The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria is gaining momentum and more nations are joining in, but there are still questions about the larger strategy against ISIS. What will be the extent of the operations? Will they be limited to hitting ISIS targets alone or will the strategy include taking serious measures against the Bashar al-Assad regime that is responsible for the environment in which ISIS flourished?
There are other questions that concern countries like Turkey. The recent violence along the Turkish-Syrian border forced tens of thousands of people to flee to Turkey. In less than a week, Turkey received more than 150,000 people form Kobani, Syria alone. This is more than the number all European nations accepted from Syria over the last three years.
As allied forces hit ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, ISIS operatives are likely to move their headquarters and posts, which may pose new security risks for Iraq as well as Turkey. If pressed in and around Mosul, ISIS can move to the Syrian-Iraqi border where they have already established themselves, but they may also move further northwest toward the Turkish-Syrian border.
That is why Turkey has been saying that it is not enough to hit ISIS targets in Iraq alone. ISIS's Iraqi and Syrian territories should be considered from an integrated security point of view. Otherwise, the fight against ISIS will turn into a dog chase without any concrete results.
Two issues are imperative for the short-term success of the anti-ISIS strategy: rebuilding the Iraqi army and empowering the Free Syrian Army. The Iraqi army under former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, became a sectarian, personal and eventually ineffective army. It had weapons worth billions of dollars but had no sense of national unity and discipline. Its shameful departure from Mosul in the face of several thousand ISIS fighters is indicative of the malaise that has engulfed it. The new Iraqi government needs to prioritize the restructuring of the Iraqi army against internal and external security threats.
As a first step, a refurbished Iraqi army under the command of the new Iraqi government can and should liberate Mosul from ISIS and other terrorist groups. Once Mosul is cleared, the rest of the Iraqi territories under ISIS control will return to the control of Iraqi authorities. This requires a disciplined army, but more importantly, it needs a new political order in Baghdad where Sunnis, Kurds and others feel part of the Iraqi political fabric again.
In Syria, ISIS should not make us lose sight of the root of the problem. It is not ISIS but the Assad regime that has started the bloodiest war of the second decade of the 21st century. It is this regime that has killed more than 200,000 people with conventional weapons and more than 1,500 with chemical weapons. It has forced millions of Syrians to become internally displaced people and refuges in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and the rest of the world.
It is no secret that the Assad regime wanted to use ISIS against the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. ISIS's quick gains and advances in Syria cannot be explained without considering Assad's indirect support of it. Now that the whole world has woken up to the horrors of ISIS, the Assad regime is seeking to use it as a bargaining chip with Arab countries and the West.
One of the reasons why ISIS has become so powerful in recent months is the failure of the international community to support the Free Syrian Army, which has been squeezed between the Assad regime and ISIS. Empowering the Free Syrian Army and providing it with quality assistance will enable it against both the Assad regime and ISIS. The anti-ISIS strategy will fail without targeting the Assad regime and it may also embolden ISIS and its new recruits.
That's why it is not enough just to hit ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. A more comprehensive strategy needs to be in place to bring an end to the 4-year carnage of the Assad regime. Organizations such as al-Qaida, ISIS and others thrive in such chaotic environments. Paradoxically, it is the Assad regime supported by Iran and Russia that is fueling ISIS extremism and terrorism.
Finally, Turkey's demand for a no-fly zone and safe haven for Syrian refugees should be seen as part of this broader strategy. Turkey has been weathering the waves of refugees for the last three years, but given the deteriorating security situation in Syria and the increasing number of refugees fleeing to Turkey, a no-fly zone, as it was applied against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, can protect and save Syrian lives. This is also important for beefing up security on the 911-kilometer-long Turkish-Syrian border.
The aerial attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria are likely to increase in the days to come, but they must be supplemented with a broader political and military strategy that addresses the root causes of the problem.