ISIS Crisis – a case of confused alliances


A U.S. Navy F-18E on its way to Iraq
A U.S. Navy F-18E over Iraq. Courtesy: Haaretz

This is an(other) old article. I actually wrote it out of necessity as I tried to figure out who was allied with whom in the fight against ISIS. Mere charts just wouldn’t do as I tried to understand the complexity of interactions in this particular conflict. This may or not be relevant anymore, given especially the increased defection of FSA fighters to the ISIS, but I’m hoping it would do its bit to clear the picture.

Here it is, then:

If there is one concept that can explain conflicts in the Middle East better than anything else, it is Sectarianism. At worst, the Middle East is a personalized version of the Colosseum where all sorts of religio-ethnic sectarian tensions unfold and manifest. Backed by friendly regimes in rival states, marginalized minority groups within one state rise and, in a matter of years, manage to set most of the region on fire. This is a chronic condition, marked only by occasional periods of peace which, if he were alive, Thucydides would call ‘treacherous armistices’.

But try applying it to recent developments, and the concept collapses. When Sunni regimes bomb Sunni militias (radical though they be) and Shiite regimes help them, you know something much larger than sectarianism is at play.

Saudi Arabia has joined the US-led coalition in launching a massive offensive against ISIS – the same organization whose precursors it was allegedly keeping heavily funded for years.


When Sunni regimes bomb Sunni militias (radical though they be) and Shiite regimes help them, you know something much larger than sectarianism is at play.


Bashar al Assad, while he bombed millions of his own people to death, let the same organization that might as well have joined the opposition against him, a free hand. Unlike the ruthlessness with which he put the 2011 peaceful demonstrations down with an iron hand, he virtually turned a blind eye to ISIS’ capture of Raqqa and its declaration as the so-called Islamic State’s capital.

And the US ironically finds itself on the same page with Iran, since they are fighting a common enemy.

As for the first two, the key to the confusion lies in understanding the vanguards of the Syrian opposition – the Free Syrian Army or FSA. The FSA is both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS. They may be a coalition of Sunni fighters from all over the region, but their struggle, unlike ISIS, is more nationalist than ideological. And though the fight has gotten sectarian colour, the ultimate target is the authoritarian Alawite regime, not rival religious sects. The FSA, then, is being targeted (back) by both Assad and ISIS.

The situation is ripe for the Saudis to undertake a decisive intervention – which they are doing by indirectly assisting the FSA. If successful, it would not only bring the ISIS to its knees thereby securing Saudi Arabia a regional triumph, but also ring the death knell for Assad’s regime by bidding the FSA continue its struggle with renewed determination.

Assad, meanwhile, continues to do what he has been doing for the past three years – relentlessly fight all and sundry who pose a threat to his regime. It’s him against the world. He has let, and is letting, the ISIS go ahead with its radical expansionist designs since it is keeping the ‘world’ busy, and buying ‘him’ just the time and vacuum he needed. It is common knowledge now that given the contemporary context, his expulsion is no longer necessary since instead of pacifying matters, it would further aggravate them.


It is common knowledge now that given the contemporary context, Assad’s expulsion is no longer necessary since instead of pacifying matters, it would further aggravate them.


As for the irony of the US and Iran being on the same page, it is hardly likely to bring about any serious battleground unity. One, because the US holds Iran responsible for inciting and exacerbating the sectarian tensions in the first place. And two, provided that such a coalition succeeds, the US wouldn’t want to give Iran the satisfaction of being the chief regional ally to have countered what US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel has called ‘a threat significantly worse than [any] we have ever seen before’.

The ISIS crisis, then, is a unique case in point. There is a tinge of sectarianism evident in the current confrontation of the religio-ethnic sects, and even more so in the much dreaded turn of events post-US withdrawal. But zooming out, one finds a much larger and lethal force at play: Power Politics.

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