About a year ago, US President Barack Obama attempted to justify Washington’s different approach on the crises in Iraq and Syria. While drones, military consultants, and arms have been sent to Iraq, only humanitarian aid—blankets, medicines, supplies—have been sent to Syria. Back then, Obama said his administration was committed to Iraq’s security because the country has strategic value for the US. Regarding the US position on Syria he said meanwhile that it would remain firmly focused on the political and humanitarian fronts since there were no plans for any other kind of American involvement in the crisis.
Naturally, most governments speak about Iraq and Syria separately. But this divide between the two neighbors is based on old maps and is in reality no longer tangible on the ground. There are no borders, border guards, passports, or armies separating Iraq and Syria anymore. Many checkpoints have become mere stopovers for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and other fighters crossing into and out of Iraq’s western Anbar province. War and terrorism have united both countries. And, so, ISIS now seems justified in having named itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
Back when Iraq and Syria’s borders first began to “disappear,” I wrote about how viewing the situation according to the old, traditional rules—border markers, flags, countries, religion—would result in a failure to understand the depth of the crisis. But the picture is now clearer. Current events in Iraq are an indispensable part of developments in Syria, and both countries’ borders are now worn-out old lines jotted on paper at the offices of various foreign affairs ministries around the world. We are currently witnessing a crisis that unites the two countries, all the way from Syria’s Bab Al-Hawa border crossing north of Turkey, to Jordan’s Trebil on the border with Iraq, to Saudi Arabia’s Arar crossing, just south of Iraq. ISIS militants now loom dangerously on the suburbs of both the Syrian capital Damascus and the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
If concerned countries wish to confront this crisis and stop ISIS’s expansion, they must deal with Iraq and Syria as one country, because success and failure in one is now connected to the other. It is no longer relevant that the world, and particularly the United States, categorizes Iraq as an oil-rich country with strategic importance while at the same time categorizing Syria as a mere radish farm! We are before a Siamese twin facing one war against the same enemy.
All this means of course that depending on the Baghdad government will not achieve much. It also means that supporting Shi’ite militias in Iraq via the Shi’ite-dominated Popular Mobilization volunteer forces will deepen wounds and increase collective Sunni resentment toward Baghdad as well increase hostility against the US. Such policies will in the end make ISIS’s pretensions to statehood and being the representative of the majority of Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq, an actual reality.
The remaining reasonable option, after the failure of the above alternatives, is to support opposition Sunni forces in Syria and Sunni tribal forces in Iraq to help them fight ISIS—which claims to be a Sunni group—and to stop using the Popular Mobilization forces and Shi’ite militias in Iraq—which are under the control of the Iranians and actually end up serving the aims of ISIS. It also goes without saying that concrete steps must be taken to resolve the tragedy which the Syrian people are currently experiencing. Syrian Sunnis, who make up around 80 percent of the country’s population, cannot remain silent towards Assad’s regime after his forces have now killed more than a quarter of a million Syrians. Iran and its ally Assad will not begin to accept a political solution that leads to healing the Sunni majority unless an aerial plan is developed to confront and prevent the Syrian regime’s daily massacres. Assad’s air force is currently allowed to fly and drop barrel bombs on civilians as it resumes its ethnic cleansing operation. Meanwhile the Syrian opposition is prohibited from obtaining access to advanced weapons that could help them defend themselves against Assad’s air power. To rub salt in the wound, the international community refuses to impose a no-fly zone, which would put an end to this tragic situation.
In the absence of an adequate understanding and resolution of these crises, ISIS will no doubt expand and find itself more supporters and fighters—even more than the current 100,000 militants fighting alongside it in Iraq and Syria.