Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dealing With ISIS and Other Enemies in the Middle-East

Kemal Atatürk

[Updated on 10/16]
Erdoğan and Obama
Now, I think, is the time for America to "lead from behind", or follow from the front(?) or essentially continue to do almost nothing.  We should arm the Kurds and support them (and only them) from the air with special forces ground support.  Not more, beyond playing the role of dishonest broker among the major powers: the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians.  About this, more later.
Keeping in Touch with his friend Rouhani

What I would begin by not doing is arming and training the Free Syrian Army.  The idea that they can be vetted in any way that suits our purposes is a risible display of Western hubris.  Arrogance.  Not even the players themselves can reliably vet each other.  For today, perhaps, or tomorrow; in two weeks or a month loyalties, motives, assessments and purposes will have shifted like Arabian dunes in the desert wind.  It is fitting that the word, byzantine, used from the 1930's to describe the "...complex, devious, and intriguing character..." at the court of the Ottoman Turks in Constantinople, [1]   is aptly broadened to describe the twenty-two Muslim countries in the Middle-East. But that's a good thing.  In much of the Muslim world -- given the tiny space allotted to civil society -- trust, candor, friendship and social stability outside the family and the tribe (often narrowly defined) are greatly truncated.  And these factors, along with the changing priorities of various imams, create an always morphing political landscape.  Said in leaner language, most of our adversaries in the Middle East do not trust each other, and such alliances as exist today may be undone tomorrow.  And this is to the advantage of the West.

The point I want to make is that, while a great majority of the world's Muslims may hate the West, the real struggle within Islam itself.  Conflict is not only sectarian, tribal  and sometimes nationalistic, [2] it is also about control of the uma; which group will rule the new Islamic state -- the emerging caliphate.  Here, it is well to look at the long history of major cultural divisions within Islam.  As I see them, those that most immediately concern us are Turkish, Arab, Persian, Levantine, Sub-Saharan and East Asian.  Persia (only recently Islamic), Turkey and the Levant have, until recent times, traditionally been secular and more liberal than other nations in the area.  These divisions do not favor the enduring unity of an Islamic state.  They can be overcome by fear (as in Iran), but in the long term they will be de-stabilizing. 

Now, back to ISIS.  The center of current turmoil would appear to be Syria, where earlier citizen protests were quickly exploited by jihadis that infiltrated from all over the Muslim world to exploit political instability, seize and consolidate power.   Much the same happened in countries associated with the "Arab Spring", and only Egypt seems -- at least for now -- to have recovered its sovereignty.
In Syria, the original civil uprising was small and short-lived, having been co-opted early on by Jihadis.  The outside world has continued to believe the simplistic narrative of democratic civil unrest and condemned Assad for brutally murdering his own citizens. [3]  

The major players -- both Sunni and Shi'a -- seem to be Turkey (primarily), Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Each has its own purposes, usually crossed with the others.  Erdoğan is said to despise Assad, and he sees himself a major player in re-establishing the caliphate (Ottoman) abolished in favor of a secular state by Kemal Atatürk in 1924.  He has purged the Turkish military (the force that had traditionally kept a return to theocracy in check), and he is intent upon undoing the work of  Atatürk.  He has facilitated the movement of terrorist factions into Syria and Iraq, fueling the growth of ISIS, which he seems to believe can be manipulated to destroy the chief obstacles to Turkish ambitions -- Assad and the Kurds.  Regarding the latter, Turkey's position is made clear by its failure to interfere as ISIS seizes the Kurdish city of Kobane (about a mile from the Turkish border).  If/when the city falls a huge massacre is certain to follow.  But massacres, to the Turks, are not alien ground; think Cyprus or the Armenian Genocide.

Saudi Arabia sends both terrorists and cash to promote the rapid growth of the Islamic state.  Iran, as well, promotes the work of ISIS against Syria and the Kurds with a view to expanding its power and making Iraq a proxy state under its control.  The latter case seems increasingly doubtful with Baghdad under siege.  But any state that seeks to use ISIS for its own political ends, is likely playing a dangerous game.

The leaders of these three nations have much in common.  As I see it, each has ambitions to become a controlling, if not dominant, power in an expanding Islamic State, and, though they may be temporarily allied, they are competing in what may become an existential struggle.  Iran would seem to be in the weaker position because they are Shi'a in a Muslim world that is 85% Sunni.  On the other hand, A nuclear Iran might change the calculations.  Here, we look toward Pakistan, already a nuclear power; in whose direction might it lean?

But there is another thing that Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hold in common.  Nascent, but growing fear, singly and collectively, that ISIS left unchecked could accumulate enough wealth and military strength to attack and de-stabilize their own governments.  Which brings me to the center of my argument.
US and European forces, if they continue attacks inside Syria where ISIS is centered, are serving the interests of our (established) enemies.  ISIS will find its expansion at least sufficiently hampered to reduce the likelihood of attacking existing states, other than the Levant and much of Iraq.  The three ambitious powers will have time to continue their support of ISIS for their own ends.  In the end, the terrorists must be destroyed or suborned to prevent their seizing the initiative in the independent, unaligned formation of a new caliphate.  If that happens, over time no Muslim country that is seen to be insufficiently devout and pure, according to ISIS' reading of Sharia Law, can survive.

The West should do what is necessary to protect the Kurds. [4]  Beyond that, our policy in the Middle East should be: Let's you and him (and him, and him...) fight.  Our diplomacy should strive to set one enemy against the other and stand aside.  To do more, I think, is unwittingly to empower our enemies. If, as I believe, the real fight is internal to Islam,  terrorists will, from time to time, strike the West; [5] but they will continue to fight chiefly among themselves in the death-struggle for Islamic hegemony.  Only if a new caliphate can be established with enough unified power to achieve world-wide dominance of all Muslims, will the West be drawn into a shooting war for its survival.  Continuing on our present course will make that outcome more likely and sooner. [6]

NB: This essay is focused on the current conflict with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and it is in that context that I say we should limit ourselves to the support of the Kurds.  Regarding our foreign policy in the Middle East at large, our first, long-term objective should be the strategic and tactical support of Israel.

1.  From the on-line etymology site, www.etymonline.com/
2.  A serious problem for the internal security of the West is the failure of many Muslim foreign nationals to assimilate.  The idea of national loyalty, whether to their own or other host countries, hardly exists among jihadis; where they are, Islam is -- the uma is the state. 
3.  Which is by no means to defend Assad's suppression of legitimate protest.  But his use of force dramatically increased as the number of dissenters grew via outside infiltration. It is unclear to me how early Assad became aware of the real state of affairs, but years ago some foreign reporters living in Syria commented that many "protesters" were foreign jihadis who did not speak any of the local Arabic dialects, if they spoke Arabic at all.  
4.  It is apparent that that President Obama is unserious in his ostensible efforts contain ISIS by the poorly orchestrated use (misuse) of military force.  Virtually nothing has been done to provide the Kurds with any effective means of self-defense against ISIS, and indeed, Mr. Obama's actions seem -- in general, during the entire course of his presidency -- to be more closely aligned with the purposes of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia than those of the United States. 
5.  That is not to minimize the danger of serious -- even catastrophic -- terrorist attacks on the West. If successful, they will be of great benefit to ISIS in attracting masses of recruits and generous funding from all over the Muslim world.
6.  I do not take lightly the loss of innocent lives to ISIS, and I would support effective military action to deter them. At least in the short term.  What's taking place now, though, points to the naivete and ignorance of the West, regarding the Middle-East.  Serving the interests of this or that theocratic Muslim state or faction empowers our enemies.  We should concentrate our efforts to defend ourselves (primarily English-speaking peoples), Israel and, in a limited way, the Kurds.

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