence in Syria (which it has in turn expanded on the basis of its new gains in Iraq). These territorial ties linking IS mean that any strategy geared towards its demise must confront its presence in both countries.

Without a comprehensive approach, IS will respond to political and military setbacks in Iraq by regrouping in Syria from where it can continue to destabilise Iraq – and the wider region. Despite this international governments continue to narrowly focus on an Iraq response, largely ignoring the critical Syria component.

To be sure there are no easy options in Syria today. On the one hand, direct Western military action against IS will play to Assad’s favour by weakening his main rival on the ground. The idea that ‘moderate’ rebels will fill the void is farfetched. They are weak in numbers and fighting ability and there are real question marks over the reliability of their moderate stance. Moreover, any approach grounded on this hope would unrealistically require the West to drastically step up its armed support for the rebels, effectively taking ownership of the fight against Assad.

The alternative of deal-making with Assad against IS is not only hugely unpalatable but also an illusion given his deliberate role in fuelling the extremism.

The more promising avenue –  continuously rejected by those still seeking absolute victory in Syria – could now lie in using the regional and international consensus formed against IS in Iraq to forge a similar approach in Syria. This will require drawing Assad’s key backer, Iran, and Western and Gulf supporters of the opposition together. While Assad’s removal cannot be a precondition, the different external actors need to shape a negotiated path around shared common interest that would exclude Assad as the driver of the extremism now troubling even Iran and its allies, and IS, the weak spot of those backing the rebels. It is increasingly in all parties’ interests to see significant parts of the regime remain in place. That could be a unifying factor that, given the growing regional threats, offers a greater prospect than ever for progress in regional and international deal-making. 

What is clear is that leaving Syria alone is not option if the West is serious about combatting IS in Iraq. As well as grappling with policy dilemmas in Iraq, the crisis in Syria needs to be placed once more at the forefront of the international agenda. Despite the distinctions between the two conflicts it is clear that to fix Iraq, you also need to fix Syria.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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