CrISIS 9.

For all those angry with President Obama’s policy, the Islamic State is in retreat.  Iraq’s militias under the guidance of Iranian advisors, various Kurdish militias, and the Russian- supported Assad regime have rolled back ISIS gains.  At the same time, American efforts to focus narrowly on the danger of ISIS cut across the more powerful enmities and affinities in the region.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the Muslim world frames many local conflicts.  Russia has chosen alignment with the Shi’ites (Iran, the majority in Iraq, the Alawites of Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon).  The United States is having a harder time making a choice.

After the final American withdrawal from Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki reverted to persecuting Sunni Iraqis.  Alienated, many Sunnis withdrew their support from the government.  Currently, on the principle of “once burned, twice shy,” the Sunnis of Iraq have been sitting-out the Reconquista by the so-called government of so-called Iraq.[1]  However, the occupation of the “liberated” areas by either Shi’ite militias or by Kurds merely shifted the locus of repression for the Sunnis.  The government has resisted pressure from Washington to arm Sunnis willing to fight ISIS because those same arms might later be used to resist the Shi’ites.[2]

Neither Russia nor its client Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad cared to focus on ISIS when they saw the other Sunni rebel groups as a target more dangerous and more near at hand.  Nor did the Sunni rebels against the Assad government see ISIS as the most pressing danger.  They often co-operate with Islamist groups in the fight against Assad.[3]  In the recent fighting around Aleppo, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian off-shoot of Al Qaeda) has done much of the heavy lifting.  Will Islamist fighters in flight from the embattled ISIS caliphate head West to join the ranks of the Syrian Conquest Front?

If the Syrian Conquest Front, which the US still regards as a version of its old enemy Al Qaeda, becomes the dominant force in the war against the Assad government, Washington will face an ugly choice.  Which does it see as the greater threat?  With which will it align itself?  Will it support the increasingly Islamist-led rebels against the Assad government, even if that means a tacit alliance with the survivors of ISIS and a re-branded Al Qaeda?  Will it support the Assad government, even if that means following the Russian lead into a tacit alliance with the Shi’ites?

Where will future historians locate the root of this disaster?  The most obvious cause lies in the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003.[4]  Anyone who voted for that war has much to answer for.  Even before the occupation had been botched, the Turks had refused to cooperate because they foresaw the effect on Kurdish nationalism.  Then the occupation was botched.  Then came the Obama administration’s too-ready embrace of the “Arab Spring,” its overthrow of the Libyan dictator, and its un-deft handling of the Russians.

Looking farther back, though, can some of the origins be located in the refusal of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to write-off the loans made to Iraq in order for it to fight the long war in the 1980s against the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran, or to support higher oil prices so that Iraq could earn the money to rebuild?  Everything turns out to be complicated, rather than simple.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State Slips, But Sunnis Are On the Sidelines,” WSJ, 10 June 2016.

[2] For its part, Washington has limited the flow of aid to the Kurds because the weapons supplied to fight ISIS might well be used against the Turks.  Given the recent hostility of Turkish president Erdogan to the West generally and to the United States in particular, Washington may decide to re-think this position.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Syria’s Alliance Hang on Outcome in Aleppo,” WSJ, 12 August 2016.

[4] In my view on specious grounds.

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