Containing the Caliphate – The Pruning Of ISIL In Iraq
The US is bombing forces of the terrorist caliphate ISIS. This follows ISIS’s defeat of Kurdish peshmerga forces who have withdrawn to defend the Kurdish capital Irbil, leaving tens of thousands defenseless.
ISIS has taken over vast swaths of Syria and Iraq. One key to ISIS’s success is its seizure of caches of advanced American weapons. The American mission, in part, is to destroy American weapons being used by ISIS. The official reasons for bombing ISIS are to defend American personnel in Irbil and to relieve the Yazidis, a religious minority trapped on Mount Sinjar, besieged by ISIS. Strategically, however, the US is defending autonomous Kurdistan. Iraq has fractured into three territories, Kurdish in the north, Shia under the control of Iran’s Baghdad proxy government in the South, and Sunni ISIS in the center and west. The latter stretches deep into Syria, fracturing that country in two. The US is defending the Kurdish region out of necessity and seeking to contain and perhaps redirect – but, thus far, not to destroy – the ISIS caliphate.
The major actors in this expanding drama are characterized by mutual constraint in a regional cold war growing ever hotter, and thus are acting through proxies. Elements within US allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey are allegedly supporting ISIS and less radical Sunni militias. The policy focus switch from destroying militants to pressuring Iran and its Shia bloc through proxies began during the Bush Administration. The US also has an interest in maintaining a stable Iraq. This interest competes with its interest in prying Iraq away from Iranian influence and in changing the government in Baghdad, which has marginalized the Sunnis and other minorities. These twin tensions between the US policies of destroying Islamist militants and allowing allied intermediaries to support them as proxies in pressuring Iran, and between supporting a stable Iraq but supporting regime change in Iraq, are now reaching their absurdly logical conclusions. The US is bombing ISIS to keep it away from independent Kurdistan, presumably to contain it into focusing on pressuring Iranian allies.
The focus on its external support may not give ISIS enough credit for its ingenuity, however. It has its own internal cogency as a mafia-like, corporate-like, state-like terrorist syndicate. It is the Taliban and al-Qaeda on steroids, focused on expanding its domain. It grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which offered US Marines the costliest pitched battle of the Iraq war in Fallujah. ISIS became too radical and violent for al-Qaeda, and the two officially divorced in February. But ISIS has now consolidated its own power through hundreds of millions in cash looted from banks and extortion, which is how most rebellions with any longevity sustain themselves. With its captured American weapons and a sustainable business model of loot and extortion, it isn’t going anywhere. So, though it receives a percentage of its income from abroad, it is unequivocally its own entity with its own agenda. The powers that wished something like it into existence to stick in the craw of the Shia arc may have virtually no sway over its actions.
The US is now defending Kurdistan, but the White House seems not to be planning to bail out Baghdad. Obama has said that comprehensive support for Baghdad in its fight against ISIS would require a more inclusive government. This should have happened earlier, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been consolidating Shia control and sidelining minorities since the moment the US began pulling out of Iraq. ISIS’s violent, Old Testament conquest is the result. It seems too late now to build an inclusive government amidst the guns of August. Obama knows Iran won’t give up its proxy in Baghdad, so setting a change in government as the condition for support is tantamount to supporting the de facto tri-partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish areas. Obama seems to have concluded that a stable, unified Iraq is beyond anyone’s reach. So the White House is walking a tightrope of containing ISIS, keeping it from overtaking Kurdistan, and possibly Baghdad, but also allowing it enough room to pressure Baghdad into political reform and breaking up Iran’s reach.
Iraq is the razor’s edge of what is becoming a single regional conflict in the Middle East. A Sunni/Israeli alliance and militias supported by the Gulf states, in turn backed by the US and Western allies is hacking at the Shia bloc, which includes the Maliki government, Syria’s Assad, Hezbollah and Hamas. These are the arms of influence radiating from Iran, which is increasingly allied to Russia as tensions over the fate of Ukraine drive the two together. Israel, with Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s tacit consent, pummeled Hamas, formerly backed by Iran, but cut off for supporting the rebellion in Syria. Hezbollah, fighting in Syria for its benefactor, Assad, is spread too thin to threaten Israel with a second front. The regionalization of the conflict across the Middle East, becoming diplomatically linked to fighting in Eastern Europe, and the possibility of China allying with Iran and Russia over tensions in the South China Sea, threaten to congeal into a new, but more multi-dimensional, Cold War.
Circumstantial evidence that the external support for Sunni militias is going to grow can be found in the recent whopping $11 billion arms deal between the US and Qatar. Qatar is a tiny, stupendously wealthy oil sheikdom, relatively secure on Saudi Arabia’s east coast. Qatar doles out a great deal of largesse in the Sunni world, so it seems likely that those American weapons could quickly find a new home. If true, this indirect and plausibly deniable support for militants would be similar to Reagan’s playbook in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the US, still constrained domestically by its loss in Vietnam, acted through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to arm mujahideen to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Those militants became the Taliban, took over most of Afghanistan and allowed al Qaeda to incubate. You know the rest of the story. Today, the US is constrained domestically by its loss in Iraq, and its allies are constrained, essentially by mutual assured destruction. Riyadh and Tehran have no desire to go toe to toe.
ISIS is the same type of creation as the Taliban, a militia of convenience, willing to kill and die for its theocratic utopia, possibly a pawn for greater powers who want someone else to do the fighting, an unleashed rabid junkyard dog in its ideology. But it is stronger than the Taliban in some ways and weaker in others. ISIS is far wealthier, better armed, and better organized than the Taliban. But the Taliban held unforgiving terrain in a country that no major powers cared about between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. And because of the impregnability of the Hindu Kush, the Taliban will inevitably bounce back at least partially once the US leaves. ISIS holds wide open terrain in the heart of the world’s biggest oilfields, making them ostensibly friendless and just as vulnerable to major attack as Saddam’s quickly routed army.
Just as the people of Egypt and Saudi Arabia loathe Israel, yet the Egyptian and Saudi governments support Israel’s campaign to punish Hamas, as part of their campaigns to punish the Muslim Brotherhood and the Shia bloc, so too, ISIS’s benefactors don’t like ISIS. They don’t want ISIS in their territory. Saudi Arabia has called on its public to report any instances of anyone disseminating pro-ISIS propaganda. Yet, they seem to be happy enough to tolerate their dangerous, loathsome existence within Syria and Iraq, because ISIS is a mean pitbull with the Shia bloc’s heartland clenched in its jaws. The US government may not like this, but for the sake of its tenuous security architecture in the Middle East it supports its allies’ cold calculations, and due to the lingering massive constraints on American action resulting from the Iraq war, the US can’t or won’t stop it, but only contain it. However, the US supports a strong, prosperous, secular Kurdistan more than it supports any of ISIS’s goals, and particularly cannot abide its desires to liquidate religious minorities. The US and its allies support shattering the Persian empire. For this, they are willing to merely contain a militia that is anathema to civilized society. Yet, by dropping bombs on particular ISIS convoys approaching Kurdish positions, or particular artillery guns besieging the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the US is pruning ISIS’s expectations, sending a message written in shrapnel and flame to focus its energies elsewhere. It is leashing the rabid dog chomping the carcass of Iraq, telling it: take the Sunni areas away from Shia domination, but leave our allies alone.
We are at a dangerous point in the generational cycle of interventionism and isolationism in American foreign policy. This is the point when, constrained by previous intervention, and mopping up the aftermath of a previous conflict, US allies outsource the fighting to smaller militias, ideologically scarier than the power they seek to check. Drawing lines around ISIS while tolerating it, a terrorist caliphate like the Taliban, in the heart of the Middle East, seems like a high cost to bust up the Shia bloc indirectly. Hopefully, these cold calculations will contain the conflict and alleviate some measure of civilian suffering. But it could just as easily enrage hardened militants, some of whom carry European and American passports.
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