President Obama now has a strategic plan for coping with the death cult known as ISIS. It is meant to be a restrained exercise of American power, avoiding the commitment of large numbers of US forces to a land war, and relying on air power, intelligence, and a broad coalition to help degrade and eventually destroy ISIS, also known as Islamic State. Welcome as his caution may be, however, he will find it hard to implement his plan without untying several knots that regional powers have drawn tight.
Key states in the region, each in its own way, helped to incubate and enable the sadistic megalomaniacs of ISIS. What’s more, the interests that originally motivated those states to permit the rise of ISIS remain largely unchanged. These are not the most reliable allies to have at America’s side for a long, messy counter-insurgency.
The most egregious enabler of ISIS has been the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Assad, fearing that US forces would take a left turn toward Damascus to overthrow his regime, had Syrian intelligence services perform a pirouette. Instead of torturing jihadists in Syria’s notorious prisons, Assad’s security forces began providing sites where Syrian and foreign extremists, many of whom would end up in ISIS, could train for jihad against the Americans in Iraq.
Until recently, Syrian planes passed over well-known ISIS headquarters without dropping their bombs. But this summer, as ISIS became a serious threat to his regime, Assad’s cynical scheme of using one enemy to keep another at bay blew up in his face. Now, though he pretends he would resent US warplanes striking ISIS in Syria if there is no coordination with his regime, Assad is sure to welcome American attacks against the ISIS fanatics.
No less responsible for the rise of ISIS was Iraq’s Shiite former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His persecution of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority led many Sunnis to view ISIS as the lesser of two evils — and to regard the Shiite soldiers sent to fight ISIS as an army of occupation.
The regional power propping up both Assad and Maliki all along has been the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead of pushing Assad to reach a political compromise in 2011 with peaceful protesters, Iran sent its Lebanese Hezbollah proxies into Syria to fight for Assad and dispatched its own Revolutionary Guard commanders to oversee the Syrian counter-revolution. Iran’s pursuit of strategic dominance from Iraq, through Syria, to Lebanon helped create favorable conditions for ISIS barbarians who say they want to slaughter Shiites and Persians first of all.
Before the Syrian uprising, Turkey vaunted Assad’s Syria as the prime illustration of a Turkish slogan claiming “zero problems with neighbors.’’ But Assad’s atrocities against Syrian citizens moved Turkey to allow weapons and fighters to flow across its border with Syria. Because the main party of Kurds in Syria has been closely tied to the Kurdish movement in Turkey known as the PKK, Turkey permitted jihadists and arms to flow to ISIS, whose fighters repeatedly attacked Syria’s Kurds.
Last but not least of the enablers are the Saudis, Qataris, and other Gulf Arab states that allowed their rich citizens to send money to ISIS.
All these regional actors had a hand in facilitating the rapid expansion of ISIS. Each believed it was serving its own interests. And today the Saudis still regard Iran as a mortal threat; Iran still wants a pliant ally in Damascus; Iraq’s new government is still torn between fealty to Tehran and a need to accommodate Sunni Arab and Kurdish ambitions for a fair share of power and wealth.
Hence the hardest task for Obama in his effort to defeat ISIS is likely to be diplomatic more than military. He is taking on the role of a lion tamer in the center ring of the Mideast circus. Success will depend on his ability to cajole the disparate regional members of the anti-ISIS alliance into overcoming their intramural enmities — and to act on the old axiom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.