“O crusaders, you have realized the threat of the Islamic State, but you have not become aware of the cure, and you will not discover the cure because there is no cure. If you fight it, it becomes stronger and tougher. If you leave it alone, it grows and expands… So mobilize your forces, O crusaders. Mobilize your forces, roar with thunder, threaten whom you want, plot, arm your troops, prepare yourselves, strike, kill, and destroy us. [Yet] this will not avail you. You will be defeated ” — Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s latest statement in response to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Everyone it seems, is seeking to use ISIS for its own ends. Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat, writes of the serious outbreak of schizophrenia that has struck the Gulf in regards to what it wants from the United States: “What is remarkable… is the sudden candor in expressing radical differences, for example between the fact that Gulf governments have characterized the ISIS threat as an ‘existential’ one, and the fact that a large segment of the public sympathizes with ISIS and its motives, and sees it as something necessary in the balance of power and the balance of terror.”
“The Gulf,” she continues, primarily sees ISIS as “a necessary instrument to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional ambitions, especially in the war in Syria” — and not as terrorists.
The Gulf governments’ tepid “dive” into this new “war” — in contrast to their rhetoric — may be judged by the scale of their contribution to the start of the air campaign in Syria: Four F-16 fighter jets from Saudi Arabia, four warplanes from the UAE, two from Bahrain, and one Mirage jet from Qatar “which did not drop any bombs, or take an ‘active part’ in the attack.”
And just as “the Gulf’ wishes to leverage the “war” primarily against President Assad, Russia and Iran, by contrast, insist in doing the converse: they want President Obama to leverage the “war” precisely (and only) at ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Indeed Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has encouraged U.S. air attacks on ISIS in Syria, but with the proviso that they are indeed targeted on ISIS — and not the government — and are directly or indirectly coordinated with Damascus.
And in response to Obama’s threats against any Syrian targeting of U.S. aircraft (President Obama threatened to take out Syria’s air defense system in retaliation), Russia has moved its own piece on the chessboard, precisely to checkmate Obama. Russia has threatened in response, to escalate weapons supplies to the Syrian government (including the means for it to defend itself against U.S. air attack) were U.S. planes to attack Syrian government positions — either deliberately or accidentally. It is unlikely, too, to be a coincidence that we hear reports of Russian “Sumoum” ships specialized in air defense arriving recently in Latakia. Russia and Iran will cooperate with the U.S. in the Syrian war theater, but only if defined air-corridors, agreed targets for U.S. air assaults, and guarantees that the U.S. will not attempt to use the situation to create “safe havens” for the Syrian opposition are given.
The U.S. administration thus is between a rock and a hard place: Saudi Arabia desperately wants Assad’s head on a plate and volunteers to fund the “war” effort for that end. But, for Obama to assent to Iranian-Russian conditions — and thereby indirectly strengthen President Assad — he will cause outrage in the Gulf and amongst the “moderate” Syrian exile insurgents. By doing as the Gulf wishes (attacking Assad’s forces), however, he will almost certainly tip Russia, Iran and Hezbollah into overt opposition and escalation, which will greatly complicate the war on ISIS in Syria (and in Iraq, too).
Turkey, too wants to “use” the war on ISIS, but the Turkish immediate objective is not to weaken ISIS, but rather to help ISIS undermine the Syrian Kurdish semi-autonomous region that lies adjacent to Turkey’s own restless (and far from autonomous) Kurds. ISIS continues to attack the Kurds near the Syria-Turkish border, and Turkish officials are preventing Kurds from crossing the Syrian border to fight ISIS. Seizure of this Kurdish territory would give ISIS a direct contiguity and a “logistics corridor” to Turkey.
Erdogan has furnished ISIS, from the outset of its involvement in Syria, with a Turkish platform by which it might bring down the Syrian state. It may be that the Turkish president now foresees the “war” opening new, bigger opportunities for Turkey. Were the “war” to end by destroying both Syria and Iraq’s political structures (long expected by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as the final sweeping away of the old Sykes-Picot frontiers), Turkey, by maintaining good relations with all sides: with Ba’athists, some Kurds in Iraq, Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS (with whom Turkey has just agreed to a prisoner swap), would be ideally placed to mediate the future of the Sunni dominated upper Euphrates valley (spanning Syria and Iraq). Erdogan would, under such a scenario, effectively become the “Emir” over a large swathe of Sunni Islam.
Even Israel has its stake in using the “war.” Israel has been facilitating the insurgents in the area adjacent to the Golan border (and more recently with artillery cover), which with the recent downing of the Syrian warplane, may be an attempt in the backdrop of the American air attacks on ISIS to create a no-fly zone over this southern infiltration passage way. The quid pro quo for this Israeli support against Assad would be for Israel to be folded into these states’ ongoing war on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
“President Obama here faces a further dilemma. He does indeed need President Putin’s cooperation (and Iran’s, too) if he is to manage a critically unstable Middle East, but to seek Russian help in any visible, explicit way, will expose the president to unremitting criticism in the lead-up to congressional midterm elections.”
American “hawks,” too want to leverage the ISIS “war” in Syria — not merely against Assad — but to advance their campaign to topple President Putin: to wound him in Syria (by defeating Assad), and to humiliate and discredit him in Ukraine amongst his own electorate. President Putin, however, is trying to leverage the ISIS situation precisely in the opposite direction: with the attempt to revive the channel of communication to Obama — in order to coordinate in Syria and Iraq — but also in order to de-escalate tensions with Washington more generally. Iran and Russia have already proposed a Baghdad-Damascus direct channel of communications by which to coordinate the war — and this is already functioning. Intelligence is also passing in Damascus.
President Obama here faces a further dilemma. He does indeed need President Putin’s cooperation (and Iran’s, too) if he is to manage a critically unstable Middle East, but to seek Russian help in any visible, explicit way, will expose the president to unremitting criticism in the lead-up to congressional midterm elections. Hence the Byzantine complexities introduced through coordinating, but not wishing to be seen coordinating with either Russia, or Iran — let alone Damascus! In U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s nuanced words: we do not coordinate, but we deconflict (with Damascus). It represents a contradiction in policy that would seem impossible to maintain over the longer term. Already the western-backed Syrian rebels are howling that they have been discredited by America’s attacks in Syria. Nusra “says that those who deal with the West become part of the West” one rebel commander, who now adheres to the Free Syrian Army agenda, told McClatchy.”They are accusing us of being traitors. And the majority of the Syrian people are speaking in the same tone,” he said. In short, it is the very “moderates” that the West hopes to support who are now doing the howling.
“There are so many parties interested in using ISIS for their own ends, that one may wonder how they could come to do without it. Perhaps they can’t?”
Of course this is not the complete list of those using the “war” to leverage their own ends: the Sunnis of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh are using ISIS precisely to pressure Baghdad into giving them concessions. The Kurds are doing the same. The GCC is also using the “war” to coerce Qatar to follow the Saudi line and extend the war on the Muslim Brotherhood, hence the expulsions of MB figures from Qatar. And King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is also using the situation to try to coerce the Wahhabi clerics to stamp on any Wahhabist revival amongst the people — he is using the crisis to try and bring the clerics closer to the modernist line, and away from the pure Wahhabist line.
There are more. In fact, there are so many parties interested in using ISIS for their own ends, that one may wonder how they could come to do without it. Perhaps they can’t?
Indeed, President Obama may believe that in launching spectacular air attacks (with all the accompanying graphics), he is reinforcing democrat prospects in the midterms. He may be right. But he may also come to reflect that ISIS has been using him and King Abdullah and all the others, precisely for its own ends.
ISIS may once have been the tool — even itself be the “creation” — of many who thought to “use it,” but perhaps now the tables are turned? Its videos of beheadings were not made without deliberated intentionality. Their narration by first one, and now a second, British accented person was not done without regard to its affect. Look again at the quotation by the ISIS spokesman above: Is this not an invitation, rather than a threat?
Nothing that ISIS has done has been whimsical, rather it reflects serious planning and intentionality. A map of ISIS-intended conquest of territory with its oil wells all carefully marked out, dates back to 2006. Its strategy for taking Mosul was more than two years in its incubation (ISIS evolved directly from Zarqawi’s movement, and it had already set up a clandestine operation in Syria, which was Al-Nusra — before the split between ISIS and Al-Nusra happened). Lebanese journalist, Radwan Mortada, further notes:
Based on the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), that “the Hour (of Resurrection) will not come until the Byzantines land in al-Amaq (valleys in Antioch, southern Turkey) or in Dabiq” (a Syrian village located to the north of Aleppo), ISIS’ followers, she writes, are convinced that “a great battle is going to take” place with the “Crusader West.” They conclude, she writes, that this confrontation will begin with a U.S. strike. “For them, ‘it is an inevitable divine promise that will prove to the world that we are the masters of the State and builders of the end of time Caliphate.’ What confirms their deeply-rooted belief in this prophecy is the English-language magazine they began issuing months ago called Dabiq … The Return of Khilafah (Caliphate) . Even though [it has been ruled out],” she continues “… some IS supporters argue seriously that ‘the Crusader alliance will be lured into a ground battle because it will definitely not achieve its goals from the air.'”
In this aspect, ISIS reflects the lessons of Israel’s war on Hezbollah in 2006 — Israel’s air assault completely failed to destroy Hezbollah (which had prepared for it) — but it was the movement’s continued and subsequent ability to mount military actions that forced Israel to put boots on the ground — and where it suffered its defeat.
“The deep inconsistency — and likely cause of this whole enterprise’s ultimate failure — is simply the paradox that the West’s allies of choice will not, and cannot, be true ‘partners’ to this ‘war.’ They have been too tainted with the firing up of this same Salafist ideology for too many decades.”
Already, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are rallying to the ISIS flag to face the “War of the Cross” waged against them. And already, western-backed rebels are becoming “traitors,” and those who “deal with the West” (Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain) are becoming “part of the West” — i.e. apostates. Was this not somehow foreseeable? ISIS is using us to give it what it wants: wide Islamic mobilization, the de-legitimization of allied Arab leaders, and an inchoate “war” with no strategy or “end game” — a process Obama is in fact facilitating.
But in the final analysis, the deep inconsistency — and likely cause of this whole enterprise’s ultimate failure — is simply the paradox that the West’s allies of choice will not, and cannot, be true “partners” to this “war.” They have been too tainted with the firing up of this same Salafist ideology for too many decades. They are of it (the ideology). And the West has been complicit for so long, in allying to it, that it can neither abandon its “compromised” allies, nor expect them to put their own boots on the ground.
It is a war declared with no troops in view, or the means to craft an outcome. ISIS has cleverly used us.